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.

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