Indulging Research Tangents: Interpreting Evidence Through the Lens of Age Differences

Daniel Farrell's picture

In this post for the H-CivWar Author's Blog, Daniel Farrell shares research on and discusses the challenges of interpreting people’s behavior through the lens of age and age differences. Ultimately, how much emphasis should historians place on tangents, however interesting?

During some recent archival research, I came across what I considered to be a somewhat humorous letter. In September 1863, a Marylander, Samuel Freeland, petitioned the War Department to release his son, a Confederate soldier imprisoned at Fort Delaware. His rationale? His son was allegedly weak-minded and easily tricked – he wrote that although his “boy was between 19 and 20 years of age [when] he left me…I do not consider his intellectual development superior to the majority of boys [aged] 12 or 14 years. I plead that evil influences, thrown around him by bad companions, and being of an excitable temperament…succeeded in entrapping him to join their traitorous cause.” Whether Freeland honestly considered his son’s “intellectual development” lacking is not the main point. Instead, it's how he leaned into a common stereotype about young people: that they are impulsive, irresponsible, and immature. The petition similarly prompted me to think more deeply about how 19th-century Americans thought about age and maturity and how it relates to my research surrounding loyalty and treason.

To be sure, this is not the first time I have thought about the issue. Throughout my research, I have uncovered a few interesting examples where age was an explicit concern, but I’ll focus on two. The first relates to young Confederate prisoners with social and familial ties to the Border South. The second focuses on how older Americans, typically over forty-five, sought alternative ways to serve the Union war effort because they were too old to serve in the army. In general, I am not sure if Civil War historians have placed much emphasis on analyzing how one’s age or perceived maturity influenced behaviors and actions. Childhood appears to be one major exception. An older work by James Martin (The Children’s Civil War) explores the myriad of ways children experienced the war, but often through a lens legible to adults. The conflict forced many children to “grow up” early and take on the burden of adult issues, such as loss, anguish, duty, patriotism, increased work responsibilities, and so on. I imagine newer works on the mental and physical disabilities of Civil War veterans account for age, as the aging process certainly exacerbated such maladies. Nevertheless, that is not quite the same as how one’s stage in life informs one’s outlook.

            As noted already, age and maturity are common tropes in petitions to free Confederate prisoners. And whereas the contents of Freeland’s plea were unique, the overall theme was not. Throughout the conflict, the War Department allowed military prisoners to petition for release, assuming they could unambiguously demonstrate their loyalty to the Federal government. Case files often included statements from the prisoner, family members, neighbors, and prominent politicians. The War Department intended the program to be used by civilian and political prisoners who believed that military authorities arrested them unjustly. However, Confederate soldiers, primarily from the Border South, also took advantage of the opportunity. A common story occurs throughout these petitions: a Kentucky Unionist family is distraught over their young son’s decision to join the Confederate army. Often, the parents cite age and immaturity as the culprit. The “boy” was not old enough to understand the virtues of loyalty and patriotism. Older secessionists manipulated him by preying upon his youth and inexperience. Typically, families made these claims on behalf of boys aged 15-18 at the time of their enlistment, with the War Department routinely taking pity on, and releasing, prisoners from this age group. Many parents tried to stretch this argument to include slightly older men, 19-24, often with less success, unless there were other mitigating factors. Here, military officials drew distinctions between age-appropriate conceptions of loyalty and treason. One petition illustrates the point well: the father of a 24-year-old prisoner wrote the familiar script, only to receive a sarcastic reply from Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who assessed the case. “A ‘youth’ of 24,” Hitchcock mocked, was old enough to realize he was committing treason against the United States. Thus, the War Department denied the petition.

That does not imply that petitions solely came from the Border South and always involved young men. In a different example, age and maturity played a prominent role in Hitchcock’s verdict. A newspaper editor from New Orleans argued he was always a Unionist but admitted that secessionists pressured him to join the army. Hitchcock was skeptical, sarcastically noting that secessionists could not have easily swayed an educated man, actively employed in the business of “popular persuasion” (I.E., the newspaper business), into treason. In other words, Hitchcock felt he was either lying or should have known better based on his age and life experience.

