Part 1 of
A History of the History of the
Boys of the American Civil War
Prepared by J. Arthur Moore
During the years of the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, the historians of the time were the participants – soldier or civilian. Today we call them primary resources. Back then they were the letters and journals kept by soldiers and civilians alike, the orders and reports written by the officers, literature by the writers of the day, photographs by the many photographers who followed the events of the war, newspaper articles, battlefield and camp sketches, and more. In a war in which more than 250,000 participants were underage children and youth, the following is an evolution of that history as it pertains to the boys and youth who were a significant part of that history.
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The history of the battlefields and military life of the Civil War is written in the journals and letters of Charles W. Bardeen, William Bircher, Elisha Stockwell, Johnnie Wickersham, and others. Michael Dougherty records life in Andersonville Prison. Johnny Clem and Robert Hendershot became a part of history by deeds that were captured in newspaper articles. News articles also reported the sad fate of others as in the case of Charlie King and Clarence McKenzie. Willie Johnston, John Cook, William Horsefall, and Orion Howe are a few who were recorded in the citations of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and some in the reports of their officers.
William Bircher was a fifteen-year-old drummer boy with the 2nd Regiment Minnesota Veteran Volunteers during the war. Bircher published his diary in 1889, explaining in his preface that he never intended to write a connected story, but to make available the contents of his diary, kept during the war, to his old comrades and their families. In appearance, the contents look like a narrative, but on close examination, while it opens with a narrative about the start of the war and the beginning of the regiment’s history, it becomes a chronological stream of dated entries put down in paragraph format.1
Charles Bardeen was a fifteen-year-old drummer boy with the 1st Massachusetts. His ancestors were keepers of diaries and he started early to do the same. His mother kept a diary for him until he was eight years old, then he took over from that time and continued throughout his life. Like many, Charles kept his diary for himself; but years after the war, a friend, Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler, suggested that a soldier’s genuine experiences would have value. The diary was gathered into a book along with over two hundred and fifty illustrations, an introduction by Butler, and a preface by Bardeen explaining the content and the art, and published in 1910.2
Johnnie Wickersham is representative of those who tell their story throughout life, but as the end draws near, write their memoir for the family in the hope of not being forgotten. Fifty years had passed and Johnnie’s recollections, according to editor, Kathleen Gorman, were flawed. His memoir was written in narrative style by chapter and topic, referenced in the back by the editor with notes and a bibliography, and indexed. The work was written in 1915 and published in 1918. Johnnie died in 1916.3
The conditions in the prison camps of the Civil War have been researched and published in a number of books. They have also been described by sixteen-year-old, Irish immigrant, Union soldier, Michael Dougherty. In the fall of 1863 he was captured a second time and sent to Andersonville Prison, perhaps the most notorious prison camp of the war. There he kept a diary of the months he spent there through to the end of the war when the prisoners were freed and thousands sent north by riverboat. He was with those on the Sultana when it exploded, and that event was also recorded in his diary. Dougherty first published his diary in 1908 in diary format with dates and entries, exactly as it was written.4
Many of the boys’ stories were first shared with the public through newspaper articles that recorded their exploits. Johnny Clem became an instant hero when he shot a Confederate officer off his horse as the officer tried to capture him.5 . While this article tells the story of a boy soldier, it also is an example of how the story spreads. The article is attributed to “Cincinnati paper” and also appears in exact copy in the Albany Evening Journal of December 19, 1863, but with a subtitle, “He receives from Gen. Rosecrans the Badge of the Roll of Honor,” also attributed to “Cincinnati paper.”6 Not all is without controversy or error. Sometimes the error is for a purpose. Sometimes it’s purely accidental, but lives on as assumed fact. When a reporter rushes to get the story to press without checking out the facts, mistakes happen. There were mistakes in the Clem article. It reported that he shot the colonel dead out of the saddle. While there were questions about this at the time, it was later learned that the colonel was wounded and recovered from his wound.7 Newspapers were anxious to get such heroic stories to cheer up a public having a hard time dealing with the losses faced by Lincoln’s armies. That played a major part in the story about Robert Hendershot whose story was told about his entrance into the battle at Fredericksburg by clinging onto the side of a boat and swimming alongside, where he captured a Confederate prisoner and lost his drum when it was blown to pieces by an artillery shell.8
George W. Bungay was a newspaper reporter for The Tribune Association who wrote this article which appeared in the New Hampshire Sentinel, as it was told to him by the boy himself, fourteen-year-old Robert Hendershot. Of particular interest is the timing as well as the point of view. The initial incident referred to in the article had taken place eleven months back and had already been reported by previous papers. This article included a history of the boy’s service and the fact that the Tribune was presenting him with a brand new drum. The boy had a habit of self-promotion and had been visiting many newspapers in the time since the original incident had made him a celebrity. Upon further investigation, he fell into the water – having a history of epilepsy, brought in a Confederate soldier who deserted and surrendered to Hendershot, and dropped a clock he had taken when a shell blew up nearby and surprised him.9 A controversy arose after the war as some from his regiment tried to discredit him.
