What is your life like? What do you do for fun? During the American Civil War, there were children just like you trying to grow up – while battles raged throughout their country. Before the Union and Confederacy started fighting each other, children mostly grew up doing chores, playing with friends, and learning new things. When the fighting began, everyone’s lives changed, including children’s.

What were the lives of children like during the Civil War? Let’s find out!
On the home front, both northern and southern children became critical to the war effort in a variety of ways. Children took up jobs that their fathers or brothers had left vacant or those that their mothers could not manage alone as the new head of the household. Children would help tend to livestock and crops, serve as clerks or helpers for the family business, cook meals, and watch their younger siblings while still trying to attend school. Many children, however, dropped out of school to support their families, and many others turned to homeschooling when their schools were closed for lack of funding or attendance, or when their schoolmaster went off to war.

A young girl in mourning dress with a portrait of her father on her lap.

Many children nowadays pretend to ‘fight the bad guys’, there were some children in the Civil War that actually joined the battle! In the Union, boys had to be 18 to enlist as soldiers, and 16 to enlist as musicians. In the Confederacy, boys initially had to be 18 to enlist as soldiers, but the age was lowered to 17 as the war went on and more soldiers were needed. Despite these restrictions, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of boys under 18 still enlisted in both armies. Seeking adventure or to fight for a cause they believed in, boys picked up and left home. Sometimes they had to lie about their age to enlist, list a false identity, or have their parents convince the military leaders that they could fight. Outside of being a solider or musician, children helped on the battlefield in other ways by: working in hospitals, burying the dead, carrying water and ammunition to the front lines, and transporting military messages. Although these positions kept children safer than those serving as soldiers, children still found themselves in dangerous situations. Approximately 48 boys under 18 received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the highest military award given for bravery on the battlefield.

Children watching soldiers at Battle of Bull Run.

As the war progressed and conditions worsened, both black and white children in the South faced greater and greater hardships and devastation. There was a shortage of food, a lack of clothing, much disease, and homelessness. White children and their families fled their homes and land to escape Union soldiers, while black children and their families fled to the Union soldiers for protection. Families were split apart and displaced. Black children felt disruption and chaos as well. Many former slaves fled plantations to seek refuge at “contraband” camps. These camps were an important part of North Carolina’s history in the Civil War. Refugees were able to earn wages, work for food and clothing, get an education, and worship. There were six camps established by the Union in North Carolina and eventually all six camps came under Confederate attack.

Picture of some of the people in a Contraband camp in Virginia.

The Civil War touched the lives of children in both similar and vastly different ways. The Civil War molded children’s lives as adults and shaped their attitudes, opinions, and prejudices that would pass from generation to generation. The children of the Civil War shared enthusiasm for the war, were burdened with greater responsibilities, and endured physical and emotional hardships. The end of the war for a Northern child meant victory, excitement, and success. The end of the war for a Southern child meant defeat, disappointment, and a transformed way of living. For enslaved African American children, the end of the Civil War meant freedom and hope, which did not come without years of tremendous sacrifices, challenges, changes, and hardships.

One particular child we will discuss is John Lincoln Clem. He is said to have run away from home at age 9 in May 1861, after the death of his mother in a train accident, to become a Union Army drummer boy. First, he attempted to enlist in the 3rd Ohio Infantry but was rejected because of his age and small size. “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” was 12 years old when he was promoted to sergeant after firing on a Confederate colonel who was attempting to capture him.

Clem in 1867

Clem in 1867

We will learn more about John Clem in next week’s blog posting. Stay tuned and come out and visit the Tunnel! We are open now from 10 am – 4pm. We would love to see you.