13. A Typical Civil War Child Soldier’s Enlistment in the Union Army
Another Civil War child combatant was Charles Edwin King, who was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1849. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April, 1861, many locals answered Abraham Lincoln’s call for 90 day volunteers to help defend the Union. Departing with their militia units for what was expected to be a short war, they set off for the training camps at Harrisburg, accompanied by young Charlie as their drummer boy. However, when the militia were ordered to the front, Charlie’s parents ordered him back home to the safety of West Chester.
That did not sit well with the boy, who moped and pined for the excitement of the military camp. When the militia returned upon the expiry of their three-month-enlistment, local volunteers were again sought, this time for three-year-terms in the newly formed 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The town’s grocer, Benjamin Sweeney, was elected as captain of Company F of that unit. He assured Charlie’s parents that he would look after and protect their son if they allowed him to enlist.
Charlie King’s parents were swayed by Captain Benjamin Sweeney’s promises to look after their boy, and by their son’s incessant pleas to let him enlist in the 49th Pennsylvania. They were probably also worried that if they did not consent to the kid’s enlistment, he might simply run away and enlist on his own as other boys were doing at the time. That being so, Charlie’s parents decided that it might be better to entrust him to the care of somebody they knew.
On September 12th, 1861, twelve-year-old Charlie was duly enrolled as a drummer boy in the 49th Pennsylvania. Drummer boys had been in use for centuries in many armies. The era’s tactics required closely formed columns and lines to advance and fight in well-ordered formations and in neat rows and lines. As the shouted commands of officers were often difficult to hear above the din and roar of battle, musical instruments, such as bugles and drums, were used to signal commands.
11. Drummer Boys Played an Important Role During the Civil War
In the days of the Civil War, and for centuries prior, drummers played a vital role in getting men positioned to fight, and to coordinate their activities during battle. Drummers tapped a pace, or rhythm, to assist with the evolutions and formations involved in marching or advancing on opposing forces. Drummer boys, tapping the appropriate beats on their instruments as directed by the officers in charge, accompanied their units into combat, and were thus exposed to shot and shell as battle raged and men fell.
Drummer boys like Charlie King were thus more than mascots: they were key players in the runup to battle and during the fighting. They were often present at the side of unit commanders, as they might be needed at any moment to tap out an alert to the unit of pending operations and movements. There were different drum call to signal assembly, notify the officers to gather for a meeting, sound the advance or retreat, or tap out any of the sundry calls that were part of the drummer’s repertoire.
Within a short time of his enlistment, Charlie King was promoted from drummer boy of his company to drum major of the entire 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. In the following months, the regiment took part in the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles, during which Charlie saw more death and mayhem than he might have imagined in his boyish fantasies. In September, 1862, the 49th Pennsylvania participated in the Maryland Campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Antietam on September 17th, 1862.
Charlie’s regiment was deployed near Miller’s Field and the East Woods during that battle, when it came under Confederate artillery fire. The 49th Pennsylvania’s casualties were relatively light, but Charlie was one of the regiment’s unlucky few, and he was struck down and grievously injured by an exploding shell. Taken to a field hospital, Charles Edwin King died three days later of his wounds. He holds the unfortunate distinction of being the youngest military combat fatality of the Civil War.
Union General John Sedgwick (1813 – 1864) was born into a family of Revolutionary War veterans, including one grandfather who had served as a general alongside George Washington. Sedgwick graduated from West Point in 1837 and was commissioned as an artillery officer. A respected and competent Union general and corps commander during the Civil War, Sedgwick’s kindliness and paternal affection, combined with concern for his soldiers’ well being, won him the love of his men and the nickname “Uncle John”.
He served ably, and was in uniform when the Civil War broke out in April, 1861. He was given command of a cavalry regiment, and by August, 1861, was promoted to command his own brigade in the Army of the Potomac. By February, 1862, Sedgwick was in charge of his own division. He fought bravely in the Peninsula Campaign, and was twice wounded during the Seven Days Battles. Unfortunately, he is more widely remembered for his ironic last words than for his solid military career.
8. “They Couldn’t Hit an Elephant at This Distâ¦“
At the Battle of Antietam, General John Sedgwick was sent on a poorly planned charge, and his division was shot to pieces, losing 2200 men, while he took three bullets. When he recovered and returned to duty, he was promoted to command a corps. He won early success with his Sixth Corps during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but the battle ended in defeat. During the Overland Campaign in 1864, Sedgwick led his corps in the Battle of the Wilderness. On May 9th, 1864, at the start of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, he was positioning his artillery when his troops came under sniper fire and grew jittery.
Chiding his men for their timidity under single bullets, Sedgwick wondered how they would react when they confronted massed Confederates on the firing line, and faced full volleys. The men were ashamed, but continued to flinch. So Uncle John Sedgwick continued: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dista…“. At that point, his pep speech was interrupted by a sniper bullet hitting his face beneath his left eye, that killed him instantly. His was the highest-ranking Union battlefield death of the Civil War.
Lax presidential security persisted despite earlier warnings. In 1835, for example, an attempt to assassinate President Andrew Jackson failed only because the would-be assassin’s pistols misfired. Lincoln himself was quite cavalier about his personal safety, despite numerous threats and hate mail. In 1861 a plot was uncovered that sought to murder him in Baltimore. In 1864, while riding at night unguarded, an unknown sniper fired a rifle shot that missed the president’s head by inches, and pierced his hat.