Thirteen-year-old Charlie King’s sad story was told in two articles; the first when he left for the war, a young patriot,10 and the second when he returned, a victim, killed in action.11 Another article told of the accidental death of twelve-year-old Clarence McKenzie, shot by his best friend, practicing with a gun he didn’t know was loaded.12
Twelve-year-old Orion Howe was written up in the official records of the Medal of Honor when “…severely wounded and exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, he persistently remained upon the field of battle until he had reported to General W. T. Sherman…” 13 A letter of recommendation from General Sherman describing that incident gained him entrance into the United States Naval Academy.14 Willie Johnston age eleven, John Cook age fifteen, and William Horsefall age thirteen were all part of the official record of the Medal of Honor.
One particular event of the war was notable for a significant number of student cadets who were involved. The Battle of New Market included a cadet corps of 250 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. An exceptional collection of letters, artifacts, and biographical accounts has been gathered in the Archives of the Institute and its Hall of Valor Museum and preserved battlefield park.15 Ten cadets lost their lives in that event. The first to fall was seventeen-year-old William Hugh McDowell. The facts of his life and of the events of that day were skillfully woven into a remarkable book, Ghost Cadet by Elaine Marie Alphin.16 Though published in 1991, Ghost Cadet is so entwined with the history of that battle that a Google search for the title of the book leads to the website of the Virginia Military Institute as well as multiple links for the book. A major portion of the site focuses on the battle with a wealth of letters, maps, and individual stories about the cadets who fought there that day.
The history of the boys in the Civil War was clearly there from the beginning. It existed then at many levels from private writings to public news and photographic content to official records. The historical focus was not that intense. While the historians of the day were the boys themselves and those who wrote about them in the press and in the halls of records and family correspondence, and those who captured their images; the written and photographic record gradually went into storage becoming buried and forgotten over time. The major historical focus became the war, the generals, the places, the events, and the politics. The boys grew up and the veterans gathered to remember among themselves, celebrate anniversaries, and dwindle in numbers.
Many collections of letters, journals, and memoirs were published after the war, some shortly after and some many years later. Most were intended for family and friends, but in many cases found their way to the general public. As veterans groups met over the years, many wanted to gather together a written record of their history and of those who served. Regimental histories were put together to tell how the units were formed and by whom and to tell the history of their service and who served. One particularly interesting history tells of a boy company in the Confederate artillery of Lee’s army. Where Men Only Dare to Go was written by Royal Figg, an original member, to be a brief history of the Parker Battery for its veterans. But Figg decided to write a book for the general public and in so doing introduced the public to the story of the boys of the Parker Battery, many of whom were so young, as young as twelve, as to require written permission from their parents to join.17 Published in 1885, the history of the Parker Battery became one of the first histories of boy soldiers to be released.
