Boy Soldiers of the Confederacy
by Susan R. Hull (1905)
paperback; 256 pages
Susan R. Hull collected the stories of Boy Soldiers of the Confederacy in 1905, hoping to bring to life the young heroes of the War Between the States. The book is a fine read for junior high students to adults. Obviously, some of the stories end in death, but Hull is careful to avoid graphic details, concentrating instead on the sacrifice and the honor and love of country. The stories, some about youth whose names are known only to God, are capable of building a fire of honor and patriotism amongst readers.
When reading this treasure, it should be remembered that there was no such thing as a "teenager" during this time period. Males and females were either children or adults, and the category into which they were placed depended upon their behavior. In other words, adult is as adult does; child is as child does. If a 15-year-old acted like a man or woman, he or she was usually given the respect due their maturity. The entire "teenage" subculture is nearly a century away from this war where so many 10-to-19-year-olds distinguished themselves, including the youngest son of General Robert E. Lee himself, who joined the Rockbridge Artillery at age 18:
General Lee told me that at the Battle of Sharpsburg this battery suffered so much that it had to be withdrawn for repairs and some fresh horses, but as he had no troops even to offer a reserve, as soon as a battery could be made useful it was ordered forward. He said that as it passed him a boy, much stained with powder, mounted as a driver of one of the guns, said, "Are you going to put us in again, General?" After replying to him in the affirmative, he was struck by the voice of the boy, and asked him, "Whose son are you, my boy?" and was answered, "I am Robbie, father; don’t you know me?" Whereupon his father said, "God bless you, my son, go on!"
Robert E. Lee, Jr., was afterwards on the staff of Gen. Fitz Hugh Lee. This is said to be the only instance on record where the son of a commanding general entered the army as a private in the ranks (page 15).
Surprisingly, Hull included vignettes of “boy soldiers” from the Spanish-American War, and even counted some young Union soldiers worthy of inclusion. Hers is a tribute to bravery:
After the battle of Guayama one of General Haines’s staff officers said, "General, did you notice how your son got between you and the Spanish bullets?" The General replied that he had not, but that he had noticed he had been confoundedly in the way. When questioned, Lieutenant Haines admitted he had endeavored to shield his father, as he thought if anything happened he was better able to endure it, and his father’s life was of more consequence than his (page 17).
Howell Chastain Edmondson of Virginia was only 16 when he joined the Confederate army: “He was remarkable for cool, calm bravery. In one of the battles around Richmond, while the enemy was making a final assault, a comrade turned to Howell and asked him how he felt. Although under fire at the time, he calmly replied, ‘I fear no evil whatever, for I have long since made my peace with God’” (page 24).
Remarks from the Union about Confederates found their way into these pages, too, including this from a gentleman who visited the field hospitals at Gettysburg. He said:
I was astonished at the expression on many of the faces of the Rebel dead. They so often seemed smiling triumphantly, though dying defeated. One wounded boy struck me particularly. I was going over the field to help take off the wounded and found a boy who was shot in the breast. He seemed a mere child and I said, "What are you doing here?" He said, "Where else, sir?" I said, "At home with your mother." He laid his hand over the bleeding wound, and looking me calmly in the eye, said, "For home and mother." We took him to the tent and he made no moan, though the wound, which was slight, must have been very painful. I think he will recover (page 42).
The tragic story of Sam Davis haunts these pages, too. The Tennessean was barely 19 when he joined the First Tennessee Regiment, C.S.A. Captured by Federals near Pulaski, Davis was charged with spying. Federal commander General Dodge pressed Davis for the source of documents in his possession, but Davis would not give any information. Dodge later recounted, “I was struck with admiration at the integrity, the dignity, and the splendid courage of this young man, and I did my best to save his life” (page 50). Dodge gave Davis several chances to give information that would save his life, even as he approached the hangman’s noose, to which the young Confederate responded, "I am here in my Confederate uniform, without concealment. I am not a spy."