The material I have found on older Americans, however, is perhaps more consistent with themes emerging within the literature on disability. Many men who were too old to serve in the federal army attempted to challenge ideas surrounding age and infirmity, arguing that they were still “useful” and physically fit. At the outbreak of the war, sixty-seven-year-old Jonathan Watts offered to form a militia company. He assured Indiana Governor Oliver Morton that despite his old age and having sustained a combat injury in the War of 1812, he was “able and willing to serve in any capacity.” The “old citizens, aged 45 to 60 years” of Madison, Indiana, similarly informed the governor in April 1861 of their value. About one hundred of these older men formed a home guard to patrol the streets in search of secessionist sympathizers and to repulse any “surprise” attacks from Kentucky. A Tennessee Unionist argued that despite being fifty-seven, he wished to join the Union army and could raise seventy men to serve with him. When Philadelphia resident John Ford sought permission from the War Department to visit his wayward Confederate son, a prisoner at Point Lookout, he leveraged his heroics to demonstrate his loyalty. When he heard the news of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, he immediately rushed to Harrisburg with his musket, despite being an “aged man” of sixty-four.

These are only a handful of examples I have come across. It has been continuously interesting to consider how Civil War participants self-consciously engaged in ideas surrounding their age, maturity, youthfulness, etc. But while interesting to consider, I do think there is some deeper interpretive value, as well as potential pitfalls. When sifting through hundreds, if not thousands, of Civil War-era letters and documents from largely unknown persons, it is convenient to take what they write at face value without considering their ages or life experience. Unless the writer is self-conscious about their age, such as in the examples I provided, I imagine it must be exceedingly difficult to determine if one’s age influences their behaviors. Such considerations raise several questions: Do the social dynamics within a Union regiment, for example, differ for men over thirty or under thirty? Were the formation of Union leagues and similar vigilance committees in the North partially the result of anxieties over one’s usefulness and inability to join the federal army? How should we interpret the age differences of women on the home front? Guerrillas captured by the federal army are occasionally over forty-five; is that meaningful? One could endlessly ask similar hypothetical questions.

For my research on loyalty and treason, the importance of age differences are an open question. It’s a sub-theme I am interested in addressing, but the subject is outside the scope of a full analysis. It is certainly possible that it is difficult to say anything definitive about age groups. There will also be young people who act with unusual forbearance and wisdom, older people who behave foolishly, and everything in between. Regardless I think it is fruitful for conversation. I am interested in learning if anyone has attempted a similar analysis or has advice on balancing your primary research agenda with the litany of subthemes that inevitably crop up when working on a large project.  

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Dan's opening example made me think (once again) of the different perspectives one brings if one approaches Civil War-era documents with training in other historical fields. Recent years have seen the emergence, for example, of “girlhood studies” and especially of “Black girlhood” in ways that deeply inform my project. Scholarship on both free Black childhood in the nineteenth-century US and enslaved Black childhood in the nineteenth-century are deeply important to my interpretation of a range of documents. That childhood remains an understudied aspect of the Civil War is perhaps a relic of the field’s emphasis on top-down military history, but surely it is a shortcoming that Civil War historians should now be addressing.

Each summer, I lead workshops for the National History Academy, which are designed to demonstrate to high school students what historians actually do, and to inspire them to consider careers as historians. And each summer, I point out to them that one thing we know about every era of history is: there have been children experiencing and participating in historical events. Having lived through a pandemic as well as the resurgent racial justice movement in response to the murder of George Floyd, today’s students understand this truism through the lens of their own experience. So why, I ask them, don’t we wonder about children’s experiences when we study history? Time for the Civil War historians to ask this of ourselves as well!

I would also suggest you not dismiss Samuel Freeland’s claim about his son’s intellectual development quite so quickly. As you note when discussing the experience of older white men, disability studies can help us understand the choices and actions of Civil War-era people. When we turn to historical sources, it may be most easy to identify those who had physical disabilities, but intellectual disabilities also marked people’s experiences in ways that were just as significant then as they are today. Without the language and medical framework available in the twenty-first century, how did a mid-nineteenth-century parent regard a child with intellectual disabilities? How did a parent plan for that child’s youth and adulthood? How did a war on such a scale, which demanded young males leave home and fight, disrupt such plans? What was a parent to do? I pose these questions from the parent’s perspective because that is the source you cite, but of course individuals with intellectual disabilities, then as now, had their own understanding of themselves and the world, and their own desire and right to whatever autonomy and decision making was possible. How did a young person with intellectual disabilities understand the war, and what opportunities it offered and what forced experiences it required?

