Kids in Battle: 10 American Child Soldiers of the Civil War

Orion Perseus Howe. Civil War Talk

Orion P. Howe

One of the youngest recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Orion Perseus Howe was born in Ohio in 1848, then moved with his family to Illinois shortly before the start of the Civil War.

At the age of 12, Orion and his younger brother Lyston enlisted as musicians in the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, in which their father served as the regimental band leader. During his service, young Orion was present at 14 separate battles in which his regiment fought.

His moment of fame came during the Vicksburg Campaign, on May 19th, 1863. In an assault on Vicksburg that day, the 55th Illinois Infantry charged and ended up pressed close to the Confederate lines. Engaged in a vicious firefight that quickly exhausted nearly every man’s cartridge box, it became critical to secure a resupply of ammunition from the stocks in the rear. However, the regiment was situated such that anybody leaving its relatively covered position for the rear would be forced to traverse hundreds of yards of relatively open ground that was swept by enemy fire. When the regimental commander sought volunteers to make the dangerous dash, Orion was one of the soldiers who stepped up.

Sprinting to the rear up a rise swept by Confederate canister and rifle fire, the volunteers were killed one by one, until only Orion remained, scrambling onwards to complete his mission. His comrades held their breath as the boy made his way through a storm of enemy fire, as bullets, shot, and shell kicked up puffs of dust all around him. Stumbling, falling, but always rising again and moving on, Howe was severely wounded in the leg, but gamely limped on until the crested the summit’s rise and disappeared from sight.

Bleeding heavily and groggy from loss of blood, Orion managed to locate general William Tecumseh Sherman, and informed him of his unit’s dire need of ammunition. Impressed by the boy’s demeanor and determination, Sherman ordered him to seek medical care, promising to see to it that his regiment would get the necessary resupply. Indeed, Sherman was so impressed by Orion that he wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, stating “I’ll warrant the boy has the elements of a man, and I commend him to the government as one worthy of the fostering care of one of its national institutions“.

Text of letter by William Tecumseh Sherman commending Orion Howe to the Secretary of War. Civil War Talk

It took Orion several months to recover from his severe injury and rejoin his regiment. He reenlisted, and was finally discharged in late 1864 as a corporal.

After the war, he went to New York University, where he graduated from its dental school, before settling in Springfield, Missouri. Due to snafus at the War Department, he was not awarded his Congressional Medal of Honor until 1896, more than three decades after his exploits before Vicksburg. He lived to the age of 81, and died in 1930.