Boys to Men: Enlistment in the Union Army and Defining Adulthood

Hugh Dubrulle's picture

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.

Dear Hugh,

Thank you for this insightful and entertaining post -- that Jesse Nurse source is wonderful. Your consideration of the ways in which boys and youths lied about their age to serve or evade service raises issues that are at the heart of a book that I have recently cowritten with Rebecca Jo Plant, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (forthcoming with Oxford). We similarly found Jon Grinspan’s article “A Birthday Like No Other” (and his book The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century) extremely helpful for thinking through questions regarding how antebellum and Civil War American understood age. For white males, the threshold of twenty-one clearly mattered greatly, and, as you note, the Revised US Army Regulations reinforced its importance by requiring that enlistees under that age obtain the consent of their parents to enlist. But in reality, many officers only bothered to fill out the “Consent in Case of Minor” section on enlistment contracts for those below age eighteen. (This is likely why Verry managed to enlist without permission the first time around). There was a reason for this discrepancy. Historically, males had been expected to serve in state militias beginning at the age of eighteen, and it was the militia tradition, far more than US army regulations, that shaped people’s approach to the mobilization of volunteer units. This was one of our most surprising discoveries in researching young enlistees – the extent to which the tendency to distinguish between militia or voluntary service and service in the regulars shaped the debates over underage enlistment, even as the war tended to blur the distinction between different forms of military service.

Had his case had been considered even a few months later, Verry may not have been discharged, because the War Department acted quickly to extend its control over minors and wrest away authority from parents. They were of course especially concerned with minors between eighteen and twenty-one. Alarmed by the number of parents seeking to retrieve sons who enlisted without permission, the War Department on September 7, 1861, issued a general order declaring: “Hereafter, no discharges will be granted to volunteers in the service of the United States on the grounds of minority.” This order greatly diminished the number of administration discharges on the grounds of minority, but it did close things off not completely. As in Verry’s case, parents managed to enlist political representatives to pull strings, leading to the angry charges of civilian meddling in military affairs. Congress was finally prevailed upon by the War Department to enact legislation in February 1862 that lowered the age of enlistment without parental consent to eighteen for those serving in either the volunteers or the regulars. The same law stipulated that the army could no longer enlist anyone below eighteen, except for a relatively small number of musicians. In this manner, Congress tried to dispense with the entire question of parental consent: those eighteen and older no longer needed it, and those younger than eighteen could not enlist even if they obtained it. Needless to say, this did not put an end to the problem, because parents refused to accept the notion that boys below eighteen who lied their way into were legally bound to service. They found plenty of support for their position from state and local judges – but that is a whole other matter!

Thanks again for your post!

Dear Frances,

Thank you so much for your observations! My impression—and it was just as casual as David’s—was 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.” So I very much look forward to reading Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era when it comes out next year—along with the works mentioned by those who responded to Dan’s post (e.g. Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood and Corinne Field’s The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America). Having moved from one subfield of Civil War history to another, I appreciate all the help I can get.

I did have a question about one of your observations. Recruiters for the 5th New Hampshire appear to have used the consent form inconsistently when the regiment was first organized in September and October 1861. The militia tradition you mention, which permitted the enlistment of 18 year olds and conflicted with army regulations, may account for some of this inconsistency. I’d never thought about the role of militia tradition, so I appreciate your bringing that to my attention. My question is this: would such have been the case in New Hampshire where the militia was more or less moribund on the eve of the Civil War? Or was there some sort of popular or institutional memory somewhere (e.g. the state adjutant general’s office?) that kept alive the idea that 18 year olds should be able to enlist without parental permission? Up until this point, my assumption had been that the recruiters’ attitude to the consent form had more to do with the laxness and irregularity that appear to have characterized their overall approach to enlistment. The regiment’s recruitment forms from 1862 seem to show much greater adherence to regulations and more uniformity (I’m going to guess this was partly due to the legislation you referred to from February of that year), but I have not subjected them to the same kind of examination.

