Historical essay
Too Young for the Hardship of Service: Age and Military Fitness in the US Civil War

Too Young for the Hardship of Service: Age and Military Fitness in the US Civil War

Frances Clarke

In 1863, US Surgeon General William Hammond published a Treatise on Hygiene, perhaps the most influential medical text of the Civil War. Noting that a soldier’s age had a great deal to do with his health and fitness to serve, Hammond bluntly declared that “Boys do not make good soldiers.” The minimum enlistment age of eighteen “is altogether too low,” he cautioned, urging that it should instead be placed “at twenty to twenty-two.”[1] Although Congress ignored this recommendation, Hammond’s voice was neither solitary nor ineffective. Dozens of other medical texts and recruiting manuals decried youth enlistment on similar grounds during the Civil War, as did parents who sought the discharge of underage sons. Even politicians took note, setting the conscription age at twenty rather than eighteen in 1863, in deference to medical opinion.

Today, most people assume that the military service of boys was relatively uncontentious during the Civil War, only coming to be seen as problematic in the twentieth century. But as we show in Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era, this was not the case. Although the Civil War included a higher proportion of underage enlistees than any other conflict in US history (most of whom signed up illegally), it was also fought at a time when concerns about the hidden physical frailties of youth were more widespread than either before or since.[2]

Book cover for Of Age, featuring a photograph of young boys and teenagers in Civil War era military uniforms.
Courtesy Oxford University Press.

These concerns were new. In the early nineteenth century, people rarely suggested that males below a given age were intrinsically unqualified to serve. While they opposed enlisting boys who were evidently feeble or unhealthy, they did not imagine that age-specific weaknesses lurked within the bodies of healthy-looking youths. A general disinterest in the relationship between age and health also characterized medical texts of the era. Understandings of age remained nebulous, and physicians did not yet seek to correlate the number of years lived with mental or physical benchmarks.

This situation only began to change as the transformation of warfare encouraged the study of aging and physical development across the Anglo-European world. As national armies ballooned in size and battlefield tactics grew increasingly complex, armies required soldiers capable of marching in lockstep for long distances, carrying heavy weapons and packs that usually weighed more than sixty pounds—tasks that required strength and stamina. Searching for factors that would enable their armies to maneuver with maximum speed and efficiency, military theorists tried to quantify how soldiers’ height and physical capacity changed as they aged.[3]

Interest in building more standard and efficient armies was one of several ways that war-making encouraged the study of aging and physical development. Throughout the eighteenth century, the near constant fighting and economic disruption across Europe had led rulers to prioritize the identification of every taxpayer who might fund future wars and every man who might be put into the ranks. States that had introduced centralized systems of national conscription also needed to count and measure the military-age population, while noting distinguishing features that might identify future deserters.[4] In addition, from the mid-eighteenth century onward, population studies undertaken in multiple countries revealed alarming levels of ill health and debility, especially in working class populations.[5] These works spurred interest in the question of precisely how the body developed and why growth rates varied between regions and countries.

The bulk of research to take up this question was conducted on men in uniform; such studies in turn became the primary evidence for proponents of enlistment standardization. Among the leading figures to argue that imposing strict age limits and other restrictions would enhance military efficiency was William Aitken, a physician who had investigated the medical condition of British troops during the Crimean War. Convinced that enlistment officers’ lack of training in “physiological principles” had played a key role in the military’s spectacular public health disaster during that conflict, he wrote a series of lectures that were later published as On the Growth of the Recruit and Young Soldier (1862). Mincing no words, he admonished that armed forces should exercise at least as much judgment in selecting recruits as that “which a gentleman thinks judicious and proper to bestow upon a useful dog or a valuable horse.”[6]

On the Growth of the Recruit and Young Soldier sought to assist army physicians by providing a physiological primer charting the development of the average male body. Aiken first identified “normal growth” in weight and stature at different ages before moving on to describe age-based changes in the skeleton, organs, ribs, arm bones, leg bones, breast bones, vital capacity, and the relationship between the growth of muscles and bones. Each discussion drove home a simple point: all males below age twenty should be disqualified from military service because their growth was incomplete. The skeleton had not fully formed; the long bones in the arms and legs were still “in a soft, cartilaginous growing state;” the ribs remained incompletely developed; the bones had only partly fused to their shafts, and so on. Age was written on every body part, such that a “skillful anatomist” could read it with “considerable accuracy.”[7] Of course, despite these confident assertions, military doctors could not determine any individual enlistee’s precise age with certainty; Aitken spoke of averages, while actual humans were less predictable. Nonetheless, his work was one of numerous studies in this period to assert that using scientific principles to assess enlistees’ ages would greatly enhance military efficiency.

