Frances M. Clarke & Rebecca Jo Plant

Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era

An innovative study of underage soldiers and their previously unrecognized impact on Civil War era America.

The smooth faces of boy soldiers stand out in Civil War photography, their spindly physiques contrasting with the uniformed adults they stood alongside. Yet until now, scholars have largely overlooked the masses of underaged youths who served as musicians, carried wounded from the field, ran messages, took up arms, and died in both the Union and Confederate armies.

Of Age is the first comprehensive study of how Americans responded to the unauthorized enlistment of minors in this conflict and the implications that followed. Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant offer military, legal, medical, social, political, and cultural perspectives as well as demographic analysis of this important aspect of the war. They find that underage enlistees comprised roughly ten percent of the Union army and likely a similar proportion of Confederate forces-but these enlistees’ importance extended beyond sheer numbers. Clarke and Plant introduce common but largely unknown wartime scenarios. Boys who absconded without consent set off protracted struggles between households and the military, as parents used various arguments to recover their sons. State judges and the US federal government battled over whether to discharge boys discovered to be under age. African American youths discovered that both Union and Confederate officers ignored their evident age when using them as conscripts or military laborers. Meanwhile, nineteenth-century Americans expressed little concern over what exposure to violence might do to young minds, readily accepting their presence in battle. In fact, underage soldiers became prevalent symbols of the US war effort, shaping popular memory for decades to come.

An original and sweeping work, Of Age convincingly demonstrates why underage enlistment is such an important lens for understanding the history of children and youth and the transformative effects of the US Civil War.

[Added May 25, 2023]

History Camp Authors

    America's Summer Roadtrip 2020

      Frances Clarke

      Frances M. Clarke is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney Her research focuses on war, memory, trauma, and concepts of childhood in the history of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. She is the author of War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North.

      Rebecca Jo Plant

      Rebecca Jo Plant is a Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America.

      More on these topics and by these presenters

      More from History Camp