Children and the Civil War

Karen A Kehoe. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Fifteen-year-old Tillie Pierce recorded her memories of life in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the memorable July of 1863. She reported rumors that swept the town for weeks and then wrote: “We were having our regular literary exercises on Friday afternoon, at our Seminary, when the cry reached our ears. Rushing to the door, and standing on the front portico we beheld in the direction of the Theological Seminary, a dark, dense mass, moving toward town” (Alleman 1889, 21). After great anticipation, the war had finally come to her Pennsylvania home. Like most Northern children, before that summer she experienced the war as she wished, seeking out contact through her play, schooling, the copying of adult behaviors, or her willing entrance into the adult world of the soldiers. Like some other children, particularly Southerners and African Americans, in that summer Pierce found the war had come to her doorstep whether or not she wished it. No matter how they experienced it, the war changed American children and American childhood forever.

Play during the War

The location of their homes and the economic status of their parents determined the kinds of toys and games available to young people of the time. Generally speaking, 19th-century youngsters had as many things as their families could provide. In that century, children began to be considered as precious and special parts of their families. An increase in the number of white-collar workers in the country created a larger middle class than in earlier generations, and these middle-class families had more expendable income. The children of middle-class parents did not have to work to ensure the survival of the family. Instead, parents showered attention on their children, making sure they attended school and enriching their lives with books, toys, and interesting experiences. For the first time, childhood was seen as a unique phase in development, not just a period when children were small adults.

Rural children and children of the poor had different experiences of play during the period than did children of white-collar workers. The homes of rural and poor children had fewer books about a more limited range of topics than those of the middle and upper classes. A Quaker boy encountering marbles for the first time in his life, referred to them as “marvels,” an indication of the rarity of toys in some American homes (Marten 2004, 10). Despite the lack of formal toys, children played and had fun before the war. Their games were simply made up from the worlds of their imaginations. They pretended to be teachers, lawyers, storekeepers, parents, ministers, and politicians, mimicking the actions and words of the adults that populated their lives. They manufactured dolls from materials at hand and roamed the world around them. However, they also filled their days with chores and work.

The war changed these patterns of play. For some children, especially those in the South, new toys, playthings, and play became rare indeed. Northern children had new games and toys from which to choose. Some toys featured particular Northern military leaders and their armies; some dolls came dressed in military uniforms. These toys and games familiarized the youngsters with the events of the day and reinforced national attitudes.

Even Abraham Lincoln’s children had dolls dressed in the flashy uniforms of Zouaves, who wore clothes inspired by those of European soldiers serving in Africa. The Zouave style of dress was extremely popular with children. It featured bright scarlet or striped trousers and unusual headgear like fezzes or turbans. Children could buy paper soldiers and toy cannons to mow those soldiers down. Toy guns, drums, and miniature uniforms fed the imaginations of those whose tastes tended toward the warlike. In other war games, boys and girls in the North and the South made and manned forts. For a while, the White House featured a mock cannon on the roof, where Willie and Tad Lincoln kept watch for Rebel intruders.

Nineteenth-century children liked to accumulate things. Their collections of “novelties” or “oddities” were usually small items that they found, purchased, or were given. Birds’ nests, colored stones, arrowheads, leaves, odd buttons, stamps, anything that caught their attention or came from special people, joined their other treasures. During the war, children added bits of memorabilia from visits to army camps or places of special interest and encounters with famous people. Most adults who lived through the war as children remembered having collections that included material sent to them by friends or relatives in the military. When children lived close enough to where soldiers passed, they searched for bits of cloth from uniforms, spent bullets, pieces of exploded shells, or other pieces of discarded material. Many hours were spent studying and rearranging the items or preparing them to be displayed for friends or family.

Wartime Literature

Children’s literature developed into a separate category of writing before the war. Prior to the war, the authors and editors used the material to teach children moral lessons. Hard work, charity, tolerance, kindness, and obedience were typical kinds of lessons illustrated in the stories. Wartime literature focused on the idea of sacrifice. The youthful characters willingly surrendered their food for soldiers or the poor, their jackets to the cold, and their free time to do work for a tired mother. Both Northern and Southern children learned that the small sacrifices on their part would help their causes and would prepare them for the larger sacrifices their lives might require. The stories taught children that they had to contribute to others to benefit from their sacrifices and that the benefit they would earn was life in a secure community.

