15. The US Navy’s Underage Sailors
Long before the Civil War, the US Navy employed children on warships, literally and officially labeled “Boy Sailors”. They had official rankings, beginning with powder monkeys at the bottom of the heap, comprising the youngest and smallest crewmembers. Next came Boys 3rd Class, who typically served as stewards or in clerical capacity, often in port. As he grew up and gained experience, a child sailor could rise to Boy 2nd Class, then Boy 1st Class. At age eighteen, child sailors automatically became rated as ordinary seamen, receiving the same pay and coming under the same discipline as adult sailors.
One of the more remarkable photographs depicting child sailors in the Civil War is that of Boy 1st Class Aspinwell Fuller, above. Taken in 1865, it shows the lad, fourteen-years-old, standing beside a 100-pound Parrot gun aboard the USS New Hampshire, a 74-gun ship of the line. His very presence aboard ship was against regulations, but as happens often in war, regulations were ignored. In 1861, President Lincoln had issued a directive prohibiting the enlistment of underage recruits without their parents’ consent. However, heavy casualties and the war’s insatiable demand for fresh bodies led many recruiters to look the other way if a child tried to enlist. Which explains how Fuller joined the US Navy at age thirteen, without parental consent.