Book Review: Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War : ACW

Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War, by Emmy E. Werner, Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., 1998, $24 hardcover.

Between 250,000 and 420,000 boy soldiers fought in the Civil War. Uncounted other children were exposed to the war’s ravages and terrors when the fighting reached their hometowns. In Atlanta, Gettysburg, Richmond, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and dozens of other cities, North and South, the youngest Americans were indeed reluctant witnesses to the cataclysm engulfing their country.

Emmy E. Werner, a developmental psychologist and research professor at the University of California at Davis, brings an expert’s clinical view to the undoubtedly traumatic experiences that the Civil War-era children underwent. Not only did children lose fathers, brothers, cousins and friends to the contesting armies, but they also sometimes lost mothers, sisters and aunts to the war’s growing causality lists. And when they joined the armies themselves, they often lost their own lives as well. Certainly, they lost their innocence.

Drawing on primary sources from diaries, journals, letters and reminiscences of some 120 youngsters between the ages of 4 and 16, Werner focuses on the child’s-eye view of the Civil War. Such views were not, it should be noted, necessarily childish. Columbia, S.C., native Emma LeConte, who was 13 when the war started, reflected a wisdom far beyond her age when she noted at the end of the war, “For four years there has been throughout this broad land little else than the anguish of anxiety–the misery over dear ones sacrificed–for nothing!”

The children of the Civil War, like their elders, saw and sometimes did things that they never would have imagined themselves or anyone else capable of doing before the war began. From the battlefields of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg and Fredericksburg to the besieged cities of Richmond, Atlanta and Vicksburg, the children experienced war in all its harshest reality. At Antietam, 16-year-old Pennsylvania Private Edward Spangler, himself wounded in the leg, found a house where the wounded from his brigade were taken. “The sight of hundreds of prostrate men with serious wounds of every description was appalling,” he noted. “Many to relieve their suffering were impatient for their turn upon the amputation tables, around which were pyramids of severed legs and arms. Many prayed aloud, while others shrieked in the agony and throes of death.”

Spangler was stoical. But 16-year-old John Cockerill, a Confederate regimental musician at Shiloh, was not so composed. “I passed the corpse of a beautiful boy in gray who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face and his hands folded peacefully across his breast,” Cockerill recalled. “His neat little hat lying beside him bore the number of a Georgia regiment. He was about my age. At the sight of the poor boy’s corpse, I burst into a regular boo-hoo.”

Not all casualties were soldiers–or boys. During the siege of Vicksburg, young Lucy McRae was living with her family in a cliff-side cave when a Union shell collapsed part of their refuge. “They pulled me from under the mass of earth,” she wrote. “The blood was gushing from my nose, eyes, ears, and mouth, but there were no bones broken.” With a child’s typical resilience, Lucy survived her ordeal and even found it a good diversion to watch the enemy shells arc across the evening sky. “They were beautiful at night,” she remembered.

The exigencies of war forced many children to grow up long before their time. Ten-year-old Carrie Berry of Atlanta, Ga., took care of a household that consisted of a pregnant mother and a sickly younger sister. After her mother gave birth to another girl, Carrie cooked, cleaned, sewed and took care of the baby as well. When her hometown was burned, she scrounged through the ruins for food. Yet, as Werner writes, Carrie “never lost a child’s enthusiasm and joy of life.” When the siege was over, she returned to school, where, she proudly noted: “We started to school irly [sic] this morning and had perfect lessons all day. I missed only one wird [sic] and that was in spelling.” Still, even irrepressible Carrie was aged by the war. In August 1864, she noted: “I was ten years old today. I did not have a cake. Times are too hard. I hope that by my next birthday, we will have peace in our land.” It is too bad the firebrands on both sides who nurtured the Civil War could not have gone to Carrie’s birthday party with a cake.

Roy Morris, Jr.

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