How Old Were Volunteers in the 5th New Hampshire? Part 1

As I’ve explained elsewhere, one aspect of the 5th New Hampshire that I’ve been working on is what became of the veterans after the war. To what degree did the war experience affect their life outcomes? I started looking at this question about a year-and-a-half ago when one of my students who had an aptitude for statistics indicated an interest in investigating this issue. I thought that if we collected enough information on a large number of soldiers, we could subject this information to statistical analysis and detect some interesting patterns. After all, few regiments experienced as much combat trauma as the 5th New Hampshire; maybe, I thought, a close analysis would capture the impact of this trauma. I must admit that I am not a statistician, but I’m not too proud to ask my colleagues for help. I spoke to Tauna Sisco in the Sociology Department at Saint Anselm College, and she suggested that I assemble a randomly selected pool of at least 300 men. Several decisions followed from this suggestion. First, I resolved to focus on the original 1000 volunteers. I figured that it would be easier to track these men than the substitutes who joined the regiment starting in 1863 (many of whom were immigrants and many of whom deserted). Second, I determined to pick every other man who survived the war. And so slowly but steadily, I used FamilySearch to collect as much information as I could on my pool. By December 2019, I had found data and written biographies on 300 veterans. Since I’ve made my way through about three-fourths of the first thousand volunteers, it looks like by the time I’m done I will have eventually compiled information on 400 soldiers.

Arthur H. Perkins (1844-1936) was one of the many underaged recruits to join the 5th New Hampshire when it was first organized in the fall of 1861 (he claimed he was 19 on his enlistment form). Starting out as a private, he was appointed 2nd Lieutenant in November 1863. A year later, he was discharged. Perkins returned to his hometown of Danbury, NH, where he farmed for a number of years before moving to Franklin, NH. He died there in 1936 at the age of 91 of a gastric ulcer. This image was apparently taken shortly before the 5th New Hampshire departed for Washington, DC in late October 1861; the unusual Whipple hat on the table was the original headgear issued to the regiment. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)

Having come this far, I thought I’d give a series of preliminary reports about what I’ve found with these first 300 men. Today, I’ll focus on the age of recruits upon enlistment (when I’ve looked through the entire pool and reach 400 men, I’ll probably report on this issue again—hence the “Part 1” in the title). I thought I’d start with this topic because, after all, my last post was about underage recruits.

I have to preface my findings by pointing out that some sources of information are much better than others. Ayling’s Revised Register lists ages for every man who enlisted. These numbers, however, are not always reliable because they are derived from enlistment forms where men reported their own ages. For a variety of reasons, volunteers frequently lied about how old they were. In as many cases as I could, I checked the ages indicated on enlistment forms against census records both before and after the war. Unfortunately, in some instances, I could not find much additional information and therefore had to rely on Ayling’s figures. In other words, while the ages I’ve assigned to most men are fairly accurate, there may be cases where I’ve erred.

According to my calculations, the average age for original volunteers was 25.4 years. The median age of enlistment was 23 on the dot. You can see a table and graph with the age distribution below.

Age 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33
# 2 10 19 24 29 24 20 12 19 14 12 13 13 5 11 10 4 5 4
Age 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52
# 5 5 7 4 2 5 3 1 2 2 1 2 2 1 2 1 1 1 2

There are several findings worth highlighting.

Under-aged Soldiers: 31 volunteers in the sample were underage when they enlisted (that is, under the age of 18). That amounts to just over 10% of the total sample, and I think that’s an undercount. It is likely that I was unable to catch all the boys who lied about their age.

Over-aged Soldiers: On the other end, 12 volunteers (4%) were legally too old to volunteer—that is, they were over the age of 44. Again, I think this is an undercount for the same reason as above.

The Youth of the Regiment: Much of the regiment was very young; indeed, 42% of the sample was 21 or younger. The reason that the average age in the sample was 25.4 was became there was a long “tail” of men who were in their 30s and 40s.

The Mystery of the Men in Their Late Twenties: Enlistment crested at the age of 19, popped back up at the age of 23, and then inevitably slid downward. Where were all the able-bodied men in the second half of their twenties? If you look at the figures closely, you’ll see that there were more 17-year-olds in the regiment than in any cohort between the ages of 24 and 29. In this context, it makes sense to remember that at least nominally, 17-year-olds were forbidden to volunteer. In other words, the legal bar to entry for this group was higher than for men in the latter part of their twenties. So we must ask again: where were all the men between the ages of 25 and 29?

