How old were the volunteers who signed up for the 5th New Hampshire? As this image of an unidentified solider in the regiment indicates, many were extremely young. One imagines that this young man—or boy, rather—had his image taken shortly before the regiment left for Washington, DC, in late October 1861. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)
In today’s post, I’ll discuss how old the members of the “400” in the 5th New Hampshire were when they enlisted. Keep in mind that the data are not exact and that they pertain to men who survived the war. As I have mentioned earlier, there are many limitations in my source material. For one thing, much of the information I gathered in various documents was self-reported, and throughout their lives, men lied frequently about their age for various reasons. For another, I often do not have birthdates for these men; most of my information has come from census records which recorded how old subjects were on a given date. That can lead to some uncertainty. For example, if a man said he was 20 in the 1860 Census, that means he could have been born in either 1839 or 1840.
Only men between the ages of 18 and 44 were eligible to volunteer, so anybody younger or older than that range who wanted to join up had plenty of reasons to lie. Even men within this range lied for many reasons. I tended to mistrust enlistment papers. Instead, I looked at census records to establish true ages because folks had less incentive to give false information on these forms. Nonetheless, I’m positive I did not catch everybody who gave a false age. In some cases, a dearth of information compelled me to accept the age on the enlistment forms.
The graph below represents what I found.
If you want an exact breakdown by age, I’ve reproduced it in the tables below.
What I can say about this topic will be somewhat limited because age does not reveal much unless it’s combined with others variables. In later posts, then, I will have occasion to bring up the way age intersects with various topics. For now, it suffices to point out that the average age upon enlistment of men in this pool (remember, these were men who survived the war) was 25.8. The median age was 23 (meaning half the regiment was 23 or younger).
Of the 403 men in the sample, 42 (10.4%) were 17 years old or younger (underaged). Another 23 (5.7%) were over the age of 44 (that is, too old to enlist). In other words, about one-sixth of the regiment was not legally eligible to volunteer. If I had to guess, I’d say that the number of underaged men (or boys) was even higher; I’m sure I didn’t catch all the youngsters (a number of whom were abetted by their parents) who added a couple of years to their age to make themselves 18.
Nonetheless, the figures I have indicate that the regiment consisted mainly of young men; just under three quarters of the regiment was 29 or under. The reason that the average age was on the high side is because of the long “tail” of men in their 40s and 50s.
Several things follow from the fact that so many men were young. Most were unmarried. Of the 242 for whom I have a date of first marriage, only 98 (40%) were married in 1861 or earlier. Not surprisingly, according to the Census of 1860, over 60% of the sample was living in the households of parents, an uncle, or an older male employer. According to records from the Census of 1860, the vast majority of the young men in this sample possessed only small amounts of money or property of their own (as opposed to what belonged to, say, their fathers).
The graph indicates that enlistment fell off as men reached their mid-20s. I think these figures indicate that married men were much less inclined to volunteer than others (the average age of marriage during this period hovered around the early to mid-20s).
Augustus J. Hoyt (or Hoitt) (1845-1920) is the youngest soldier in the “400” for whom I have a photo. Hoyt was born in Northwood, NH, the son of a cordwainer. In the fall of 1861, he found his way to Concord, NH, and enlisted in Company A of the 5th New Hampshire. He re-enlisted on January 1, 1864 and was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864). In October 1864, he was promoted to Captain of Company I. The Revised Register neglects to mention that somewhere along the way between private and captain, Hoyt was a sergeant—which is the rank he holds in this image (a promotion straight from private to captain would have been unlikely). Whatever the case, Hoyt was lucky; he made it to the end of the war in one piece and mustered out in June 1865. After the war, Hoyt moved to Lynn, MA (then on its way to becoming the shoe capital of America), and held a position as foreman in a shoe factory. He later worked, interestingly enough, as a pension agent and eventually moved into real estate. I have seen claims that he was city marshal and post master in Lynn, as well as the commander of the local GAR post (I haven’t been able to substantiate these claims yet). His death certificate declares that he died at Weirs Beach in Laconia, NH, even though his residence was still Lynn, MA. This last fact leads me to wonder if he died at the New Hampshire Veterans’ Association’s complex while vacationing there. (Image courtesy of David Morin.)
Just for fun, I thought I’d compare the smooth chins against the grey beards in a variety of categories. All of the overaged men were discharged disabled with two exceptions—one man deserted and another transferred to another unit (the Invalid Corps, not surprisingly). Among the underaged men (n=42), only 16 were discharged disabled. What is truly impressive is that 15 of these young men were mustered out. Ten of these men left at the conclusion of their three-year term and another five, who had re-enlisted in 1864, lasted until war’s end. Another three were discharged disabled after 43 months of service (that is, they left the regiment just one month shy of the war’s end). That record is a true mark of endurance; only a small proportion of men in the 5th New Hampshire lasted that long in the ranks.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the average length of service for the old men was shorter (11 months) than it was for the young ones (25.5 months). Such was the resilience of youth.
Interestingly enough, the older men tended to be wounded with less frequency: only 26%. Among the younger group, the figure was a great deal higher: 44%. This discrepancy might have to do with the fact that the younger men, on average, served for a much longer period of time. The average for the pool as a whole was 39% (and the average length of service was 19.5 months).
There is one category, however, where the overaged had the underaged beat: lifespan. The old men, on average, lived to be 69.8 years old. The young died at 63.4. I have entertained all sorts of theories about why that was, but I don’t want to try my readers’ patience, so I will leave well enough alone.
All I will add is that I remember years ago reading accounts of anxious underaged teenagers enlisting in volunteer regiments at the beginning of the war. There was always “a nod and a wink” air about these vignettes in which the worldly wise recruiter who knew the score guided an awkward hobbledehoy toward the “correct” responses during the enlistment process. When I think about how these recruiters helped throw boys into the carnage at Fair Oaks, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor, it makes me feel a bit queasy. It also distresses me that parents sometimes lied to recruiters to get their children into the army.
Maybe these adults—recruiters and parents alike—would have acted differently if they’d known what was in store for the 5th New Hampshire. Maybe they were wicked or callous people. Maybe they were driven by difficult circumstances or inspired by motives that we cannot fully grasp from the perspective of our own time. Maybe—and this is quite possible—their notions concerning childhood and adulthood were quite different from ours.