*** American Civil War -- the boys' war

American Civil War: The Boys' War

Johhny Clem
Figure 1.--A HBC reader informs us that the boy in this Civil War portrait is Johnny Clem. He was the drummer for the 22 Michigan Infantry. He went on to become a "lance seargent" on Generals Thomas's staff. Our reader believes he stayed in the Army after the War and retired as a General. Click on the image to learn more about him.

Thousands of children were directly involved in the Civil War. Older boys served as soldiers. Many younger boys were also invoved, some boys as young as 11 years old. The younger boys generlly served as drummer or buggle boys. Commonly the drummer and buggle boys were 13-15 years of age. Both the Confederate and Union soldiers tried to look after the younger boys. In major engagements they were often sent to the rear when charges into fortifications were planned. In some cases they had to be forced to the rear crying. Such a scene is portrayed in the movie Glory. In addition, over 1 million boys of 17 or under served in the Federal Army alone. Beyond the use of very young boys as deummer boys and buggle boys, about 1 million boys 17 years of age and under fought with the Federal Army alone. Almost surely very large numbers of similarly aged boys fpught with the Conderacy, although actual records are less available. So many boys served in both the Federal and Confederate Army that one author has suggested calling the American Civil War the Boys' War.


We are not entirely sure just what laws governed the induction of soldiers during the Civil War. The Confederate abd Federal conscription laws both specified age 18 years as the youngest age of conscription. Many men including boys volunteered for serviice. And state militias were a substantial part of both armies. We believe that the enlistmen ages for these militias was also 18 years, but we are not enturely sure. We believe that age 18 years was the age a youth could join without his parents prmission. It should be remembered, however, that large numbers of men were recruited as part of the state militias. Thus there was never one easily enforceable set of standards. The recruiting officers varied greatly in how they accepted boys. Normally pre-teen boys were not accepted, but this was not always the case, such was tthe demnd for recruits. We do know that many younger boys joined up. This was fairly easy if the youth was large for his age. Recruitetrs did not ask for birth cerytificates and many of the houth who joined up did not even have a birth cerificate. Really young boys were sent home. But many recruiters were not all tht picky. There were boys as young as 9 years old who joined the colors, although thy would have lied about their age. Here a boy's size might be more important than his actual age. As the younger boys were normally used as musicians, the basic requirement was they had to be big enough to hold a drum. As a result large numbers of teen agers younger than 18 years served in both armies and even sone pre-teens. Younger boys were commonly used as muscians, especually drummer boys. (Even a young boy could make noise with a drum, bugglers needed to be older youths to generte the needed ling power.) The youngest Confederate enlistee was Charles Hay, who joined an Alabama regiment when he was only 11 years old. William Black seems to have been the youngest Federal soldier. He was 9 years old when he joined the 21st Indiana as a musician, but became the youngest known soldier. One source suggests tht Avery Brown who was only 8 years old was the youngest drummer boy on either side.

Available Information

HBC has noted references to Civil War drummer boys, but we have as yet little actual informationon the many boys and youth tht served in the Civil war. We do know that thousands of children and youths were directly involved in the Civil War. Older boys and youths served as soldiers. Many younger boys were also invoved. Some were extremely young, including boys as young as 11 years old. We are not sure yet just what Federal or Confederate regulations were concerning the ages of boys signing up for military service. The younger boys generally served as drummer or buggle boys. Both the Confederate and Union soldiers tried to look after the younger boys. In major engagements they were often sent to the rear when charges into fortifications were planned. In some cases they had to be forced to the rear crying. Such a scene is portrayed in the movie Glory.


Most of the really young boys entered the Federal and Confederate Armies as musicians. One source estimates that were places for 40,000 muscians in the Federal Army alone. Many of the younger boys served as drummers and fifers. There were many more drummers than fifers. These instruments were best suited for younger boys. While much attention is given to drummers, perhaps because they were often the youngest boys, there were also many bugglers. Large numbers of bugglers were also required as the buggle was important in communicating orders in the heat of battle in the years before modern communication. The buggle could often be heard when voice commands were impossible. With the buggle, lung power was essential, making it suitable for slightly older boys or youths. Some younger boys, however, also served as bugglers. One source writes, "There are numerous tales of buglers too small to climb into saddles unaided, who rode into pistol-and-saber battles with their regiments. Most famous of these on the Union side was Johnny Clem, who became drummer to the 22nd Michigan at eleven, and was soon a mounted orderly on the staff of General George H. Thomas, with the "rank" of lance sergeant." [Burke Davis, "The Civil War, Strange and Fascinating Facts"] Another noted drummer boy was Robert Henry Hendershot who became known as 'the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.' He was a drummer boy for the Eighth Michigan.