Children’s magazines, another source of wartime entertainment and reading, also sought to instill values in their young readers. These journals featured all kinds of literature—long stories broken into monthly installments, the words to songs and poems, including some by the young readers, as well as games provided to educate and entertain. William Taylor Adams, writing as Oliver Optic, edited one of the most popular children’s magazines. Optic played to the war interests of his young readers, providing articles that carefully described army life and organization so that his junior soldiers understood the proper terms to use in their play. He reinforced the sectional loyalties of the adults by giving his readers games and information specific to Northern children. Optic also helped to popularize a new sort of literature for children—the adventure story. These tales cast a young person, usually a boy, in the role of hero. As a result of some set of circumstances, the young man left his hometown and participated directly in the action of the war. The young people were usually opposed by evil adults and always prevailed in their endeavors. Optic provided two trilogies in the genre, his army and navy stories, featuring the brothers Tom and Jack Somers. Unlike earlier literature, these books did not emphasize the contributions the children could make for the benefit of others. Instead, the main characters worked for their own benefit and survival. The new format seemed much more exciting than the old kind of writing. The young characters faced dangers that the readers could experience in their imaginations, recasting themselves in the patriotic roles.

Children also published their own newspapers during the years of conflict. Some were single pages, randomly produced sheets, but others were regularly published papers that reflected the interests of their authors. Like the magazines the boys read, the newspapers were full of articles of all descriptions, but a nationalistic theme ran through all of them.

Girls received a much different message through literature written for them. The youthful heroines fulfilled very traditional roles. They joined their mothers in helping raise money for the soldiers or the poor. They helped smaller children to succeed at some task. Few girl characters wandered into the thick of a battle or struggled to overcome evil adults. Girls attended the hospital rounds their mothers made, helping to care for the men who were less seriously wounded. They would read to or sing for the men, provide water, fan the soldiers, or simply sit by their cots. Dolls, representing wounded or sick soldiers, were nursed back to health and those who had deserted were executed and buried.

Although the wartime literature tended to reinforce the gender roles of earlier days, it connected the lives of both girls and boys to the strength of the nation. Young male characters were supposed to be pious, courageous, loyal, and ambitious, traits they used for the good of their nation, communities, and families. Girls were supposed to practice domestic arts, like cooking, cleaning, and nursing, and they were supposed use their abilities for the benefit of others. Adults, who wrote most of the literature, included children in the stories of the war and the events that surrounded the conflict not only because children wanted to see themselves as active participants in those events but also because the scope of the struggle required the participation of every segment of society.


The war also changed school experiences. For many children whose fathers answered the call of the bugle, North or South, school was no longer possible. During battles, schools were suspended. In many Southern towns, schools closed, more or less permanently, when teachers joined the armies. Many children left school when they had to assume the duties of those who enlisted. Some took on most of the farm chores, while others went to work to support their mothers or sisters.

In areas where schools stayed in session, curricula changed during the war. Partisans on both sides influenced the materials studied. Methods of instruction emphasized memorization and recitation. Both Northern and Southern children learned to repeat pieces of speeches teachers carefully chose. The material reflected the patriotic messages of each side. Southerners rushed to produce textbooks that eradicated any possible negative presentation of the institution of slavery and that glorified their new nation. In both the North and the South, textbooks, particularly spellers, familiarized the children with new terms and their meanings. These included military terms like brigadier, garrison, guerilla, and commissary. The lessons helped the children enrich their playing at war and subtly indoctrinated the older boys into the language and culture they would need if they joined the armies. In addition, children from the schools were “drafted” to participate in special community ceremonies. In the North, inauguration day was observed by parades and children marched among the adults, and the schools of New Orleans reopened during the war with great fanfare and special programs put on by the youngsters.

Changes in school materials did not escape the attention of the military. The Union Army policed Southern schools, watching for any sign of rebellion among the students. They inspected the children’s things for hidden Confederate flags and paged through books, tearing out any pages that had material that seemed to support the Southern cause. The result, inevitably, was that children in occupied areas often became stronger supporters of the Confederacy than they had been before the inspections.

Northern schools repeated the message of sacrifice in children’s stories and linked education to the work of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a group devoted to helping Northern soldiers. Children were recruited to join those working for the Sanitary Commission just as soldiers were recruited to join the ranks of the armies. In addition, children were encouraged to join other patriotic organizations. Alfred Sewell began an organization known as the Army of the American Eagle. Youngsters could join the group for a dime, and in return, they received a copy of a photograph of “Old Abe, the Battle Eagle,” a real eagle that served as the mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin Infantry. Children who signed up enough of their friends could earn extra materials and become officers in the youth army. Schoolmates made good recruits, and Sewell’s plan raised much money for the relief of the soldiers.

