Underage Service, Household Economies, and the Union War Effort

July 6, 2023
Gilt-edged framed photographic portrait of a boy in a Union Army Uniform.

Photograph of an unidentified young soldier in Union Army uniform and artillery Hardee hat, c. 1861–1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Collection.

The American Civil War is a remarkably well-documented conflict, especially on the U.S. side, fought by a highly literate population and overseen by a central government committed to conscientious record keeping. Wartime petitions from soldiers’ family members and postwar pension records illuminate internal household dynamics in an era when the family was the primary, and often the only, social safety net.[1] These sources illustrate how mass underage enlistment affected families that depended on the labor and wages of minor sons to survive. For many thousands of boys and young men, military service represented a means to compensate for absent or inadequate household heads by contributing to the family economy.

Earlier studies of the Union Army relied on muster rolls and other official military records to claim that less than two percent of Union enlistees were below age eighteen—the legal minimum for a private. [2] However, the compilation and digitization of vital records in recent years have allowed historians to scrutinize these findings. Our recent book, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era, primarily determined the percentage of underage enlistees who lied about their age in two ways. First, we analyzed a single regiment (the 64th New York Infantry). We compared all eighteen-year-old recruits’ birth dates listed for them before, during, and after the war on a range of different records, including state and federal census rolls, gravestones, obituaries, church registers, and genealogies. We concluded that around half of all those who claimed to be eighteen at enlistment were actually younger. Second, an analysis conducted on our behalf by Christopher Roudiez, using data from the massive Early Indicators of Later Work Levels, Disease, and Death database, confirmed our estimate that approximately one-tenth of Union enlistees were actually underage.[3]

While the extent of subterfuge may seem startling at first glance, it should not be surprising given the social realities surrounding age, labor, and military service in the mid-nineteenth century. Compared to the present, the population at the time was remarkably youthful: the median age, today around 38.5, was just 19.4 on the eve of the Civil War.[4] Most boys were making substantial economic contributions to their households by their midteens, a practice common enough that census takers recorded an occupation for all those above age fifteen. On farms and in shops, work tasks tended to be apportioned according to strength, size, and skill rather than age. In addition, the nation’s militia tradition meant that boys and young men had historically performed military service well before reaching the age of legal adulthood—twenty-one for males. Accustomed to working and serving alongside grown men within a culture that placed little emphasis on numerical age in daily life, boys and youths felt little compunction about fudging their ages to join friends and family members serving in the Union Army.

Those who lied about their age to enlist had varying motivations. Some hoped to earn an adult wage to better assist their parents; others wanted to escape parental authority; still others were driven by the patriotic fervor that contemporaries dubbed “war fever.” Regardless of what drove boys and youths into the ranks, the letters that distraught parents sent to Washington reveal how the Civil War enhanced the value of young males’ labor, creating both opportunities and risks for boys and their families.

As sources, however, petition letters pose certain challenges. Those appealing to the government for specific ends could exaggerate or outright lie. A mother who wanted her son discharged might swear that he suffered from a chronically weak constitution; his captain, asked to weigh in, might reply that the youth was as hearty as any man in the regiment. In many cases, the truth of the matter is elusive. Still, if one tugs on an archival thread, sometimes a fuller narrative unfolds, offering insight into the experiences of Union families whose members did not pen well-crafted letters or memoirs—in other words, those whose stories have rarely been central to the history of the Civil War.

The document trail created by the enlistment of fifteen-year-old Thomas S. Bullock of Burlington, New Jersey, is a case in point. In December 1861, his father, John Bullock, relayed a complex tale to the Secretary of War. The previous July, John reported, Thomas had enlisted in a Pennsylvania infantry regiment without parental consent. As soon as John discovered his son’s whereabouts, he hurried to Washington, D.C. to appeal to the Adjutant General for a discharge. Fearful that Thomas could not physically endure military service, he had also conveyed his worries that the boy’s absence would spell hardship for the entire household. Due to his own poor health, John Bullock was “unable to get my leiveing [living]” and relied on Thomas as his “onley help.” After expending some $40—“all the money I had in the wourld”—he managed to get Thomas discharged in September 1861.[5]

But that was not the end of the story. On their way home, the pair had stopped for the night in Philadelphia. There, according to John, his son wriggled free from his control and reenlisted, this time in a New Jersey regiment heading to Washington. Flummoxed and outraged, John confronted the captain, protesting that Thomas was underage and sure to become “an expence to the government” due to his weak constitution. But the officer refused to release the boy, forcing John to return home empty-handed to his “broken harted” wife.[6]

The father’s fears about his son’s delicate health proved prescient. Thomas succumbed to typhoid fever in early March 1863, after serving for about a year and a half. Within a year, John followed his son to the grave, leaving his widow, Elizabeth, to provide for their four younger children. Desperate for assistance, she submitted a declaration for a mother’s pension in May 1864.

Here is where the archival record takes an unexpected turn. In his letter to the War Department, John Bullock comes across as a beleaguered but responsible father seeking to rescue his son from the consequences of his own foolish actions. But affidavits from townspeople who supported Elizabeth’s pension application uniformly characterized him as a heavy drinker and ne’er-do-well. One claimed that John had “contributed nothing to the support of his family” for the previous six years and that Elizabeth had been “entirely dependant” upon her oldest son “from the time he was old enough to work until he died.”[7] In light of these sources, Thomas’s actions read less like a case of youthful rebellion than a valiant effort to assist his long-suffering mother and younger siblings.

