Growing-Up before they had to: Children of the Civil War: From the Front Lines

Document A

William Bircher was fifteen years old when he ran away from home to the recruiting depot in St.Paul, Minnesota. He was looking for adventure, and he was in a hurry. When informed that he was too young to serve, he returned home and convinced his Swiss-born father that they should join up together. Ulrich Bircher was a farmer and knew how to handle animals. He became a wagoner, and young William became a drummer boy. Father and son were both assigned to the Second Minnesota Volunteer Regiment and served together throughout the entire war.

The happiest day of my life was when I put on my blue uniform for the first time and received my drum.

During the months of August and September, we did post duty at Fort Snelling and drilled a great deal. In October we received orders to proceed to Washington to join the army on the Potomac. October 14, we embarked on steamboats and proceeded down the river to St. Paul, where... we marched through the city. Here we found the streets crowded with people waving their handkerchiefs. The band played, the flag waived, and the boys cheered back... As we marched down the river, the sidewalks everywhere were crowded with... boy who wore red, white and blue neckties and fatigue caps [and] with girls who carried flags and flowers.... Drawn up in line there was scarcely a man, woman, or child in the great crowd around us but had to pass up for a last good-bye and last "God bless you, boys!" And so amid cheering and handshaking and flag-waving, the steamboat came floating down the stream, and we were off, with the band playing the "Star-Spangled Banner."

How firmly some had grasped their guns, with high, defiant look, and how calm were the countenances of others in their last solemn sleep. I sickened of the dreadful sight.... It was too awful to look at any more. Even the rudest and roughest of us were forced to think of... the sorrow and tears that would be shed among the mountains of the North and the rice-fields of the far-off South.

We lost poor Henry Simmers, the drummer of Company G during the night. The poor fellow, being unable to keep up, lay down somewhere along the road, and was captured by the cavalry that was following us. I took his blanket and drum to relieve him, but he was too fatigued to follow, saying, "Oh, let me rest. Let me sleep a short time. Then I will follow on." I tried to keep him under my eye, but he finally eluded me, and when we again stopped for a short rest he was not to be found.... I pitied the poor fellow. I was afraid he would never live to return home.

I came to a very fine plantation, where the white folks had all run off, leaving nobody at home, but an old negro couple. I was the first Union soldier they had seen. After I told them that they were now free and could go where they wished, and that I was one of "Massa Lincum's" soldiers, their joy knew no bounds. Nothing was too good for me.... The old darky proceeded to the garden and dug about a peck of yams, and the old lady went to the barn and got me about two dozen eggs. She also gave me a piece of bacon.

It was hard to be homeless at this merry season when folks up North were having such happy times. But it was wonderful how elastic the spirits of our soldiers were, and how jolly they could be under the most adverse circumstances.... We began to drop off to sleep, some rolling themselves up in their blankets and overcoats and lying down, Indian fashion, feet to the fire, while others crept off to their cold shelter tents under the snow-laden pine trees for what poor rest they could find... wishing each other a "Merry Christmas."

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Document B

Andersonville, Confederate prison camp (sixty miles southwest of Macon, Georgia)

We were taken from the railroad cars to an open piece of ground…. Looking eastward about a quarter of a mile we could see an immense stockade….The sight near the gate of a pile of dead… teir faces black with grime and pinched with pain and hunger… gave us some idea that a like fate awaited us inside…. The gates swung open on their massive iron hinges and we marched in…. At various places [we saw] different instruments of torture: stocks, thumb screws, barbed iron collars, shackles, ball and chain. Our prison keepers seemed to handle them with familiarity.

There are millions and millions of all kinds of vermin here, flies, bugs, maggots and lice, some of them as large as spiders. If they once get the best of you, you are a goner. A great many of the prisoners are hopelessly crazy, starvation, disease and vermin being the cause…. I am somewhat crippled, myself, but I manage to try and wash and keep clean, that is the principal thing. One hundred have died within the last 24 hours.

-Michael Dougherty, age 16, October 1863

Card playing had sufficed to pass the hours away at first, but our cards soon wore out…. My chum Andrews and I constructed a set of chessmen…. We found a soft white root in the swamp. A boy near us had a tolerably sharp pocket knife for the use of which a couple hours each day we gave a few spoonful of meal. The shapes that we made for pieces and pawns were crude, but sufficiently distinct for identification. We blackened one set with pitch-pine soot, found a piece of plank for a board… and so were fitted out with what served until our release to distract our attention from much of the surrounding misery.

-John McElroy, age 17, October 1863

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Document C

Langdon Leslie Rumph, 16, Alabama:

August 14, 1861

My dear sir: It is with deep regret that I am compelled to inform you of the death of your son, Langdon… which occurred at the hospital yesterday morning…. He died a brave boy, and although his life was not given up in the tempest of battle, yet, he & his other deceased comrades truly deserve as much glory as those brave Southerners who fell on the bloody field of Manassas. They died in the service of their Country…. Langdon, as I presume you are aware, had been in feeble health for four or five weeks, and had just gotten over a spell of Measles when he was attacked, as his physician said, with Typhoid Fever, but I think it was a relapse from the Measles, and [he] died in five days… I have always thought that the prime causes were… the manner in which we are so crowded at this particular camp.

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Document D

Theodore Upson, 14, Indiana:

We have been having a Christmas Jubilee. The boys raised some money and I went down into the City to get some stuff. We have a Darky cook, and he said “You alls get the greginces [ingredients] and I will get you alls up a fine dinner sure.” I got some chickens, canned goods, condensed milk and a dozen eggs…. Some of the officers had a banquet – [so] they called it. I don’t know if they had egg nog. If they did, their eggs must have been better than ours, but I know they must have had some sort of nog for the Provost Guard had to help some of them to their Quarters.

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Document E

Johnnie Walker, 12, Wisconsin:

Johnnie is a drummer in the band and when they play at dress parades… the ladies see the little soldier-boy [and] always give him apples, cakes, or something…. When we are marching Johnnie always keeps up with the big men, and is always singing and laughing…. Everybody in the regiment likes Johnnie because he is a good little boy, is always pleasant and polite and not saucy…. His mother sent him a suit of clothes made exactly like officer’s clothes, and Lieutenant Bauman says he will get him a pair of shoulder straps with silver drum sticks upon them.

-Private Harvey Reid, letter to his brother, 1861

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Document F

Charles Bardeen, 15, drummer boy, Massachusetts

[December 14, 1861] Dear Mother:

My first battle is over and I saw nearly all of it….. Saturday the hardest fighting was done. I saw the Irish Brigade make three charges. They started with full ranks, and I saw them, in less time than it takes to write this, exposed to a galling fire of shot and shell and almost deciminated…. I saw wounded men brought in by the hundred and dead men lying stark on the field, and then I saw our army retreat to the very place they started from, a loss incalculable in men, horses, cannon, small arms, knapsacks, and all the implements of war, and I am discouraged. I came out here sanguine as any one, but I have seen enough, and I am satisfied that we never can whip the South…. Let any one go into the Hospital where I was and see the scenes that I saw….

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