As the 19th century drew to a close, the histories of the Civil War began to shift. More of the historians were removed from the war by a generation and could no longer write primary source material. Histories became secondary sources and those writing them had to depend on the record left by those who were there as they worked to write their histories as compiled records of past events. They did, however, have one major advantage; they still had access to the living veterans. They could talk to the people who had been there and lived the events of the war. Their purpose changed as their point of view as outsider looking in was changed. Histories appeared to be a compilation. In A Brief History of the United States by Joel and Esther Steele, the Civil War was the fifth epoch and was covered chronologically in short sections listing events, dates, and generals.18 History of the United States of America; for the Use of Schools, by Charles Goodrich, was divided into six periods. Period six was distinguished for the Great Rebellion. It was an abbreviated yet wide ranging accounting of who, what, where, and when with references to cause and effect.19 The Centennial History of the United States by James D. McCabe was divided into forty-five chapters representing the forty-five presidential terms of office. Chapters forty-one and forty-two covered the Civil War by way of the two terms of
President Lincoln. It was much more detailed and covered many events and incidents not mentioned in either of the two previous histories. Whereas the previous histories used headings or numerical divisions, McCabe wrote in a narrative style.20 Cause and affect were noted and the text was enriched with photographic drawings of a woodcut style. Nowhere in either of these histories was there any mention of the boys in the war. Three sentences were allotted to the Battle of New Market with the barest of information in McCabe’s history.
To be continued
1 William Bircher, A Drummer Boy’s Diary: Four Years of Service with the Second Regiment Minnesota Veteran Volunteers 1861 to 1865, (St. Paul, Minnesota: St. Paul Book and Stationery Company, 1889), 5-6.
2 Charles W. Bardeen, A Little Fifer’s War Diary. (Syracuse, New York: C.W. Bardeen, Publisher, 1910), 5-9.
3 Johnnie Wickersham, Boy Soldier of the Confederacy, The Memoir of Johnnie Wickersham. Kathleen Gorman, ed., (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1918).
4 Michael Dougherty, Prison Diary of Michael Dougherty, (Bristol, Pennsylvania.: Charles A. Dougherty, printer, 1908).
5 _____, “ The Youngest Soldier in the Army of the Cumberland,” National Aegis, December 26, 1963, The Family Circle, 1.
6 _____, “ The Youngest Soldier in the Army of the Cumberland,” Albany Evening Journal, December 19, 1863, 2.
7 Dennis M. Keesee, Too Young to Die, Boy Soldiers of the Union Army 1861-1865. (Huntington, West Virginia: Blue Acorn Press, 2001), 231.
8 Bungay, George W. “ The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” New Hampshire Sentinel, November 19, 1863, 1.
9 Richard Bak, “Michigan’s Little Drummer Boys of the Civil War,” Hour Detroit, December 2011, h t t p://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/December-2011/Rhythm-Section-Civil-War-Sesquicentennial/
10 _____, “Young Patriotism.” Village Record, December 31, 1861.
11 _____, Obituary Charles King. Village Record, October 2, 1862
12 _____, “The Death of Young McKenzie.” Brooklyn Eagle, War Intelligence, June 13, 1861.
13 United States Army Center of Military History Website/medal of honor/civil war, http://www.history.army.mil/moh/civilwar_gl.html#top
14 Frank Moore, The Civil War in Song and Story 1860-1865, (New York: P. F. Collier, Publisher, 1889), 104
15 Archives of the Virginia Military Academy, http://www.vmi.edu/archives/home/
16 Elaine Marie Alphin, Ghost Cadet, (Princeton, Illinois: Hither Page Press, 1991).
17 Royall W. Figg, “Where Men Only Dare to Go! or the Story of a Boy Company C.S.A.,” (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson, 1885), vii-viii.
18 Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Baker Steele, A Brief History of the United States, (New York: American Book Company, 1885), 214-280.
19 Charles A. Goodrich, History of the United States of America; for the Use of Schools. (Boston: Brewer and Tillston, 1876), 238-309.
20 James D. McCabe, The Centennial History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent to the Close of the First Century of American Independence, (Philadelphia: The National Publishing Company, 1874), 779-864.