Photograph of a drummer boy in uniform, standing with his drum.
An unknown young drummer boy in Union uniform. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

These studies had multiple effects during the Civil War. For one, they shaped the concerns of parents and underage soldiers themselves. Edward Edes, who enlisted as a drummer in the 33rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at age sixteen, frequently worried about maintaining his health. “I don’t want it to be said that I am one of those that went too young & are filling up the hospitals,” he wrote, expressing the common belief that underage enlistees were particularly prone to illness and therefore a drain on scarce military resources.[8] Letters from parents who sought the discharge of young sons also focused on how war taxed young bodies (even as they focused not at all on war’s potential psychological impact on young minds). Begging for the release of her only son because “his health has failed,” one widow told officials that he had earnestly tried to do his duty for over a year, but “a boy 17 years old is not fit for such hardships as they must undergo in the Army.”[9] Such sources reveal the extent to which ordinary Americans shared military physicians’ views about the relationship between youth and stamina during the Civil War.

The same assumptions about the relationship between youth and debility informed congressional debates over the Enrollment Act, which established a draft in March 1863. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts argued that men below age twenty were “as a general rule” unfit for military service. “Go into the hospitals in the country,” he urged, “and you will find that a very large portion of the sick consist of the young men under twenty years of age, or of men over forty years of age.” Senator James A. McDougall of California agreed that the “experience of the world” had proved that men “do not acquire the hardiness that fits them for severe campaigning at an age much earlier than twenty-five.” The problem with younger men, according to McDougall, was that “tendinous substance has not grown into bone and sinew,” so they could not endure “the fatigues of a hard campaign” or “march with heavy weights, twenty, or thirty, or forty miles a day.” Neither of these congressmen had any medical training, but they had clearly received the message that underage soldiers were a military liability. Although the acceptance of eighteen-year-olds for volunteer service was an established reality by this point in the war, politicians were determined not to compound the problem by forcing reluctant youths into the ranks.

In recent decades, as modern wars have spotlighted the huge number of military personnel who return home physically or mentally wounded, historians have begun to examine the long shadow the Civil War cast on individual lives.[10] One study based on EIP records, for instance, has found that veterans who served below the age of eighteen were 93 percent more likely to experience physical and mental diseases than those who had enlisted at age thirty-one or older. “Mortality risk was significantly associated with age at entry into service,” the authors conclude, with the youngest enlistees at “greatest risk for early death.”[11] Another study determined that Union soldiers who were taken prisoner at young ages subsequently suffered much higher rates of mortality and morbidity compared to those who were confined at the age of thirty or above.[12]

As it turns out, nineteenth-century commentators who railed against youth enlistment were on the mark: the enlistment age mattered a great deal. It played an outsized role in determining how soldiers fared, not only during but also after the war. Among the multitude of seemingly hale and buoyant young soldiers were many for whom wartime service would spell an adulthood marred by chronic ill health and suffering.

  1. William A. Hammond, A Treatise on Hygiene with Special Reference to the Military Service (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1863), 20, 25.
  2. Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023), chap. 3.
  3. Clarke and Plant, Of Age, chap. 3.
  4. J.M. Turner, A History of the Study of Human Growth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 142.
  5. For instance, A. Quetelet, Sur l’homme et la Développement de ses facultés, ou Essai de Physique Sociale, 2 vols. (Paris: Bachelier, 1835); Louis René Villermé, Tableau de l’état Physique et Moral des Ouvriers Employés dans les Manufactures de Coton, de laine et de Soie (Paris: J. Renouard, 1840); and Edwin Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (London: R. Clowes & Sons 1843).
  6. William Aitken, On the Growth of the Recruit and Young Soldier, with a view to a Judicious Selection of ‘Growing Lads’ for the Army, and a Regulated System of Training for Recruits (London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, 1862). This work was issued at least six times between 1862 and 1887, x. On Aiken’s background, see: J.B. Nias, “Aitken, Sir William (1825-1892),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/257.
  7. Aitken, On the Growth of the Recruit, vii-ix, 25, 35.
  8. Edes to his parents, November 24, 1862. Edes Family Papers, Ms. N-1159, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.
  9. Letters contained in RG94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, Letters Received, Enlisted Branch, Entry 408. Sophia Allen to President Abraham Lincoln, November 14, 1863 (Box 1); and John O’Connor to Provost Marshal General James B. Fry, November 15, 1864 (Box 200). National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC.
  10. Most recently, Holly A. Pinheiro Jr., The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice (Athens, GA; University of Georgia Press, 2022); Sarah Handley Cousins, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019); and Diane Miller Somerville, Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War Era South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
  11. Judith Pizarro, Roxane Cohen Silver, JoAnn Prause, “Physical and Mental Health Costs of Traumatic War Experiences Among Civil War Veterans,” Archive of General Psychiatry 63:2 (2006): 193-200.
  12. Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn. “Surviving Andersonville: The Benefits of Social Networks in POW camps,” American Economic Review 97:4 (2007): 1467-1487.

Featured image caption: Half of a stereograph by Anthony’s Stereoscopic Views depicts three drummer boys at Fort Hamilton. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Frances M. Clarke is Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney. She is the author of War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North (Chicago University Press, 2011). Together with Rebecca Jo Plant, Clarke recently published Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (Oxford, 2023).

1 thought on “Too Young for the Hardship of Service: Age and Military Fitness in the US Civil War

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      Thanks, this was both informative and provocative. It also has me speculating about the impact of the wartime experience on the much-later regulation of child labor in the mills.

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