I think marriage may explain this pattern. The men in my sample who married before 1861 did so, on average, at the age of 23.7 years (n=65). If this was the average age of marriage in general, is it not possible that the drop in volunteering associated with men in their late twenties was due to matrimony? Marriage was a huge step in mid-nineteenth-century America because it meant, almost invariably, starting a new family in a new home and launching oneself on a trajectory that led to the economic independence that was the goal of most young men (e.g. working for wages as a laborer until one could accumulate enough cash to buy a farm). It would appear, then, that during this important transition, men were understandably reluctant to volunteer.

To pursue this hunch, I studied the numbers in the following way. I looked at different age groups to see what proportion of volunteers were heads of household (according to the Census of 1860), and the figures seem revealing to me.

  • Volunteers between the ages of 20 and 24 (n= 57): 12 were heads of household (21.1%)
  • Volunteers between the ages of 25 and 29 (n=44): 23 were heads of household (52.2%)
  • Volunteers between the age of 30 and 39 (n=40): 35 were heads of household (87.5%)

Note that the numbers in each age group above are equal to the number of men for whom I could find information; that’s why they don’t match the figures in the table farther up the page.

It is entirely possible that other factors explained why men in their late twenties and their thirties did not volunteer in the same numbers as younger folks, but the influence of marriage on men in the second half of their twenties is interesting to contemplate.

In the future, I will not only finish compiling information about veterans in my pool, but compare their age of enlistment to soldiers who were less fortunate—those who died in the service from combat or disease.

“I hereby freely give my consent”: Obtaining Permission to Enlist

It’s my understanding that any able-bodied man between the ages of 18 and 45 could enlist in the Union army during the Civil War. Volunteers between the ages of 18 and 20, however, needed the permission of a guardian, and that permission was typically conveyed on a ready-made form such as the one below.

In this particular example, Benjamin B. Nudd certified that he was Warren B. Nudd’s father. The elder Nudd not only stated that Warren was 18 but also gave Warren permission to enlist in the army.[i] These forms are usually not terribly interesting. With some frequency, though, I do see parents (fathers and mothers) lie about their sons’ ages. Warren B. Nudd, for example, was born on June 7, 1844, which meant that on the day he enlisted (September 9, 1861), he was only 17 years old. This kind of cheating was not uncommon; by my reckoning, about 10% of the original volunteers in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry were underage. But that’s a story for another time.

Every once in a while, however, I do run into an enlistment form for a young or underaged recruit that opens an interesting window onto somebody’s personality. The first one I ever encountered concerned Albert G. Cummings who sought to enlist in the 1st New Hampshire, a three-month regiment. Cummings was 18 at the time which meant that he needed the permission of his father, Daniel Cummings. Daniel, who was a prosperous 51-year-old iron machinist, wrote a letter to the recruiter, Edward Sturtevant, infused with the Unionism that had practically become a religion with that generation in the North.[ii]

The note reads as follows:

Enfield, N. H. April 22nd 1861

Captain Sturtevant

Dear Sir Mr Houston informed me that you wished my consent for my son Albert G. to enlist in your Company of Volunteers for the defence of our country’s rights to maintain the constitution and laws against the rebellion gotten ^up^ by disunion despots arrayed against freedom. to your request Sir I give my unqualified consent, & to him say go to your Country’s defence, remembering that your noble ancestors ever stood ready when their country called, to obey its mandates, from the commencement of the Old French war of 1755 to the close of the glorious war of the revolution they were ready and did noble service both at our colonial combats and in the invasion of Canada, go be steady be loyal, be brave, do your duty forthfully and and [sic] may prosperity ever attend you in your perilous way

              Ever yours         

                             D. M. Cummings[iii]

How could Sturtevant turn Albert away after that performance?

Albert G. Cummings as a commissioned officer at some point between 1862 and 1864 (image courtesy of Dave Morin).