Those who attested to the Bullocks’ dire circumstances no doubt understood what was at stake. To attain a pension, Elizabeth had to prove that she had been economically dependent on Thomas during his time in the service. In such a situation—involving a poor and sympathetic widow with dependent children—friends, family, and even local officials may have been inclined to at least stretch the truth to help her secure a modicum of support. But the pension file also includes contemporaneous evidence that silences doubt as to whether the family had really relied so heavily on its eldest son’s contributions.

That evidence comes in the form of seven letters that Thomas sent to his family during the war—five of which appear to be in his own unpracticed hand, and two of which he seems to have dictated to someone more skilled at writing. The letters reveal a youth struggling with the hardships of soldiering—illness, hunger, rain, feelings of neglect, a painful sprained ankle—while constantly worrying about the situation back home. In May 1862, Thomas sent his mother ten dollars and urged her to spend it as she saw fit.[8] The following month, he chided her for failing to write regularly, complaining, “I roted [wrote] to you 4 times and yet didint get no answer and I thougt hard of it.” Thomas acknowledged her request for twenty dollars and vowed to send more money, yet he demanded that she be more forthcoming in return. Had she received the blanket he sent? What about the most recent five dollars? “[T]ell me all about it I want to no [know].”[9] In October 1862, Thomas apologized to his father for forwarding only twenty dollars, explaining that “we dot get nothin to eaght [eat]” and promising to send “all I can of the money that i get” in the future.[10] The last letter in the pension file, which Thomas sent to his sister just a few months before his death, shows that he remained preoccupied with the family’s finances. Apparently, their father was claiming that he had not received the most recent remittance of twenty dollars. Concerned, Thomas insisted that he had sent the receipt, and that John Bullock should therefore be able to “go to the office and get it in Philadelphia.”[11]

Military service represented a high-stakes survival strategy. At just thirteen dollars a month (later raised to sixteen), a private’s pay was a measly wage for a full-grown man. But it was more than a youth of fifteen or sixteen could reliably command, especially given that the army also covered room and board. For poor families, an underage son’s military pay could mean the difference between scraping by and true penury. This was apparently true for the Bullocks; according to an affidavit sworn out by the local Overseer of the Poor, Elizabeth had begun to appeal for relief “much more frequently” after her son’s death.[12]

Concealed by design, the critical contributions that boy soldiers like Thomas Bullock made to both individual households and the Union war effort have largely eluded historians’ notice. Because the vast majority of underage enlistees lied about their ages, aspects of their service records are red herrings. In Thomas’s case, this is also true of his mother’s thick pension file, which includes no indication of his youth. A pro forma comment affirming that Thomas had left behind no minor children would lead an unsuspecting reader to assume that he was of age. Only when the military records are read in tandem with census records and other sources (such as John Bullock’s petition, misleading in its own way) does a more accurate and complete picture emerge. In other words, evidence that speaks to the importance and sheer scale of underage enlistment is often hidden in the archives, waiting to be untangled through research that archival digitization and sites like Ancestry.com have made far easier, if still painstaking.

In the end, John Bullock was correct that his son’s enlistment would become an “expence upon the government,” but not in the way he supposed. Based on the documents and testimony that Elizabeth provided, the government examiner concluded that the “deceased son [had] paid rent, bought provisions . . . & sent [home] a large proportion of his pay from the army,” and that a pension was therefore warranted.[13] For some three decades—until her death in 1894—Elizabeth drew support from the federal government based on her status as a dependent of a deceased Union soldier. The dutiful son helped his mother more than he would ever know.

Rebecca Jo Plant is professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, and Frances M. Clarke is associate professor of history at the University of Sydney. They coauthored Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era, published by Oxford University Press in 2023.


[1] See, for example, James G. Mendez, A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War (2019); and Holly A. Pinheiro Jr., The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice (2022).

[2] Based on a large sample of muster rolls, Bell Irvin Wiley concluded that only around 1.6% of Union enlistees were below the age of eighteen. Although he recognized that some youths lied about their ages, he believed that such subterfuge was not so widespread as to shed doubt on the basic veracity of the Union Army’s military records. His classic work, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldiers of the Union (1952), continues to be cited widely by Civil War scholars.

[3] See the Appendices in Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (2023). These findings are also supported by a handful of other studies that focus on a single regiment. See, for instance, Dennis W. Brandt, From Home Guards to Heroes: The 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community (2006); Hugh Dubrulle, “How Should We Think about Civil War Numbers That Never Add up?” online posting, May 27, 2022, H-CivWar; and Dubrulle, “How Should We Think about Civil War Numbers That Never Add up?—reply,” online posting, June 12, 27, 2022, ibid.

[4] U.S. Census Bureau, “Median Age of Population, 1820–2000,” https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial/2000/phc/phc-t-09/tab07.pdf; “Age and Sex Composition in the United States, 2019,” https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2019/demo/age-and-sex/2019-age-sex-composition.html.

[5] John Bullock to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Dec. 12, 1861, Addison Files 1848–1862, Letters Received Relating to Soldiers, RG 94, (National Archives, Washington, D.C.).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Affidavit of Ellsworth Holeman and Thomas B. Bullock, Dec. 12, 1865, Approved Pension Application File of Elizabeth Bullock, WC 64365, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, RG 15, (National Archives, Washington, D.C.).

[8] Thomas S. Bullock to Elizabeth Bullock, May 23, 1862, ibid.

[9] Thomas S. Bullock to Elizabeth Bullock, June 18, 1862, ibid.

[10] Thomas S. Bullock to John B. Bullock, October 25, 1862, ibid.

[11] Thomas S. Bullock to “Dear sister” [Rebecca Ann Bullock], Dec. 22, 1862, ibid.

[12] Affidavit of Joseph Carr, July 2, 1864, ibid.