Thanks again for your comments!


Hi Hugh,

This is Rebecca, Frances’s coauthor, jumping into the conversation. I’m sure you’re right that recruiters’ inconsistency in regard to the minor consent form had much to do with the generally lax approach to enlistment regulations during the early period of the war. But laws differentiated militia from regular service, and we were surprised by the extent to which such distinctions shaped ordinary people’s views, even in places where the militia itself had become moribund. (Andrew Lang makes a related argument in his book In the Wake of War.) People generally accepted the notion that youths of eighteen were of military age, but some balked at the idea that those below twenty-one should be able to enlist without consent in the Union army, which typically meant serving far outside their home state for long periods of time.

Historically, parents’ belief that they ought to enjoy control over their sons until their full majority was especially strong in New England. Our book actually begins with the War of 1812, when New England Federalists vociferously opposed attempts by the US Congress to dispense with parental consent requirements for those age eighteen and above. After Congress nevertheless enacted such a law in 1814, both Connecticut and Massachusetts passed laws that attempted to supersede the federal legislation. Recruiters in those states who enlisted youths under age twenty-one without the consent of parents, guardians, or masters faced hefty fines and prison sentences of up to three years. This resistance to minority enlistment was fueled by hostility to the war effort more broadly, but it also reflected the fact that New Englander farmers relied heavily on sons’ labor. (Federalist politicians argued that the law harmed small freeholders, while favoring wealthy southern enslavers whose labor force would remain untouched by military mobilization.)

By the time the Civil War began, this earlier conflict over minority enlistment seems to have been largely forgotten, and economic changes had significantly eroded New England fathers’ control over their sons’ labor. After the February 1862 law, disputes over minor enlistees typically centered on youths below the age of eighteen, not those between eighteen and twenty-one. But whether the Massachusetts and Connecticut state laws were ever explicitly repealed, and, if not, whether parents tried to make use of them, would be an interesting question.

Thanks so much for your posts and responses!

Hi Rebecca,

Thanks to you and Frances, I’ve come to realize this subject is far more complicated and therefore interesting than I initially thought. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that rhetoric linking military service to citizenship collided with a number of other attitudes, interests, and discourses. About 35% of the volunteers who enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire in the fall of 1861 were under the age of 21, and roughly 40% had not been old enough to vote in the election of 1860, so these questions are of some import to me. I’m really anxious, then, to read Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era when it becomes available. Thank you also for the reference to Lang’s In the Wake of War. I have other reasons for reading that work, but now you’ve given me more.

I do have a question about the militia, though. The enlistment forms the original volunteers signed indicated that they were serving “in the Militia of New-Hampshire, to be mustered into the service of the United States, to serve for the period of THREE YEARS from the time of arriving at the place of rendezvous, unless sooner discharged by the proper authority.” This wording seems to suggest that recruits were entering the militia but that their unit would be federalized. Did this language have implications for who could be recruited and how? I’m sure the answer is somewhere on the internet, but at this moment, I appear to be suffering from a partial outage that is limiting my access.

Many thanks,


Hi Hugh,
Apologies for the delayed response -- the end of the term and the holidays intervened! My understanding is that the language you cite ("to be mustered into the service of the United States, to serve for the period of THREE YEARS from the time of arriving at the place of rendezvous...") was standard, and that enlistment forms themselves were standardized across the states early in the war. Before working on this project, I thought that the initial call for 3-month was because people thought and hoped it would be a short war, not realizing that was the maximum time that he could legally call forth militia. Already by May, though, when he called for 3-year troops, he had clearly decided to worry about the legalities later. I don't believe that the fact that recruits were going to serve under federal authority from the get-go would have affected who could be recruited in a legal sense, but it may well have affected attitudes about who should serve. However, according to a 1917 article by S.T. Ansell, New Hampshire did have a militia statute requiring consent in the case of a minor, so you might want to try to track that down. 26:6 Yale L.J. 471-480 (April 1917). (See fn 16.)
All best,