This post for the H-CivWar Author's Blog is inspired by Daniel Farrell’s observations about “interpreting people’s behavior through the lens of age and age differences.” In this post, Dubrulle stresses the degree to which underage soldiers shaped the discussion of what constituted adulthood.
Dan’s recent post indicates that the line between youth and adulthood was much fuzzier in the mid-19th century than it is today. As he indicates, young men, parents, and others routinely sought to take advantage of that fuzziness in their petitions to free Confederate prisoners from Federal captivity. Prisoners 18 and younger, Dan argues, usually enjoyed more success at this game than older men.
In an aside, Dan rightly laments that few works relating to the Civil War study “how one’s state in life informs one’s outlook.” Recently, though, by following the footnotes in several articles, I located Jon Grinspan’s essay, “A Birthday Like No Other: Turning Twenty-One in the Age of Popular Politics” in Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present (ed. Corinne T. Field and Nicholas L. Syrett). Grinspan argues that throughout the mid-nineteenth century, “few clear age boundaries signified maturity” and “millions of young men puzzled over where ‘childhood ends and youth beings and where youth ends and manhood begins.’” The sole exception to this rule for young men was their 21st birthday because obtaining the vote was an “unambiguous passage into adulthood.” A young man of this age might not have been the master of much, but now he could take his place among the democracy that was responsible for determining the fate of the nation. Not surprisingly, since citizenship has long been associated with military service in republics, the Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861 stipulated that no one under the age of 21 could enlist “without the written consent of his parent, guardian, or master.”
Despite the fact that 21 seemed to mark the clear demarcation between youth and manhood, that line remained a matter of contestation. As Dan’s post points out, parents assumed an important role in this dispute. In the North, they often employed writs of habeas corpus to rescue their underage sons from the Federal army. Indeed, 17-year-old Frank P. Drew of Concord, NH, was discharged from the 5th New Hampshire after 4 months of service by means of such a writ. But it was not just the “adults” who shaped the debate. Young men who had not reached their 21st birthday also participated, often seeking to claim the prize of adulthood through military service—or avoid military service by denying their adulthood.
Daring young Jesse Nurse was an example of the former. The Census of 1860 found him in Bethlehem, NH, a 15-year-old working in the shadow of the White Mountains on the farm of a moderately prosperous farmer. In September 1861, Nurse walked the eight miles to Littleton, NH, drew himself up to his full height of 5’ 4” as he strode up to recruiter H. W. Rowell (then editor of Littleton’s People’s Journal), and volunteered for the 5th New Hampshire. Nurse boldly appended the following note to his enlistment form:
I Jesse B. Nurse, hereby certify that I am eighteen years of age, that I have no father, guardian or master; that I make my own bargains, & have my own wages, & and in all respects control of my own person; that I have no lameness, breakes [sic], rheumatism, sore-eyes or any bodily defect to my knowledge that disqualifies me from serving in the army.
Sept. 24, 1861
Jesse B. Nurse
This note reads like a declaration of manhood—or, rather, a demand that authorities recognize his de facto adulthood. Nurse’s case suggests that in addition to the traditionally recognized motives for enlistment—patriotism, financial incentives, and a craving for adventure—a desire to lay claim to the dual titles of man and citizen were also important, especially among teenagers (although this last consideration must have told heavily among African Americans a well). This may help explain why youths under 21 constituted such a large proportion of the Union army. Nurse’s record of faithful service indicates he was in earnest. Shot in the scalp at Fair Oaks, he eventually transferred to the Invalid Corps in June 1863, re-enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire in April 1864, and suffered a wound to the hand before mustering out after the war ended. By the time he left the army, he was still not 21.
Other soldiers who had not reached the age of 21 were not so eager to make the same bargain that Nurse had. Oratus J. Verry was 19 when he made his way from Swanzey, NH, to Keene, NH, where Horace T. H. Pierce enlisted him in the 5th New Hampshire (a graduate of Norwich Academy, Pierce would command Verry’s company). Verry claimed he was 20, so how he volunteered without his parents’ permission remains unclear. Whatever the case, Verry tired of the 5th New Hampshire rapidly and pleaded with his parents to rescue him from the regiment. They contacted Thomas M. Edwards, their representative from New Hampshire’s 3rd congressional district, who arranged to have Verry discharged on the grounds of his youth. Edward Cross, the colonel of the 5th, responded with the wrath he typically displayed whenever anybody interfered with his regiment. He characterized the congressman’s action as an “outrage” and argued, “The young man [Verry] is strong, able-bodied, and if he is discharged, with equal reason might one-half of our army be discharged.” Two important implications about age appear in Cross’s letter. First, since Verry was “strong” and “able-bodied,” he was no different from any 21-year-old. Second, the high proportion of men under 21 in the Army of the Potomac (and even the regiment, where just under 40% of the volunteers were 20 or younger) made a mockery of Verry’s claim that he was incapable of soldiering because he was not an adult yet.
What is interesting here is that Verry did not so much object to military service in general as he balked at serving in the 5th New Hampshire in particular. Ten months after his discharge, when he was still underage, he enlisted in the 16th New Hampshire (a nine-month regiment). A year after this unit mustered out, Verry volunteered for the 18th New Hampshire where he served for another eight months. It appears that Verry used claims about his youth to game the system and escape a regiment not to his liking.
In short, Nurse claimed he was for all practical purposes an adult and should be treated as such, even if he wasn’t 21. By having his parents extricate him from the 5th New Hampshire, Verry sought to avoid service that he had freely undertaken because he was ostensibly too young and therefore not responsible for his actions (even though he was three years older than Nurse). Thus did young men participate in the argument about where youth ended and manhood started.