Such questions might seem like “tangents,” but they may actually be indicators of how the field of Civil War studies should evolve. Not so long ago, considering the experience of African Americans and Native Americans, of white women, of civilians — all seemed “tangential” to what most people considered the work of Civil War studies. Hopefully, the majority of us understand the field very differently today. Here’s to what more we’ll understand tomorrow, as we recenter our scholarly attention.


Lois Leveen, PhD


Thanks for the interesting response, especially about how we might study and consider intellectual disabilities historically. Admittedly, I did not consider if Samuel Freeland’s son genuinely suffered from what we might understand today as a developmental disability (broadly, that would include disorders such as down syndrome, autism, etc.). Considering I already felt that analyzing my subject matter through the lens of age and maturity was likely a tangent to begin with, this is a new (albeit interesting) rabbit hole far outside the scope of my research.

Nevertheless, I have found some information that may shed insight into the topic. I have uncovered a few examples where military officials transferred a Confederate prisoner of war to an insane asylum. Shortly after reading your response, I also discovered a fascinating document at the National Archives. The military expelled two men from Santa Fe, New Mexico (then a territory). One was a Californian volunteer diagnosed with insanity. The other was a “Mr. Thornton – an aged man, partially insane.” They sent the Union soldier to an insane asylum in Washington, D.C. “Mr. Thornton” was sent to live with friends in Kentucky. This is purely speculative, but it is possible that military officials arrested “Mr. Thornton” for treasonous speech and later determined he was mentally incompetent. Perhaps he had dementia or a similar disorder? Without more information, it’s impossible to know.

A similar example occurred in Maryland, where I have more concrete details. Military officials arrested a man for tampering with rail lines and ordered him confined to a Baltimore city jail. An army surgeon interviewed the prisoner, conveying that “the result of our examination showed him to be suffering from a condition of ‘mental derangement’ which will probably result in confirmed ‘insanity.’” Thus the military concluded that he was not guilty of treason and transferred him to an asylum for treatment.

These examples do circle back to Samuel Freeland’s son, Thomas Freeland. There are several details about Thomas’s case that I did not include in my initial post. Thomas’s case consisted of three documents: two letters penned by Samuel and one from Thomas himself. Thomas wrote his father while at Fort Delaware, claiming he was sick and afraid of dying in prison. His letter is straightforward and reasonably articulate. If you read Thomas’s letter out of context, you would not suspect him of suffering from a developmental disorder. In a different letter, Samuel referred to his son as “deluded” but otherwise did not dwell on his mental state. Instead, he focused on Thomas’s health and potential death. I do not believe there is enough information to say anything definitive about Thomas’s state of mind.

But as I have pointed out, there are examples of military officials considering mental illness for releasing military prisoners. Military officials routinely interviewed Confederate POWs and civilian prisoners. If the officer in charge at Fort Delaware suspected Thomas of suffering from a debilitating mental disorder or disability, a precedent already existed that such a person could be released or transferred to an insane asylum. However, it may have been ad hock. I am not familiar with any formal War Department policies to screen military prisoners for mental illness or disability, but it indeed occurred on an informal basis. Admittedly, I have used terms such as mental illness, developmental disability, and mental disorder somewhat interchangeably, which is not precise and likely adds to the difficulty of studying the topic. But hopefully, H-Net readers find it insightful; it is certainly not a topic that is raised often.


Dear Dan,

Thank you for this interesting post, and thanks also to Lois for those thoughtful comments. Let me offer some assorted musing for consideration.  

1) On the range of scholarship on the Civil War Era, my view is that it’s thematically expansive and that some of the best social and cultural histories published since the 1960s lie within the field. There is likely no subject that hasn’t received substantive treatment--which does not mean there is not much more yet to say. Indeed, there may be some excellent monographic works from the first half of the 20th century as well. You may take interest in the following if you pursue this subject down the road:; Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft would also be a good general starting point. That said, my casual impression is that the study of youth and aging in the field is scattered across the scholarship, with no central, richly elaborated debate to drive forward research or define the topic. All that is to say, there is likely much useful discussion in the field out there, but it would take a lot of work to hunt it all down and make sense of it. Specialists on this topic should by all means correct me if I’m wrong--I’m outside of my own wheelhouse.

2) If that’s correct, key areas to search for additional information might include: A) the large number of community studies, many of which might offer insight on local perspectives on youth, aging, and the war. B) The more nuanced and historiographically informed regimental histories, which might be attentive to the same issues you outline in your post. C) The historical study of children’s literature. So I’m not saying you should go do that. Get the dissertation done. But likely there is much to chew on.