Children Supporting the War Effort

During the years of the war, the Sanitary Commission developed a number of ways to raise the large sums of money it needed to support its work. The most successful strategy devised was holding large, regional fairs. The elaborate events included children’s departments designed to get children to visit and to allow them to help in the Union war effort. Youngsters took part in recreations of folk tales, concerts, and recitations. Schools displayed examples of the children’s work. Girls sent examples of their handcrafts and boys loaned their collections of “oddities” to help bring in pennies for the cause. Some of the children even offered their own dear pets to be sold to raise money for the soldiers. Fortunately for everyone, in most cases a philanthropic relative, neighbor, or charitable stranger would purchase the animal and return it to the grieving but determined child. The fairs also provided all sorts of treats to eat. At a great fair held in Chicago, a bevy of young girls lined up to pay for the privilege of kissing General Ulysses S. Grant. The act of kissing a stranger was much too promiscuous for the era, but the girls were forgiven because the kisses were rained down on the great hero and the cause was a good one.

Although 19th-century girls did not kiss boys, they did think about the next phase of their lives and watched older girls for signals about what was proper behavior. The little ones admired the latest trend in wartime jewelry sported by young women who made a practice of wearing copies of the corps badges of their sweethearts, fathers, or brothers. The badges were simple shapes, such as diamonds, clovers, and crescents cut from brightly colored wool felt. They indicated a connection to a man in the army and a patriotic style that seemed very adult. Adolescent girls found the usual transitions in their lives complicated by the war. The political climate even affected their choices of potential mates. Like the adults in their lives, the girls patriotically took a Union pledge, promising their loyalty and sacrifice for the nation. The girls extended the idea, taking public pledges not to look at or kiss men that had never been in the army. They flatly rejected the possibility of marrying a “shirker” and scorned the advances of “home guards,” men in units organized to help out in case the enemy moved into the area.

Both boys and girls were familiar with the varieties of people around the armies and, when possible, the children visited the drill fields of the armies. When the men retired from the field, the children took their places. They did their best to duplicate the intricate movements of the men, using sticks, broomsticks, or whatever they could find to replace the firearms. For the boys, the “drilling” became a large part of the activities of the day. They formed their own units and carefully chose names that reflected the seriousness of their intents. The country was peppered with “Garibaldi’s Guards” and other fierce-sounding units. Sometimes girls were admitted to the ranks, especially if they were tall, and in the North even African Americans were admitted to the ranks, although never as officers.

Both boys and girls formed groups that sewed “housewives,” little sewing kits supplied with thread, needles, and spare buttons that would be sent to the soldiers. They all worked collecting pennies that were sent off to a relief society of one sort or another, and many men who had been small boys at the time of the war could remember spending precious hours scraping lint that was packaged and used by hospital workers to pack off wounds.

Girls accompanied their mothers to meetings of local soldiers’ aid societies. Some, like the young women who lived on Milwaukee’s fashionable east side, formed their own girls’ aid societies. They planned and completed quilts and other items that soldiers who were convalescing could use, and they participated in most of the activities planned by the adults. By teaching the children to serve in aid groups, the adults assured themselves that the next generation would be ready to assume its responsibility of caring for the less fortunate. Although girls could not control armies, real or play, or strike blows for their nations, the tasks each undertook were understood to be the duties of “a patriotic and loyal girl” (Alleman 1889, 9).

The patriotic duties that young people became involved in indicated that even children understood political questions to surprising degrees. For some, the interest began when their parents took them to political events. For most, the interest began after they overheard parents in intense conversations about their own political concerns. The children did not simply repeat the words of the adults. They read about and debated the issues on a sophisticated level.