After the 1st New Hampshire was mustered out in August 1861, Albert enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire where he was appointed 1st Sergeant in Company A which was commanded by Sturtevant. In May 1862, Cummings was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. A month later, he was severely wounded in the left hand and thigh at the Battle of Fair Oaks (June 1, 1862). Appointed 1st Lieutenant of Company F in November 1862, Cummings was wounded again at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862). On May 1, 1863, Cummings was promoted to Captain and wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville only a couple of days later. He was eventually discharged in October 1864. After the war, he moved to Chicago to work as a machinist in the Bessemer Works but returned to New Hampshire to marry Ellen Currier in 1871. He later relocated to Pennsylvania where he was employed in the Baldwin Locomotive works. He eventually died in 1911 in Upper Paxton Township, PA.[iv]

My favorite note, though, is associated with Jesse B. Nurse who was born in Bethlehem, NH. According to the Census of 1860, Nurse lived in Bethlehem with the family of Orange E. Annis, a moderately wealthy farmer. I suspect that by this point Nurse was an orphan. It says something about this 15-year-old that he is enumerated on the census not as a farm laborer but as an “Asst. Farmer” (having looked at thousands of census records, I have never seen anyone else’s occupation described that way). By the time he enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire in September 1861, Nurse was probably only 16 (he appears to have been born in January 1845). Still, all 5’ 4” of him had the nerve to walk up to the recruiter (Edward Sturtevant again), claim he was 18, fill out his own enlistment form, and append the following declaration:

I Jesse B. Nurse, hereby certify that I am eighteen years of age, that I have no father, guardian or master; that I make my own bargains, & have my own wages, & and in all respects control of my own person; that I have no lameness, breakes [sic], rheumatism, sore-eyes or any bodily defect to my knowledge that disqualifies me from serving in the army.

Sept. 24, 1861

                                                                        Jesse B. Nurse[v]

Nurse was later wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862 (“Scalp, not severe”) and eventually transferred to the Invalid Corps in June 1863.[vi] In April 1864, he re-enlisted in the 5th New Hampshire before being discharged in November 1865 (the late date may be due to the fact he was recovering from wounds—the Veterans Census of 1890 mentions that Nurse had been shot in the hand).[vii] After the war, he moved to Littleton, NH, where he married Addie M. Smith in 1869. Not long afterward, Nurse and his wife ended up in Manchester, NH, where he first worked as a teamster and then as a carpenter. His only child, Roland, was born there in 1888. Nurse died on December 2, 1908 in the Queen City, only a block away from where one of my department colleagues currently lives. In the 40 years left to him after the war, I wonder if Nurse ever reconsidered the “bargain” he had made with the army with such self-assurance back in 1861.

CORRECTION (April 15, 2020): I originally wrote that the recruiting officer who handled Jesse B. Nurse’s enlistment was Edward Sturtevant. I was mistaken. Sturtevant recruited Company A in Concord. As Nurse’s form clearly indicates, H. W. Rowell was the recruiting officer. Nurse, who was then living in Bethlehem, NH, some 80 miles due north of Concord, joined Company C.  


[i] “New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2Q1-YHNR : 16 March 2018), Warren B Nudd, 1861-1866; citing New Hampshire, United States, New Hampshire Secretary of State, Division of Records Management & Archive; FHL microfilm 2,217,640.

[ii] “United States Census, 1860”, database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M7WR-5QT : 14 December 2017), Albert G Comings in entry for Daniel M Comings, 1860.

[iii] “New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2Q1-BLZ4 : accessed 26 February 2019), Albert G Cummings, 22 Apr 1861; citing New Hampshire, United States, New Hampshire State Archives, Concord; FHL microfilm 2,257,638.

[iv] Information about Cummings comes from the following sources. Ayling’s Revised Register, 7 and 226; New Hampshire Statesman (Concord, NH), June 21, 1862, 2; census data from various years.

[v] “New Hampshire, Civil War Service and Pension Records, 1861-1866,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2Q1-YVJC : 16 March 2018), Jesse B Nurse, 24 Sep 1861; citing Grafton, Grafton, Grafton, New Hampshire, United States, New Hampshire Secretary of State, Division of Records Management & Archive; FHL microfilm 2,217,641.

[vi] New Hampshire Statesman (Concord, NH), June 21, 1862, 2.

[vii] Ayling’s Revised Register, 257; “United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K837-1YC : 11 March 2018), Jesse B Nourse, 1890; citing NARA microfilm publication M123 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 338,199; census data from various years.