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US Civil War envelope showing a drummer boy on the front, from the Library of Congress catalogue

Minors in the military: parental rights and the Union war effort

About 15 years ago, my husband and I received some unsettling news. A young relative had just celebrated his eighteenth birthday by enlisting in the military, without consulting his parents beforehand. We ourselves had a son, about three years old at the time, which likely contributed to my stunned reaction. “But can he do that?” I protested.

Of course, I knew very well that he could: the day that minor children become legal adults, they lose certain protections and gain new rights—including the right to enter into binding military contracts that could require them to perform life-threatening duties. Yet while this threshold is well understood, I imagine that many Americans would have shared my gut reaction if faced with a similar situation. Even as military recruiters visit public high schools in search of potential enlistees, affluent parents in particular tend to believe that 18-year-olds are still too young to make irrevocable or profoundly life-altering decisions,

How did this situation come to be? It was a question I contemplated often when working with Frances M. Clarke on our book, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era. It seems reasonable to surmise that Americans’ attitudes toward youth enlistment and child labor followed a similar trajectory, from widespread acceptance in the nineteenth century to growing disapprobation and restriction in the twentieth. But the reality is more complicated.  

“Loyal Americans regarded youth enlistment as a humanitarian problem, but they viewed its victims as parents who were unjustly deprived control of minor sons.”

True, antebellum Americans saw nothing intrinsically wrong with boys and youths performing certain kinds of military service. They expected to be able to call on able-bodied young men aged 18 and above for militia service, and they accepted the presence of much younger boys acting in such roles as musician, powder monkey, or cabin boy in the US Army and Navy, so long as parents signed the standard five-year contract authorizing such enlistments. At the same time, they angrily protested the unauthorized enlistment of minors. In the nineteenth century, males reached their majority only at age 21, and their labor was among the most valuable resources a household head could command. Thus, to the extent that loyal Americans regarded youth enlistment as a humanitarian problem, they viewed its victims as parents who were unjustly deprived of their rightful control of minor sons, on whose labor they often depended.

Throughout the entirety of the Civil War, intense battles over youth enlistment played out in courts, Congress, the military, and individual households. The situation was complicated by the fact that most of those who served did not join regular army regiments, but instead enlisted in state-based volunteer units. In keeping with the longstanding militia tradition, these units often signed up young males aged 18 and above without bothering to obtain parental consent. A law enacted in February 1862 condoned this practice by clarifying that no one above the age of 18 needed such authorization. But many parents refused to accept this loss of control. C.S. Barton of Iowa, for example, wrote to the Secretary of War to “demand” the discharge of his 19-year-old son on the grounds that he had not consented to the enlistment. “[I]t is a hard thing for parents to submit to have their children kidnaped and draged from them in this free country,” Barton bitterly complained, “especially those that have had father and grandfather that fought in the revelution and in 1812 for their own rights and their childrens.”

“Roughly 10% of those who joined the Union army were below age 18.”

Even more shocking for parents, the federal government often refused to release much younger boys who had lied about their ages to enlist. As we show in Of Age, roughly 10% of those who joined the Union army were below age 18. Early in the war, and then again in its final months, many parents who appealed to federal officials and submitted affidavits managed to get underage sons released. But for most of the conflict’s duration, such appeals met with immovable resistance: the War Department simply refused to discharge anyone who had sworn to be 18 upon his enlistment.

To return to my question, “Can he do that?”—join the US military at age 18 without parental consent—the answer would have been “no” both before the Civil War and again after 1872, when Congress reestablished the prewar status quo. But the Lincoln administration established an important precedent when it waived such authorization and enlisted masses of minors to serve for long stretches as part of a national army. Today, the law is definitive: the federal government has a right to hold 18-year-olds to service, regardless of what their parents think, and whether or not such enlistees themselves get cold feet. That reality is not simply the natural order of things, but an unrecognized legacy of the battles over federal power and parental rights waged during the Civil War.

Feature image: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs – Library of Congress Catalogue, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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