“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.

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