How Old Did You Have to Be to Get in the Army in the Civil War?

Underage soldiers sometimes helped transport and treat the wounded behind the lines.
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According to the Civil War Trust, the typical Civil War soldier was white, male and between 18 and 30 years old. More than half were farmers. A quarter were immigrants. On the other hand, men in their 50s and 60s, black soldiers and more than 400 hundred women also served with distinction. Among the minorities serving both sides in the war were thousands of boys between the ages of 9 and 17.

1 The Law

In 1861, President Lincoln declared the minimum age for enlistment to be 18. He did, however, allow boys under 18 to enlist with their parents' permission. The next year, he amended the declaration to say that the minimum enlistment age was to be 18 without exception. But recruiters asked few questions when an underage boy declared himself to be 18. On July 6, 1864, the War Department forbade recruiters to enlist any soldier under 16. Severe penalties were attached to infractions. In the South, volunteers did not need to be 18. In 1862, the Confederate Congress passed a conscription law which declared that all men 18 to 35 must serve in the military. As the death toll of the war grew, so did the pressure on boys 16 and 17 years old to volunteer.

2 The Reality

Despite the law, the reality was that hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the Civil War were underage. According to the Civil War Trust, between a quarter and half a million Civil War soldiers were under the age of 16. Some lied about their age when they enlisted. Others enlisted alongside fathers and older brothers. Others, like John C. Jenkins, Jr., who joined the Confederate Army at age 13, never formally enlisted. Jenkins started by shining boots for soldiers encamped near his home. When the company needed a new drummer boy, he volunteered. Before long he was fighting as a soldier.

3 The Boy Soldier

Boys on both sides often served as buglers, drummers, messengers and stretcher bearers. These roles were supposed to be noncombatant, but in reality, these boys often armed themselves to protect their lives and the lives of the men in their company. The youngest known soldier, Union soldier Johnny Clem, was 9 when he enlisted as a drummer boy, 11 when he fought as a soldier and 12 when he was promoted to sergeant. At least 48 boys under 18 received the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War period.

4 The Militia and Junior Reserves

As the war dragged on, casualties in the South forced the Confederate Army to begin insisting that 17 year old boys join the militia or junior reserve. Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia reported to the General Assembly that in his state the militia was conscripting boys as young as 16. The militia, which also accepted men in their 50s and 60s, was the last line of defense, protecting cities from invasion. The most famous example was the assault on Petersburg, Virginia. Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, who was charged with disruption of the rail lines that converged in Petersburg, was met there by 2,200 Confederate militia defenders whom he characterized as "gray-haired men and beardless boys." The militia slowed the Union advance until Confederate regulars could be mobilize to reinforce them.

Susan Peterson is the author of five books, including "Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes" and "Clare: A Novel." She holds a Ph.D. in text theory from the University of Texas at Arlington and is an avid cook and gardener.