Civilians accompanied Civil War military units. We do not yet have details on the number of such individuals involved, but it is a subject we hope to research. This occurred with both Federal and Confederate units, but I was more common with the Federal units. Often these were wives of the men and in other cases unattached camp followers. The women performed many useful duties such as cooking, laundry, sewing, and caring for the injured. There were also young children woth the women. Some boys appaer to ahve also accompanied their fathers, although here we have few details. Once Federal units entered slave states, substantial numbers of freed slaves would follow them. Some commanders discouraged this. At first the men seved as laborers, but eventually colored units were formed and had an important impact on the War. The women served a variery of useful services just as the white women did. There were also many children involved.

Military Academies

Several military academies existed in the United States when the Civil War broke out in 1861. The most famous was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point which many of the best known Federal and Confederate officers attended as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There were several other less known academies, some of which were for younger boys. For reasons we do not fully understand, many of the private schools at the time were military schools. Quite a few were in the South, one aspect of th militarization of southern society as a result of slavery and the widespred fear of a slave revolt.

Unidentified Images

We have found a range of Civil War-era photographs of boys. They are, however, unidentified images without any provinance. We are thus unsure just how to assess them, either the date or just who is represented in the photographs. Hopefully HBC readers may have some insights to offer here.


A HBC reader asks the following questions. "Does HBC know what percentage of Civil War drummers were men (adults) and what percentage were boys (children)? Why is the common image that ALL Civil War drummers were "drummer boys?" And how about during the American Revolution? Were the majority of drummers men or boys? Look at the painting "Spirit of '76." These are men, not boys. There are photographs of today's Fife & Drum Corps and the drummers are men, not boys. Contemporary painters, such as Don Troiani, paint Revolutionary War drummers as men, not boys. Hope you can help me clear this question up!" -- Madeleine Eckert in Connecticut.

HBC simply does not know the answer to Medeleine's interesing question. One important fact is that the Civil War armies were much larger than Revolutionary armies. We also know that very large numbers of boys were enrolled in bith Federal and Confederate Armies during the War. As a result, there was no shortage of boys and youths to deaw on to serve as drummer boys. Just what oproprtion of the drummers were boys we still do not know. Of course this depends in part as to just what age one defines a boy. We would be interested in any insights on this HBC readers can offer. HBC does know that the British did have drummer boys in the Revolutionary War. We believe that the Americans did so, but can not at this time doccument it. What proportion of the drummers were boys and to what extent they were deployed in America we do not know. We know that the drummer that signalled the British were ready to negotiate the surreder at Yorktown was a boy. HBC of course would also be interested in European military practices as well.

Related Books about the Civil War

Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt: Set in Illinois. Story about a boy whose family is split by the Civil War when his brothers enlist on opposite sides.
With Every Drop of Blood by James Lincoln Collier: While trying to deliver food to Richmond, Virginia, a 14 year old boy is captured by a Black Union soldier. Bull Run by Paul Fleischman. First battle of the Civil War.
Turn Homeward, Hanalee by Patricia Beatty: A girl and her brother are taken from their home in Georgia to the North by Sherman's Yankee soldiers to work in textile mills. Hanalee tries to return to her mother still in Georgia. This is loosely based on an historical incident. The sequel is Be Ever Hopeful Hanalee.
The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn: Time travel to the Civil War era. An orphaned girl is sent to live with relatives in Ontario, Canada. She finds herself in the Civil War after entering an abandoned root cellar. She makes friends with a servant girl. Together thay travel to wartime Washington, D.C. to find a friend of the servant girl who ran away from home to join the Union army.
Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder: A 12 year old boy goes to live with his aunt and uncle in the Virginia countryside. He considers his uncle a traitor because he did not take a role in the war.
Mr. Lincoln's Drummer by G. Clifton Wisler: About an ll year old Civil War drummer who becomes the youngest receipent of the Congressional Metal of Honor.
A Dangerous Promise by Joan Lowery Nixon: Two twelve year olds join the Union army as musicians and see the horrors of war.
Jayhawker by Patricia Beatty: A teenage boy from Kansas becomes an abolitionist raider freeing slaves in Missouri and then becomes a spy.
Who Comes with Cannons by Patricia Beaty: Twelve year old Quaker girl from Indiania stays with relatives who are running a North Carolina station in the Underground railroad.


We had started building links, but find it frustrating that so many links disappear. This makes it very difficult to maintain such a list.Careful these will take you away from the HBC Web Site:

Drummer Boy of Shiloh

Co.K, 37th VA Inf.

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Created: April 20, 1998
Last updated: 6:34 AM 11/12/2015