Despite numerous threats to his safety, Abraham Lincoln often went about unescorted. He sometimes walked alone at night from the White House to the War Department, attended church or went to the theater without bodyguards, and generally disliked the fuss of a military escort. When he did use a bodyguard, the quality available was dismal. An example was John Frederick Parker (1830 – 1890), a plain bad cop. One of the first officers to join Washington’s Metropolitan Police Force when it was created in 1861, Parker stood out for his ineptness and unsuitability as a policeman.
Parker was frequently hauled before the police oversight board on a variety of charges, any of which could have gotten him fired. He was let off each time with a slap on the wrist. Parker was frequently charged with conduct unbecoming a police officer. His infractions included abusing civilians, cursing, frequenting whorehouses, being drunk on the job, and sleeping in a streetcar when he was supposed to be walking his beat. Each time, he got away with no more than a reprimand. Despite that poor record, when in November, 1864, the Metropolitan Police Force created the first permanent detail to guard the president, Parker was one of four officers selected.
5. Abraham Lincoln’s Bodyguard Left His Post at Ford Theater to Grab a Drink at a Nearby Bar
On the night of April 14th, 1865, Washington Metropolitan Police Force Officer John Frederick Parker escorted President Lincoln and his wife to their box seats in Ford’s Theater. Parker grabbed a seat in the hallway behind Lincoln but was unable to see the play from there. So he abandoned his post to watch from downstairs. The play bored him, however, so Parker left Ford’s Theater altogether, to go grab a drink in a bar next door. There, he might have crossed paths with John Wilkes Booth, who was also at the bar for a last shot of liquid courage before heading into Ford’s Theater.
Lincoln was unguarded when Booth entered his theater box and shot him in the back of the head. It is unclear if Parker ever returned to Ford’s Theater that night, or only found out about the assassination the next day. Parker was charged with failing to protect the president, but incredibly, the charge was dismissed. He even kept his spot on the presidential protection detail for another three years, before he was finally fired for once again sleeping on the job.
When people think of American wars and drugs, what usually comes to mind is the heroin addiction epidemic that swept the US armed forces in the later of years of the Vietnam War. A century earlier, another epidemic of drug addiction had swept through the veterans of America’s armed forces during and after the US Civil War. It was an epidemic of addiction to morphine, a common pain management medication that had been doled out liberally – at least among Union forces – to alleviate the suffering of the wounded.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Civil War might have produced America’s biggest veterans drug addiction epidemic. That war was the country’s bloodiest, with casualties exceeding the total casualties of all other US wars, combined. About 10 percent of all Northern males, and about 30 percent of all Southern white males, are thought to have perished in the conflict. Modern estimates put the war’s fatalities at between 785,000 to 1 million deaths, the latter figure representing 3.2% of total US population at the time. If extrapolated to America’s 2021 population estimates, it would be the equivalent of about 10,500,000 deaths.
3. Advances in Pain Management Set the Stage for an Epidemic of Addiction
America’s Civil War was one of the first major “modern” wars. It was a conflict in which rapid advances in weapons and their lethality outpaced advances in battlefield tactics. As such, there was an imbalance between ever deadlier weapons on the one hand, and outdated tactics that had not yet caught up with new battlefield realities. The result was high casualties and horrific injuries that confronted the armies’ physicians with unprecedented challenges. The standard of medical care was abysmally low by modern standards, and had not advanced much beyond that of the Napoleonic era, half a century earlier.
One exception to the era’s generally low standards of medical care was the field of pain management. Civil War physicians might not have known about antiseptic practices to prevent infections. However, thanks to the recent invention of the hypodermic needle, coupled with the discovery of morphine decades earlier, they could at least do something to ease the pain of wounded soldiers. When hypodermic needles and morphine were not available, opium pills were in plentiful supply – at least in Union hospitals.
2. Hundreds of Thousands of Civil War Veterans Became Addicted to Morphine
Civil War soldiers – the ones in blue, at least – were often dosed with massive amounts of morphine or opium to deaden the pain of amputations, other surgeries, and various ailments. Many wartime accounts highlight that liberality in dispensing drugs. For example, one Union doctor diagnosed wounded soldiers from horseback, and if any needed morphine, he would pour a dose on his hand, and have the soldier lick it. On the Confederate side, one Rebel doctor was known for giving patients plugs of opium, depending on whether or not they were constipated.
The potential for addiction was known, but the risk was deemed acceptable: it was considered a lesser evil that could be dealt with later. “Later” came when the soldiers were discharged from the hospitals. It is estimated that over 400,000 Civil War became morphine addicts because of their wartime experiences. If that figure is prorated to America’s 2021 population, it would be the equivalent of an American war whose aftermath left about 4,200,000 veterans with a drug addiction. The term “Soldiers Disease” was coined to describe that addiction. Many addicts were readily identifiable by a small bag dangling from a leather thong around their neck, containing morphine tablets and a hypodermic needle.
Unsettled frontiers attract a disproportionate number of single young men, eager for adventure and new horizons. They are often rowdy, rambunctious, restless, and absent the social restraints typically imposed by families and neighbors in more established communities, frequently lawless. Many of them were Civil War veterans, still young in years although aged beyond measure by what they had witnessed and experienced. PTSD amongst their numbers accounts for at least some of what made the Wild West so wild and crazy. Indeed, some of the wilder and most famous of the West’s outlaws, such as Jesse James and his brother Frank, were molded in their early years by their wartime experience as combatants.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading