Babes in Arms: Children of the Civil War | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150


Babes in Arms: Children of the Civil War

Children represented one-third of the United States' population in 1860, and the Civil War profoundly shaped the way they grew up. Few Pennsylvania children witnessed any battles, but they experienced boisterous enlistment drives, patriotic concerts and increasingly frequent mustering and drilling of volunteers. The war also quickly found its way into schoolbooks, pamphlets, plays, toys and other media aimed at children. Adults portrayed the war as a symbol of the conflict between good and evil, and used it to impart lessons of duty, courage and patriotism.

Children's sense of emotional security was frequently strained by the absence of a parent at war. When fathers were wounded or killed in action, their children suffered intense and lasting grief.

At play, kids often formed their own “militia” companies, practiced drilling and firing fake weapons, set up imaginary camps and held mock battles. Girls often assumed the roles of nurses, tending to the “wounded” in makeshift field hospitals.

Many children were eager to witness real war, or “see the elephant” as it was known, and thereby test the courage they had practiced at play. Some volunteered as buglers and drummers. Many older children lied about their ages to join the Army or Navy. Yet, witnessing battle challenged the simplistic concepts of war that children had learned. Those who survived the experience often spent a lifetime reconciling the gruesome realities of war with the innocence they had left behind.

Children who witnessed the battles in Carlisle and Gettysburg responded with both exhilaration and terror. Some adopted the partisan affiliations of their parents, proclaiming themselves Republicans and Democrats, loyal unionists and vigilant Copperheads. But curious children who fraternized with Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg were surprised to see that the rebels were just as principled and devoted to their cause as the loyal unionists of their own community.

Supporting the war from the home front, 72,000 Philadelphia school children collected lint for bandages, sewed dolls and made toys that were sold at the 1864 Sanitary Fair to raise money for medical supplies and treatment for the Union armies.

Information for this section was contributed by Matthew Isham, The Pennsylvania State University.

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