In the 19th century, children were regular participants in political events. Processions of adults who supported one candidate or another were of interest to many, because they were frequently accompanied by lantern illuminations, bright symbols of the candidates, and bands. Groups of children heckled candidates that did not represent the views of their parents. Fathers took their children to see parades, speeches, and conventions. Aware that they were living in important times, the adults wanted to guide the youngsters in their understanding of what was happening. Children discussed the events and learned the positions of the candidates on the conduct of the war. Schoolyards became partisan battlegrounds as the children discussed their favorites. They created their own versions of the events, taking turns adopting the roles of the main political figures of the day, although few could remember playing the role of Abraham Lincoln. Children willingly participated in the adult response to events of the day. When the draft riots of New York turned to racial violence, young boys acted as scouts, marking the houses of African Americans by throwing rocks through windows. Although such actions had the hallmarks of boys testing their marksmanship skills without being stopped by an adult, they also had a deadly intent.


Public entertainment of all sorts attracted children, especially in the North where circuses and museums continued to be popular. Of much interest were panoramas, extremely detailed illustrations. For a small fee, patrons could watch as the painting moved across a space, unwinding off one huge spool and onto the other accompanied by appropriate music. The works depicted the life stories of famous individuals such as the founding fathers, generals, or Abraham Lincoln. Panoramas often illustrated the stories from the Bible or the action of major battles. In the prewar years, the exhibitions tried to reinforce the lessons and values of the middle class. During the war, such things provided information, but their main purpose was to entertain and to distract the observers from the stresses of life in a nation at war. One panorama featured a fictional character that appeared in several of the panels and the children had fun looking for the figure and determining his meaning in the illustration.

Children who lived near the camps where the armies trained had a ready source of entertainment. They accompanied adults, or snuck off on their own, to watch the soldiers drill and to attend dress parades. The crisp uniforms, the martial music, and the gaily fluttering flags made the early days of the war exciting. Following the ceremonies, the children and the adults mingled among the tents and inspected the soldiers’ gear. The prominence of the military in national life presented new possibilities for entertainment. For children near major waterways, naval vessels could be visited when they were in port. In an attempt to mimic the noise guns made, little boys wanted firecrackers to celebrate events large or small.

Boys whose older relatives planned to enlist had clear role models. One 10-year-old boy watched in awe as his two uncles tried to learn the manual arms. The men bought an old musket and a copy of a book of tactics and “worked seriously in a business like manner” so they would be ready for service (Elmore 1910, 54-59). The boy kept a constant vigil, not so much from admiration but on the off chance that he might be able to play with the weapon once in a while.

Visits to camps and ships and the presence of men preparing for war led to a new spirit of militarization among the children, who begged for their own miniature uniforms, toy guns, and small drums. Popular periodicals for adults took note of the change just as those for children did. An illustration in one, labeled “The Fourth of July,” showed two small children dressed in military uniforms beating bright drums while their mother cowered in the background with her hands clapped over her ears and a look of pain on her face.

The war brought many new items into the world of children. Valentines were fairly new to the people of the 19th century. During the war, Valentine’s Day cards with images of soldiers were available. They reflected the longing of both the soldiers and the members of their families for a restoration of the family circle. Other cards made fun of the home guards. These units recruited men too old for the rigors of long campaigns, boys too young for the regular army, and men home on long furloughs because of illness or injury. Among the members were men who were suspected of using their membership in the home guard as an excuse for avoiding regular service—thus the term “shirkers.”

Schoolyards soon reflected the observations the children made about the uses of the military men. The simple play of children became politicized and militarized. Name-calling reflected the sides in the war. Like gang members in modern-day America, children often wore symbols that indicated their connections. Those that represented the Northern forces pinned or sewed the brass buttons of the Union Army onto their clothing, while Southern sympathizers fastened the halves of walnut hulls to theirs. The symbols attracted much attention and caused many schoolyard fights. Gangs also adopted such signals, and whether the groups were just friends who wandered around together getting into mischief or groups with more sinister intents, their activities took on a more warlike manner than they had in the prewar years.


Recruiting activities naturally attracted the attention of the youngsters. If available, a military brass band would be sent into town in full dress uniform. The musicians kept a large number of patriotic songs in their parts books for just such occasions. The bandsmen accompanied local people in the singing of popular songs, including “Dixie’s Land” and “The Bonny Blue Flag” in the South and “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and, later, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the North, to rally support and volunteers for the armies. Volunteers would step forward and sign enrollment sheets. When finished, the soldiers, accompanied by the throb of the drum cadence, marched away. Any sound of drums invariably drew scores of children into the streets, where they paced along with the passing soldiers.

