Syllabus Hacker: Children, Childhood, and the American Civil War

By James Marten

The Children of the Battlefield (LOC)

This photograph of ’The Children of the Battlefield,’ found in the hands of a Union soldier killed at Gettysburg, inspired a song and symbolized the inevitable sacrifices of both soldiers and their families. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

As one of deans of children’s history said in a Washington Post article many years ago, “Childhood is where we catch a culture in high relief,” and that is as true for the Civil War as it is for any period: sampling the experiences of children in your Civil War class demonstrates for students some of the values of Civil War-era Americans, and offers illustrations of some of the salient issues that I’ve found to be inherently interesting to my students (who are only a few years removed from the Civil War children I talk about). Here are two typical “Civil War” topics with which children’s history can usefully intersect:


The Civil War as a “Modern” War

Most of us address this topic one way or another, but I like to focus at least partly on the ways in which the war was commercialized for children. More than a dozen magazines for children and youth were published during the war—my favorites are The Student and Schoolmate and Our Young Folks (which was young Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite, too)—and all of them engaged the war through news and human interest stories, travelogues (to battlefields, of course), word puzzles, and games. Children also consumed the war in dime novels and other books, including alphabets; toy guns and uniforms; maps and dolls; and even Valentines.

“The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama of the Rebellion.” From the collection of Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center, Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo by Brian Ogilvie.

“The Myriopticon: A Historical Panorama of the Rebellion.” From the collection of Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center, Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo by Brian Ogilvie.

As the war ended, Milton Bradley (yes, that Milton Bradley) produced the Myriopticon, a miniature panorama—“newsreels” of their day, giant paintings scrolled across a stage, complete with narrative, music, and sound effects. The Myriopticon came with everything an enterprising twelve-year-old needed to put on a show for friends and relatives: posters, tickets, and a stirring narrative that in a few dozen colorful panels covered the war and soldiers’ experiences. It’s a wonderful example of the kind of materialism and commercialism that increasingly shaped the lives of middle class children and youth, and it shows students how politicized Civil War children were expected to be. It’s a table-sized example of the thirst for war information that fueled the explosion of public performances (plays, tableaux, panoramas) on the war, and indicates the extent to which culture on the northern home front flourished.


War and Society

Students can get a better sense of the ways in which the war intruded on families by studying children during the war. Many soldiers were fathers, while many more were brothers. And they all wrote home, to wives and children, begging for news, telling war stories, and imparting fatherly advice. Indeed, the sheer volume of letters produced by these men provides windows into the lives of families – and poignant examples of how they experienced death – during wartime.

Soldiers' Dream of Home -- LOC

This Currier and Ives print captures the poignant yet romantic connection between soldiers and their families during the Civil War. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

These letters are especially useful to a Civil War course because fathers often explained their service to their families. First, they wanted even their youngest children to know what the war was like. They described battles in gruesome detail, and even mentioned near misses and minor wounds. For example, the Texan John West survived the bloodbath at Devil’s Den and wrote a birthday letter to his four-year-old son that included a description of the mounds of amputated limbs outside the field hospital and of the bullet that clipped his beard and ricocheted off a rock a half-inch from his head.

But soldiers also showed through these letters to their children that their notions of patriotism and service were often wrapped up in their conceptions of themselves as fathers. One Georgian wrote that he loved his “little ones . . . too dearly to permit the ruthless footsteps of the invader to crush out your liberty while I am enjoying an inglorious inactivity or ease at home.”

These two are just a few of many possible topics in which historians can integrate anecdotes, illustrations, or more in-depth discussions of the experiences of children, as victims, as observers, as actors.


Suggested readings and sources:

In addition to my The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998), which focuses on the northern and southern home fronts, I’d suggest:

For an anecdotal account of children closer to the sharp end of war: Emmy Werner, Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices From The Civil War (New York: Basic, 1999);

For the particular experiences of southern girls: Victoria Ott, Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014);

For a classic memoir by a young woman who started the war as a teenager, but who also reflects on her younger brothers’ experiences as children of war: Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868, ed. by John Q. Anderson (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1972)

For scores of articles, stories, poems, and games that appeared in northern children’s magazines: James Marten, Lessons of War: The Civil War in Children’s Magazines (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).


James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University.  He was president of the SCWH from 2008-2012.