3) There are, I think, at least two ways to approach this general topic. One is to ask what the denizens of the Civil War era thought of youth and aging, and how they attempted to place people in different categories. There should be a wealth of information about that topic embedded in scholarship on things like Republican Motherhood, paternalism, the history of education, etc. I think that, for the cases you mention, to the extent that they end up in your dissertation, some knowledge on the ideas informing the views of the military officials and the rhetorical strategies of the petitioners would be helpful, although perhaps that can’t be your research priority at the moment. The other is to ask whether aging is an actual thing that happens that impacts how people act. What follows is a rant, and I’ll acknowledge upfront that I welcome a bibliographic smackdown correcting what I’m about to say. In my view, the historical profession, or at least the branches of it that I’m most familiar with, is unwilling to openly address whether there are underlying physical and biological parameters to human existence. There are many ways in which our prose collectively implies that we do in fact have a theory of human maturity and aging--any historian who has wielded words like “youthful,” “childlike,” “puerile,” or “mature” is leveraging broadly available notions about how individuals change over time. Ask those same scholars whether they will commit to the idea that, all things equal, 12-year-olds will, on average, behave differently from 50-year-olds, and I think most will evade the question. Part of this unwillingness reflects a lack of methodological clarity about what an observable statistical trend is, and why an exception doesn’t by itself disprove the existence of one. But it also reflects modern humanities scholars’ profound unease with theories of human nature. If the field gets over that at some point, I’ll submit to you that it might not be unreasonable to argue that male teenagers are, on average and across all cultures, at a heightened risk of making personal decisions that incur physical risks. If so, that might explain in part some of the rhetorical strategies used by some of the petitioners.

4) Okay, with that out of the way, let me also offer what I hope might be some helpful advice about how to manage research tangents. The conventional advice when I was coming up was to always keep your eye on getting the dissertation done. The problem with that advice is that there are an infinite number of possible ways in which a person can write a dissertation on any one subject. Because of that, I have come to believe that there are some decisions that only the author can make--from the outside looking in on your project, it’s just too hard to determine whether the themes you mention will in fact prove integral if you end up pursuing them. Indeed, it’s worth noting that writing is a generative process that tends to leave authors surprised by their own insights--perhaps something that starts as a tangent quickly ends up becoming essential. All you can do, in my view, is make your best guess--there is no reliable way to predict when a seemingly distracting subplot will become essential. Perhaps more helpfully, I’ll note that, in my experience, it is often feasible to go part of the way down a rabbit-hole and then come back up and make some modest adjustments to a few key paragraphs to reflect what you’ve discovered / decided. Some patient editing of a few key passages can allow you to strengthen it, making it more nuanced and a better reflection of your evolving thinking, without necessarily consuming too much additional time. If we were to ask: “should I, as a dissertator, go down this rabbit-hole or not?” my response would be you never know when a rabbit-hole is really a gold mine and you can always go down it just a little at first, and then just a little more if it seems promising. In general, be at peace with the idea that you are making informed guesses about the best way to move forward and get’r done in an intellectually compelling way.

Sometime ago in the 90s (the 1990s) I developed materials for a discussion of the generational components at work in the election of 1860.  Thinking that this was a subject about which a good book could get me that inevitable offer from Yale, I spent a good deal of time with the extant literature on aging, political generations, and generations as a research concept.  I focused on the age-related party in that election, the Constitutional Unionists, who are routinely denominated in the professional literature as well as contemporary discourse as “old fogies” and “old gentlemen.”  The party’s top leadership was indeed old given the typical lifespans of that day, and it identified itself with older parties that were in decay, as in “old Whigs.”  Horace Greeley’s editorials mocking them are a real stitch to read.  But a quick collective biography of members of the CU Baltimore convention revealed a median age of 50; the party's national chairman, ARR Boteler of VA, was 45. (Lincoln was what, 51? in 1860.)  I began to suspect that this was probably the nativist element in the party, Know Nothings who had migrated in rather than join sectional Democratic or Republican parties, members of local “Opposition” groups like the Brooks brothers of NYC.  And their interests actually looked more toward the Gilded Age issues than back to the era of John Quincy Adams. I recall that William Barney claimed in his book on secession that the secessionists and many Breckinridge voters tended to come from younger cohorts in the electorate.  It stands to reason that these folks had little to no experience with the kinds of compromises and political brokerage that traditional leaders had used to stave off confrontations over slavery expansion.

