“The Employment of Minors Is Almost Indispensable”: Boyhood and Military Labor

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Rebecca Jo Plant, University of California, San Diego
Frances M. Clarke, University of Sydney
Courts throughout the nineteenth century typically upheld parents’ rights to their children’s service and labor, even as the doctrine of the “child’s best interest” began to permeate legal decision-making. Military service was the one exception. If a parent or guardian allowed a boy to enlist, no matter his age, he was considered “emancipated,” transformed into a legal adult who had no right to void his enlistment contract and who was technically responsible for his own behavior and wages. Particularly during wartime, military officers welcomed the influx of minors, even though their service raised a host of thorny questions—ranging from how they should be punished for transgressing military rules, to whether or not they were suited to certain roles or required special protections.

What made child labor so critical to the nineteenth-century U.S. military, and what were the implications of this labor? Oddly, although hundreds of thousands of boys engaged in this work, and although they left what is surely one of the largest bodies of source material written by a group of laboring youths, their service is rarely considered as a form of work. Histories of child labor almost never include young soldiers and sailors. Conversely, studies of young soldiers tend to follow a “coming of age” narrative that would appear supremely incongruous if used to describe any other form of dangerous work. In contrast, our paper employs sources written by and about child soldiers that reveal the laboring conditions and types of work performed by those of varying social and racial backgrounds. We also analyze courts martial records that reveal unwritten norms within the military that led age to be treated as an extenuating circumstance. Finally, we ask why underage soldiers were gradually transformed from indispensable military assets worthy of praise to burdensome troublemakers deserving of censure.

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