Drums did not only mark exciting, patriotic ceremonies. Many towns also heard the solemn thump of muffled drums that marked the funerals of local men. Although many soldiers were buried near the spot they were killed, some families searched for the bodies of their loved ones and returned them to their homes for burial. For some children, these solemn ceremonies provided their first realistic understanding of the costs of war. For others, who had no direct relatives or friends in the conflict, the loss was abstract until April 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. All but the smallest children of the Civil War generation could remember throughout their lifetimes the circumstances of the very moment the news reached them. Yet, for children, the aftermath of the assassination was just as memorable. Parents took them to see the body of the president or his casket as it was carried in solemn processions, pulled in ornate hearses, or passed by on a slowly moving train. Some 10,000 Chicago children, decked out in black mourning sashes, participated in the parade down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue as the president’s body returned to Illinois. Bands, with uniforms trimmed with black ribbons, played newly composed death marches, and the drums were swathed in black to muffle their usual crisp taps. The grandeur of these moments added to the usual excitement of military ceremonies the children had so long enjoyed.

Adults became concerned about some of the changes the war caused in the behavior of children. While the play of girls seemed to reinforce positive behavior, the actions of boys seemed less positive. The connection to battle play not only caused difficulties by encouraging rowdiness that brought conflict with shopkeepers and townsfolk, but it also seemed to cause confusion for boys who had trouble telling the difference between their military play and preparation for real combat. Boys began trying to enlist long before they were legally qualified to do so. To stem the wave of young boys trying to join the army, home guard units began accepting boy members as young as 14 years of age. Their presence in the ranks served as examples of how easy it was to enlist in the 19th century. Although soldiers were supposed to be at least 18, many served who were younger because they lied about their ages and the system that could verify the ages had not been created. Officials of the Sanitary Commission recorded at least 127 men who were just 13 years old when they entered the army. Alva Cleveland enlisted in the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin Infantry and brought his 12-year-old son, George, with him. George served as a drummer for the regiment, like many other young soldiers. As drummers, these boys did not have to carry the heavy equipment of a regular soldier, but they worked long hours and often were located in some of the most dangerous parts of the battlefields providing battlefield communication. Along with fifers and buglers, drummers helped regulate the military day by playing a different musical “call,” a short phrase that was repeated over and over, for various activities. One woke the troops, one sounded sick call, one announced the arrival of mail, one indicated the unit should charge, and another indicated that they should retreat. Field musicians could control every single movement of the army, so although many drummers were young boys, they had a huge responsibility placed on their small shoulders.

George Cleveland was only one of a large number of drummer boys who were admired and envied by the boys at home and whose positions became symbols of the war. An entire set of popular music, stories, and poetry were written to enshrine their memories. The song “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” is typical of its kind. According to the words, a wounded drummer was lifted up by his comrades so that he could fold his hands in prayer before his death. He prayed for the men he served with and at the last called out to his mother, pleading that he be allowed to join her in Heaven. His fellow soldiers gathered near to hear him pray and left the scene determined to be better men. The drummer boy served as an example of the adventure, courage, piety, honor, and loyalty looked for in heroes of children’s literature, but these heroes also reflected the reality of children in the ranks of Civil War soldiers. The most famous of the drummers was Johnny Clem from Ohio who enlisted in a Michigan Regiment at the age of nine. Seventeen of the youthful “ponies,” as the underage soldiers were known, received the Medal of Honor for their service and more than 250,000, perhaps as many as 400,000, underage boys served in the armies.

Life on the Home Front

Men and boys who enlisted in the war broke the close-knit circle formed by 19th-century families. Children longed for the presence of their fathers and brothers and the men longed for the families at home. In their letters, the men asked for any news from home, especially news of the development of their small children. They tried to share in the lives of the youngsters and pleaded with their wives to tell them everything they were missing. No detail was too small—first teeth, first steps, first words—the fathers wanted to know it all. The news was not always positive and some of the letters reflect the attempts of desperate fathers to learn the fate of sick or injured children. Some of the pages reflect the grief of fathers at war who learned of the death of their beloved children.

Fathers also used their letters to provide the kinds of advice that they would give children if they were at home. They told them to behave and to listen to the adults left around them. They suggested reading programs, and warned the young people to care for their health. Most added that their sons should be sure to help their mothers. Many of the letters provided positive reinforcement, showing the great affection that the men had for the youngsters. These instructions were an attempt by the men to remain active in the lives of their children. The men also wanted to let their children know what the army experience was like. They chatted about camp conditions, sometimes describing their living arrangements or daily routines in great detail. Many avoided discussing the dangers around them, but others seemed to want the children to understand the peril they lived with and they tried to describe the sound of bullets or the effects of shells on the men in the camp. In some cases, it seemed that the men were trying to assure themselves that they had survived, although such descriptions undoubtedly scared some children.