Dodge also revealed Davis' last letter: “On November 26, 1863, on Thursday night, this young fellow, in his lonely cell, wrote a letter most pathetic to his mother and father. He said: ‘I am going to die on the gallows tomorrow. Do not grieve for me; it will do no good. Think of me; do not forget me. Tell the children to be good. I am not afraid to die.’” (page 51).
General Dodge sent Captain Chickasaw, his chief scout, to appeal to Davis in order to save his life:
Chickasaw touched him on the shoulder with his hand, and said: "It it not too late. Give me the information, and you will be escorted to the Confederate lines." That scaffold loomed up, and was a hideous spectre in his front, but he turned and said: "Captain, give my thanks to General Dodge for the interest he has taken in me; but if I had a thousand lives, I would surrender them here and now before I would do a think like that; betray my friends or the name of my informer." Look at the gracious and sweet demeanor – no bluffing, no bravado, no defiance, and the truculence – of that gallant young spirit on the verge of his grave! He was a gentleman. He has the gentleness in him to thank his enemies for the courtesies that they had done him. He asked Captain Armstrong: "How long have I to live" He replied: "Fifteen minutes." Davis said: "The boys will have to fight the balance of the battles without me." Captain Armstrong said: "I hate to do this thing; I would rather die myself” (page 52).
Davis died "with the calmness of a philosopher, the sternness of a patriot, and the serene courage of a martyr” (page 53). He was only 21.
Some of Hull’s accounts are long; others are short, but all continue her thesis of brave boys like W.D. Peak, of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, who joined Company A, Twenty-Sixth Tennessee Regiment at 14 years old (page 172), and Matthew J. M’Donald of Company I, First Georgia Cavalry, also joining at age 14, who “served continuously with this regiment until January, 1865, when he was captured at Robertsville, S.C. and was kept a prisoner at Fort Delaware until about June, 1865.” From there he traveled to Houston, Texas, where he died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1867, giving his life “to the care of the sick. His life there during the epidemic was like his war record, full of brave deeds and self-sacrifice. ‘Mollie’ McDonald, of the First Georgia Cavalry, was a brave, daring cavalier” (pages 172-173)
Even younger was John Bailey Tyler, thought to be “youngest soldier in the Confederate Army who served throughout the war other than in the position of drummer boy. He enlisted when he was twelve years old as a cavalryman, serving throughout the war in D Troop of the First Maryland Confederate Cavalry” (page 180). Tyler’s comrades in arms called him “the boy.” Still younger was George S. Lamkin, who was born 3 November 1850, and joined Standord’s Mississippi Battery, at Grenada, Mississippi, on 2 August 1861. He was 10 years old. At “Shiloah, before he was twelve years old, was badly wounded. At Chickamauga he was wounded twice, once quite seriously. Mr. Lamkin was very tall for his age when he entered the service, and is now a man six feet and four inches tall.... Mr. Lamkin is of a retiring disposition, and was averse to my mentioning this matter, but I think it should be known as a matter of history,” according to Comrade G. K. Crump, of Tunica, Mississippi. (page 228)
In her compilation, Hull does attempt to authenticate with name, service, lace buried, or current post the boys about whom she writes. Much of the documentation comes from letters she received from commanders and comrades in arms. The failing in this comes when she does not include, does not know, or has lost the authenticating information:
Colonel Smith, of the Virginia Military Institute, wrote me a letter, which I have mislaid, stating that a boy named Randolph, aged fourteen, enlisted in the cavalry, and reported to General Stonewall Jackson, as courier. During a battle he was sent with orders which were executed successfully; he returned, himself and his horse covered with blood. After keeping him through that campaign, General Jackson sent him to the Virginia Military Institute, and he was in the Battle of New Market. At the close of the war he became a clergyman. He is a cousin of General R. E. Lee, and a nephew of Bishop Randolph, of Virginia (page 32).
Interspersed in the 256 pages of alphabetized accounts are portrait illustrations, and four appendices are included at end: “The Cause for Which They Fought,” “Jefferson Davis’ Opinion of Lee,” “Their President”, and “Charles Francis Adams’s Tribute to Lee.” This book will encourage young people to acquire honorable virtues and offers many examples of strength to cling to them.
– reviewed by Deborah Deggs Cariker