All our civil wars are hell on children

April 08, 1994|By Peter W. Bardaglio

ALICIA Brown, a 14-year-old from Washington, D.C., has had six friends killed by gunfire. One of them died just before the Clinton administration unveiled a series of hard-hitting public service announcements in which Alicia talks about the impact of violence on children in the United States.

For much of the 20 century, it seemed that violence was happening somewhere else: Europe, Vietnam, Lebanon, El Salvador, Somalia. But now violence has come home. There's a murder a day in Baltimore. Urban schools have become armed camps, and playgrounds have been turned into war zones. Drive-by shootings, domestic violence and child abuse have scarred a generation of youth.

There have been few other times in our nation's history when boys and girls have had to live with such violence.

Certainly, Native American children caught up in the drive to bring tribal peoples under the domination of white settlers experienced such mayhem.

Another group of American youngsters who encountered this sort of mass violence were those who lived below the Mason-Dixon line in 1861, when the nation's bloodiest war broke out.

For Southern children and adolescents during the Civil War, the repercussions of invasion, Confederate defeat and Union occupation stretched far beyond 1865, leaving an indelible imprint on the generation raised during the war. The world of white children, in particular, was turned upside down.

Even before the Yankees reached Sarah Morgan's home, the war had driven her family apart. A brother living in New Orleans had joined the Union side.

Three others were off fighting for the Confederacy. Sarah, her two sisters and widowed mother were left to fend for themselves in Baton Rouge, which was under Union control after 1862.

During this occupation, federal troops embarked on a widespread campaign of looting. "Ours was the most shockingly treated house in the whole town," Sarah reported in her diary. The Yankees made off with china, carpets and clothing; they destroyed family portraits and smashed furniture.

War also had a powerful impact on black children in the South. Raised in bondage, most African-American youngsters had experienced violence before, but during the war they came face to face with killing on an unprecedented scale.

"The dead were lying all along the road, and they stayed there, too," remembered James Goings, who was 10 years old when the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox. As the former slave recounted in an interview during the late 1930s, "In those days it wasn't anything to find a dead man in the woods." Surely, the exposure of these children to this sort of slaughter had tremendous psychological impact.

Often forgotten is the fact that many of those who died in the Civil War were boys. The two armies had recruitment policies that prohibited boys from joining and fighting.

A tall 14- or 15-year-old, however, could easily bluff his way into the military.

The war that started out as a rousing adventure for these boys became a horrible nightmare that seemed to have no end. Young Elisha Stockwell found himself face down on the ground at the Battle of Shiloh, shells exploding overhead and soldiers screaming for help: "I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away and get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me."

More than a few boys had these sorts of second thoughts once they experienced combat.

Generally, however, the boys who fought in the Civil War adjusted to the death and destruction around them, trying to stay alive for the next battle.

Naive, rowdy farm boys in the beginning, they became experienced, skilled killers in a matter of months.

Living every day with such all-encompassing violence took a heavy emotional toll. As Henry Gates observed in a letter home, "I cannot describe the change nor do I know when it took effect, yet I know that there is a change, for I look on the carcass of a man with pretty much such feeling as I would do were it a horse or hog."

Because most of the Civil War was fought on Southern soil, few Northern children and adolescents outside of those who lied about their age and joined up with the Union army came into direct contact with the conflict. While the majority of young civilians in the North only heard or read about the Civil War, a handful of them actually got swept up in it.

The most dramatic example took place when Robert E. Lee and his Confederate forces entered Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. When the battle of Gettysburg broke out at the beginning of July, it left few boys and girls in the town unscathed.

While adults tried to spare children the grimmest sights, it was impossible to shield them from the slaughter.

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