And Your Age Is?

Franklin Murphy, 31st Governor of New Jersey and member of the 13th New Jersey Infantry.

Today we welcome guest author Jim Sundman.

When future New Jersey governor Franklin Murphy walked into a recruiting office for the 13th New Jersey Volunteers in Newark on July 19, 1862, he told the enlistment officer he was eighteen, the legal age in which to join the Union Army without permission.

Murphy, who was well-educated at the Newark Academy, and was working as a clerk in his father’s shoe manufacturing business when he signed up, was not eighteen. Born on January 3, 1846, he was actually sixteen.

Murphy’s situation was not unique. Indeed, it is common knowledge that the ranks of both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War were filled with young recruits.

Later that same summer my great-great-great grandfather Garrett Bush also joined the 13th. Bush was thirty-eight, but for some reason “forty” was written on his enlistment form. The two year difference between my ancestor’s actual age and the one he told the recruiter was not surprising, as he could have simply said he was “about forty.”

This, however, piqued my interest concerning the actual ages of men in the regiment. How common was it for younger men to lie about their age to enlist? And, on the other hand, how often did men older than forty-five (the highest age limit) lie in order to join the ranks? With a background in demographics, and a strong interest in history and genealogy, I tried to verify as best I could the ages of the men in the 13th New Jersey and compare those to the official records. Without a doubt it has been very interesting.

Long before photo IDs and even birth certificates became commonplace, a soldier presenting himself to enlist during the Civil War simply stated his age. Even if a recruit looked younger than eighteen or older than forty-five, the recruiting officer most likely overlooked this in order to fill his rolls as quickly as possible.

The 13th New Jersey numbered 889 men when it was mustered into service on August 25, 1862. Minus officers and musicians (the latter were exempt from the official age limits as recruits), there were 834 men on the rolls. Of these 834 recruits, 109 (about thirteen percent) were listed as eighteen. This does not include a few seventeen year-olds who received permission from a parent or guardian to enlist, nor does it include George Swain who was listed as “nearly eighteen”, Theodore Wilson who was “17 ½”, and Robert Erpenstine whose age on the form was “17 10/12”.

Of the 109 “official” eighteen year-olds on the rolls, forty-four (about forty percent) could be verified as not yet reaching their eighteenth birthday. Francis Coyle from Newark, for example, was probably fifteen, and Jacob Freiday from Orange was sixteen. In addition, there were at least seven others who had not yet reached eighteen but told the recruiter they were nineteen, twenty, or even twenty-one! Charles Nixon (who shortened his name and joined under the alias Charles Nix) was listed at nineteen but may have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. Another young recruit was Augustus Combs who was living in Brooklyn, New York and crossed the Hudson River to join the 13th at Newark. Combs said he was twenty-one, but was most likely 15 or 16. In total, at least fifty-one young men in the 13thNew Jersey lied about their age to enlist.

Col. Ezra Carman

But not only did many boys pass themselves off as eighteen (or even older) to join up. There were quite a number of older men in the regiment who were past the age of forty-five. At least twenty-five men who enlisted in the 13th New Jersey could be verified as being older than the legal age of enlistment.

Samuel Davis was one of them. Davis was older than fifty and was such a unique character that three soldiers mention him in their later writings on the war. This included E. Livingston Allen (who himself was sixteen when he enlisted) who remarked that Davis was “one of those cross, crabbed, cranky, crusty, cantankerous fellows, sometimes met with, who was against everybody and expected everybody to be against him.” Another man was Daniel Russell who had already served in the army more than twenty-five years earlier. Russell in 1862 was fifty-eight. John Rothe was listed at forty-two but was probably much older as he was eventually discharged from “debility due to old age”. The oldest man I could verify was Daniel Price at fifty-nine or sixty – much older than age forty-four he told the recruiter when he enlisted in Paterson.