Children in the South experienced the war much more directly than did those in the North. A much greater percentage of the white Southern male population participated in the fighting, and the majority of battles were fought in the South. Consequently, Southern children were plagued by shortages of food and clothing and had few toys. In addition, many had to contend with poor and dangerous living conditions. Southern children also faced the fear of invasion and occupation by enemy troops.

For families that sent men to the armies, whether for the North or the South, the impact was devastating and could not be avoided. The departure was filled with excitement. The men marched through the town with bands playing while the townspeople cheered and waved. Children thought the uniforms, horses, flags, and bands were wonderful. The sight of the national flag on such occasions caused feelings of nationalism that the young people had not felt before. As on all military occasions, the small boys and girls tried to march along with the men, falling back as fatigue overtook them. It was only when the crowds dispersed, or the men passed, or the bands ceased playing that the children had to face the grief and fear that also accompanied such departures. For middle-class women not used to managing household affairs, the burden was unimaginable, and the breakdown was immediate. Those children old enough to understand were left trying to shore up their remaining parent, a task made more difficult if the man of the house was killed in the conflict. Young boys quickly took on additional responsibilities, trying to do as much of their father’s work as possible. The messages delivered from pulpits and in schoolbooks, taught them that doing so was part of their patriotic duty. As historian James Marten noted, assuming these tasks “became their greatest contribution to saving the Union.” But the patriotism came with a price—cutting short the childhoods of many of the war generation (Marten 2004, 63).

The war made many children, North and South, “partial orphans” when their fathers died or were incapacitated by their wounds. Women had to learn to care for their children while trying to earn money to support their families. For many, the job was overwhelming and they tried to find individuals or institutions to provide for the youngsters. All over the country, people worked to fill in for the parents. Northerners reacted by building homes that served as symbols of the link between the sacrifice of the men and the responsibility the community had as a result of that sacrifice. In the South, the children were treated with great reverence because of their connection to what Southerners saw as a sort of perfect past. Most of the aid for the orphans came from local governments, churches, and organizations that already were helping the soldiers. In an effort to make the care more regular and more permanent, the people of Wisconsin petitioned their state government to create a home for the children. During the war, the widow of Governor Louis P. Harvey convinced the federal government to establish a hospital at Madison to care for sick soldiers. Harvey Hospital, as it was called, was no longer needed by the last year of the war. Rather than wasting the facility, Cordelia Harvey worked to convert the buildings for the use of the orphans of Wisconsin’s soldiers. The task was important because, by 1865, half of the children in the asylums of the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, were orphans.

The war was an alien but unmistakable presence in the lives of children close to the action. For some, the possibility of conflict was a strange new adventure, but for others, it was a frightening reality that threatened those they loved and their homes. When looking back at the war years, they often identified the first moment they saw soldiers as the end of their childhood innocence. In the first moments of the conflict, they helped with the hasty, secret burial of family treasures and were rapidly moved away from perceived danger. The assumed security of home was missing from the lives of children in towns contested by the two sides. Those youngsters became refugees, living from hand to mouth and never quite secure in their temporary or their permanent homes. At Vicksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg, towns that were under siege, the children had to be ready to race to areas of shelter whenever bombardments began. If at all possible, the women and children packed up and moved to the homes of relatives living in the country, adding another level of stress to their lives. Those who stayed behind in their own homes had to hide during the day to avoid becoming victims of robbers or worse. At night, candlelight needed to be hidden so that some soldier did not interpret the light as a signal, resulting in an attack on the home.

African American children became refugees in much larger numbers than other children. As the fighting moved close to plantations where they were enslaved, whole groups ran away to enter the Union lines. In places where the Rebels threatened to overrun communities with large numbers of contrabands or large numbers of freedmen, African Americans took to the roads to avoid being swept into slavery. Carrying everything they could with them, the children suffered from the same privations and pressures as their parents. In some ways, slavery seemed to prepare them for the challenges. Parents emphasized their lessons about sacrifice with stern, often physical punishments. Rather than teaching the youngsters to sacrifice for the common good, they taught them to sacrifice so they would be strong enough to survive slavery. As these refugees found safety, they began to search for the education that had been denied to them for so long. They believed that education would be another tool that would help them survive whatever came after the war. Northern children helped provide books and supplies for African American schools.

