Friday, February 10, 2023

Booknotes: Of Age

New Arrival:
Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era by Frances M. Clarke & Rebecca Jo Plant (Oxford UP, 2023).

From the description: Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era "is the first comprehensive study of how Americans responded to the unauthorized enlistment of minors in this conflict and the implications that followed. Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant offer military, legal, medical, social, political, and cultural perspectives as well as demographic analysis of this important aspect of the war." After a quick thumb through, the level of comprehensiveness implied above certainly looks to be as advertised. Many parts of it catch my eye, including a long discussion of how well or unwell the undeveloped bodies of underage soldiers held up to the arduous nature of military service (an important finding being that the consequences could be lifelong for "a disproportionate number" of these boys whose time in the army "would spell an adulthood marred by chronic ill health and suffering").

A year or two ago, I tried to find a ballpark figure of how many underage soldiers were enlisted in both armies, and the estimates were truly all over the place. Clarke and Plant "find that underage enlistees comprised roughly ten percent of the Union army and likely a similar proportion of Confederate forces."

The authors reveal that underage enlistment raised numerous complicated issues, many of which are understudied in the current literature but expansively examined or reexamined in this volume. In Of Age, they "introduce common but largely unknown wartime scenarios. Boys who absconded without consent set off protracted struggles between households and the military, as parents used various arguments to recover their sons. State judges and the US federal government battled over whether to discharge boys discovered to be under age. African American youths discovered that both Union and Confederate officers ignored their evident age when using them as conscripts or military laborers. Meanwhile, nineteenth-century Americans expressed little concern over what exposure to violence might do to young minds, readily accepting their presence in battle. In fact, underage soldiers became prevalent symbols of the US war effort, shaping popular memory for decades to come."

Various quantitative methods, examples, and concerns are discussed in the appendix section. Appendix A looks at how underage soldiers have been (mis)counted in the past in a variety of documents and studies. As one example, the authors use their own demographic research into the 64th New York as a case study demonstrating the inaccuracies of official government records. Difficulties inherent in arriving at a statistically significant comparison between U.S. and Confederate armies are also explained. The second appendix extols the value of using the Early Indicators of Later Work Levels, Disease, and Death database (available online at as a means of "arriving at a clearer view of underage enlistment for the Union army as a whole." The book derives a number of useful data tables from that sample.

If it fulfills its promise, this is the type of groundbreaking reinterpretation that award committees love to add to their candidate lists. More from the description: "An original and sweeping work, Of Age convincingly demonstrates why underage enlistment is such an important lens for understanding the history of children and youth and the transformative effects of the US Civil War."

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