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