Modern Americans reading about the Civil War are frequently surprised at the number of civilians in the army camps. In addition to local citizens who visited as part of their entertainment, slaves who ran away from their homes, contrabands and freedmen, other workers, and family members came to the front to try to locate their loved ones. Mothers sometimes brought their children along. The soldiers loved the visits of the little children and showered them with attention. The men saluted the youngsters as if they were officers, told them stories, and generally treated them like royalty. Nurses in one hospital were surprised when a visiting woman gave birth there. Although the newborn caused the ladies additional work providing food for the child and locating clothing for it, they gladly endured the labor because the men so loved to hold the baby. The nurses believed that having the child in the area helped give the men the will to survive.

Youngsters were among the many people who flocked to the battlefields of the Civil War shortly after any fight. The sites remained pilgrimage goals for years. Although girls were likely to report on the grass that was growing over the location of the carnage, or to comment on the wild flowers that had reappeared, boys delighted in the wreckage of men and animals that resulted from the fighting. They went to the fields as soon as they could, sometimes before the battle ended, eagerly searching for items to add to their collections.

Girls seemed to have useful skills to offer at the edges of the battles. When Tillie Pierce and her friends observed the Union Army beginning to pass through the streets of Gettysburg before the battle there, they stood on the corner and sang national songs to entertain and motivate the men as they passed. Following the battle, soldiers that heard them commented about how much the moment meant. Although the girls prepared bouquets of flowers to give to the men, in their excitement over their roles as greeters, they forgot the flowers completely. As the battle grew, the girls busied themselves handing out water to all who passed, including General George Gordon Meade, who Pierce failed to recognize. Other girls spent the days helping their mothers bake bread for the men. When all else failed, girls would simply sit with wounded soldiers, comforting the men by their presence. The games of girlhood prepared them well for their part in the “grand and awful spectacle” that was taking place all around them (Alleman 1889, 52).

Gender did not protect the girls from the realities all around them. As parents determined that one place was safer than another, the girls hurried to reach the new spot. While on the move, they were exposed to the same sights that the boys would run to see—exploding shells, dead animals and men, cannons, and smoke—all the thrilling images of imagination and novel. If the new spot was indeed out of direct fire, it tended to fill up with wounded soldiers seeking shelter and aid. Wherever possible, surgeons set up hospitals and the girls saw amputation and the aftermath of the surgeries—blood, gore, and unattached arms and legs—as they moved about the farms they were on. Pierce helped some officers find their way onto a rooftop to better observe the battle, and they allowed the girl to look for herself, a reward the boys she knew would have loved to share.


The children that emerged from the Civil War were different than those of the prewar years. These changes occurred whether the child had direct contact with the war or was hardly touched by it. Some of the changes were simply passing fads—like wearing Union buttons or walnut shell halves and playing war. New games took the place of the wartime versions, and doll fashions altered over time. Other changes were more permanent. Children’s literature, especially dime novels that were devoured as quickly as they were produced, emphasized the individual choices that children made during the years of conflict. In these stories, young men were forced or chose to leave the homes of their families and the protecting influences of schools and churches to embrace the adventure of the battlefronts. The boys were always bright and managed to outsmart their opponents. They remained loyal to their beliefs and the values inculcated in their homes and were unfailingly courageous. Although the heroes exhibited worthy traits, the new characteristics undercut the sense of community of earlier generations and encouraged a sense of individual interests of the future, rather than community action of the past.

The boys that populated the United States after the war were different from the boys before the war, and that difference made its way into the literature of the postwar period. The new stories suggested that the independence learned during the war years might not all be positive. They were “bad boy” tales featuring youths who operated independently of their parents. They had a clear set of admirable characteristics—courage, loyalty, humor—and they used those qualities to outsmart adults, but these boys were different. They did not outsmart evil adults, but they instead outsmarted all adults. They lacked the respect for authority that wartime characters had. Most of their adventures seem more like practical jokes than serious wrongdoing, but they demonstrate the real effects the war had on children. The stress and uncertainty of the war years tore down the security of the prewar years. In its place, the children of the Civil War created new realties and new roles for themselves. Like the veterans, they had to learn to live in a world changed by war.