Verification of a soldier’s age was sometimes easy (as in the case of a public figure like Franklin Murphy) but most often required a bit of research. A typical example would be Crandel Westervelt. Though officially listed as eighteen, multiple censuses (both before and after the Civil War) and the New Jersey Birth Index for his children, clearly show he was born in March 1847, making him fifteen on August 9, 1862, the day he enlisted. An example among the older recruits was Samuel Tims. In each of the four censuses between 1850 and 1880, Tims is shown as being born in 1806, making him around fifty-six when he signed up, much older than forty-three on his enlistment form.

There were quite a few men whose real age could not be verified. Some show up in only one census year while others don’t show up at all. Other times aliases were used, names misspelled, and in a few instances a soldier’s name was so common it could apply to multiple men living in the same city or town at that time. Nevertheless, my research clearly revealed that at least one hundred men in the 13th New Jersey lied about their age when enlisting, including some who were well within the legal age but still presented themselves as younger or older than they actually were.

Interestingly, the average age of a soldier in the regiment based on official records was 26.1 years. After applying their real ages it remained virtually the same – 26.0 years. This is due to the fact that even though there were many more younger than older men who lied about their age when enlisting, the older men’s real age averaged seven years higher than the age they gave, offsetting the younger men whose true ages averaged two years less than the ones they gave when joining the 13th.

Samuel Davis from Joseph Crowell’s

Why did men enlist in the 13th New Jersey? For those who lied about their age and for those that were truthful, there were certainly many reasons. For my ancestor Garrett Bush, I believe he joined for financial reasons. As an “old school” shoemaker, Bush may have been unemployed or underemployed by a lessened need for skilled workers in this craft due to its rapid industrialization in Newark during that time. This was further compounded by the loss of the large Southern market for shoes as a result of the war. With a wife and five children at home (including a newborn son), the $13 monthly pay for privates, the lure of a local enlistment bounty, and an additional payment each month to families of soldiers by the State of New Jersey, may have induced him to enlist. Others may have been in his situation and an age limit wasn’t going to stop them from joining the regiment.

For the younger men and boys, Joseph Crowell, who joined the 13th New Jersey as a “real” eighteen year-old probably summed it up best when he later wrote:

“Why I, and the other fellows, came to enlist, is something I never could explain. I think I am safe in saying that, at the moment, genuine patriotism hardly entered into the question. Of course there were some who enlisted for patriotic motives; but when one comes down to the bottom facts, I believe a majority of the boys were induced to go from other motives. Most probably it was the general excitement of the times. It was simply a furor to go to the war. To many it was a change from the ordinary humdrum of life. To others it was looked upon as a picnic. And then in every boy’s heart there is an inherent spirit of adventure.”

About the Author: Jim Sundman has been researching and intends to publish articles on the 13th New Jersey Volunteers in a blog starting in the summer of 2012, the 150th anniversary of the regiment’s formation. Jim lives in Downingtown, PA and currently works for Amtrak in Philadelphia as Director of Ridership and Revenue Analysis.

6 Responses to And Your Age Is?

  1. Thank you for using your special knowledge to analyse this information. I do keep running across young men in my family tree who are under 18 when they enlisted, and many died before their eighteenth birthdays, too. But the most interesting is my gggggrandfater who was over sixty at enlistment. He stated that he was 45. That lie threw me off of his scent for years! But it looks like he was a crack shot and learned to shoot in the Palatinate as a young man. I’m still looking for his German military service records. Unfortunately, he couldn’t handle the rigors of the march and of sleeping on the ground. He was disabled before firing a single shot at Vicksburg. (Family lore to the contrary!)

  2. I found your article after I discovered an ancestor who signed up in New York in 1861 and his birth year was listed as 1816 when it really was 1820. I was perplexed as he WAS under the 45 year old cut off, but I guess he was just making sure? He was born in India to British parents, lived in London in 1841 (and was in hospital for gonorrhea that year also), was married with children when he enlisted in Charlotte NY. His father was a surgeon, his step brother high level civil servant in India, yet Daniel de Lisle was a farmer in the new world. I like your explanation that some may have done it for money. This might be Daniel’s motivation. Thanks for the discussion!

  3. Thank you for this. My 3rd great grandfather was in the 33 rd, New Jersey Regiment and enlist at the age of 52. He died of his wounds a year later in Atlanta, Georgia.

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