I presented some findings at a conference, drawing not only on the analysis of the leadership, but also many contemporary references to Republican youthfulness and energy via the Wide Awakes, the influx of new voters into the party system, etc.  Dan Crofts found some of this worth exploring, but in his comments he argued that there’s little evidence of age skew in the voting results.  In his tantalizing essay “Who Voted for Lincoln?” William Gienapp noticed some age-related clues in the data.  Yet I think that there was a generational component at work, even if it wasn’t decisive, and I published a chapter based on the paper in a festschrift for my advisor, Richard Sewell, Blight & Simpson, eds., Union & Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War era.  Dan might find the references in that chapter worth a dumpster dive to check out — they’re dated now, but some of the classic treatments of generations and aging are cited and worth a look.  Age is a difficult variable to follow for the simple reason that people lie about their age, forget when they were born, or otherwise aren’t forthcoming about it, forcing the researcher to try to corroborate from inconclusive sources or vital records, or to build in margins of error that lower the significance level of the results.  So the more fruitful approach would likely be cultural -- the anecdotal evidence on something like this is pretty strong, even if the statistics can't be teased out.

"Political generations" and "war generations" have been well studied for the world wars, for example, and they all draw only tentative links to specific age cohorts.  Instead they see common experiences that force common identities that people mark as having happened during a particular era in their lives.  That suggests that age is not a causal factor, but instead contributory or affiliated somehow, that shaped reactions to events that had other causes.

I think that the availability of digitized newspapers, pamphlets, veterans organization rolls and records, along with existing census and voting databases and careful analysis of the Compiled Service Records, could open up some new territory in understanding the making of the Civil War generation. 


Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your interesting post. Like Lois and David, I would encourage you to remain open to the possibility that a focus on age, which now seems like a sub-theme in your work on loyalty and treason, might end up being central to your analysis. As Corinne Field has emphasized in her book, The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America (UNC Press), age figured centrally in Americans' understandings of individuals' capacities for civic and political engagement. By setting age twenty-one -- the age of majority for white males -- as the minimum voting age, the states established a relatively high threshold for the exercise of political judgement. What created tension is that so many young men during the antebellum era were already pulling their weight in terms of labor well before reaching that age.

The Civil War further highlighted the disparity between the importance of young people's contributions and their lack of formal power and responsibility: after all, the fate of the Union depended on an army composed to a large extent of youths who could not legally vote. For although enlistment in the Union army emancipated those under age twenty-one from parental control, it did not grant them political rights. (Though there were plenty of cases of young soldiers voting fraudulently, precisely because they reasoned that performing military duties entitled them to a political voice.)

This is all to say that the question of whether the young people you have identified as pleading for leniency (or whose parents pleaded for leniency on their behalf) were truly responsible for their political behavior and actions is a fascinating and important one. My coauthor, Frances M. Clarke, and I encountered similar issues in looking at court martial records of young soldiers while researching our book Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (Oxford, forthcoming in February). We concluded that there was a kind of informal military juvenile justice system at work, with more lenient punishments routinely handed out "on account of youth" or "on account of extreme youth." (As in the cases you’ve researched, youths around age eighteen and below were far more likely to be granted special consideration, but the physical appearance and deportment of the individual being tried also mattered when it came to assessing accountability and meting out punishments.) In a way, what you're identifying is a situation in which the political identities and actions of young people bumped up against pre-existing standards that refused to define them as legitimate political actors. To hold youths accountable was in effect to question the logic and household structures that defined them as dependent minors.

Finally, if you haven't already, I'd try to determine if Samuel Freedland's son had turned twenty-one by the time he wrote his letter. If so, then the father might have been saying, in essence, "Look, he was still a minor when he did these foolish things, and in fact he was unusually immature even for his age, so please don't judge him according to the standard of an adult man."

Dear All,

Just a quick comment, relevant to the general discussion of age and the Civil War... I would affirm Peter's point about the relevance of William Barney's work and note that his recent Rebels in the Making (OUP, 2022; revisits this theme and argues that younger slaveholders on the make (and in emerging plantation districts) tended to be avid secessionists whereas better established (especially Whig) planters sought to put the brakes on the secession movement. That might not answer a key question for Dan or Hugh, but would certainly help inform the broader study of age as a concept and a part of life in the Civil War Era. 

I was also curious whether anyone had responded to Timothy Mason Robert's related query about older soldiers here: it did hit the network right before Thanksgiving. 

Best wishes,