American Civil War: prize-winning new book reveals plight of underage soldiers

21 March 2024
Prestigious Lincoln Prize awarded to Sydney historian
Associate Professor Frances M. Clarke, an historian in the School of Humanities, has won the Lincoln Prize, the highest American Civil War history prize, for her book exploring the importance of underage enlistment in the American Civil War era.
two historical photos of very young drummer boys in army uniforms looking at the camera

Robert Henry Hendershot, who claimed to be the celebrated "drummer boy of Rappahannock" (left, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons) and drummer boy John Clem (right, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Ten times more underage soldiers, from as young as 10-17, fought in the American Civil War than previously recognised, and this had profound implications for US military and legal history. This is a key takeaway from Associate Professor Frances M. Clarke and Professor Rebecca Jo Plant’s prize-winning book, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era.

“In America’s Civil War era, children remained minors until they turned 21. If they entered the regular army, however, they were emancipated from parental control. To retrieve young sons, parents filed writs of habeas corpus in massive numbers, while the Lincoln administration tried to stymie their efforts by silencing local courts. These disputes led to one of the most significant shifts in US legal history—the federalisation of habeas corpus,” said Associate Professor Clarke, who is a researcher in the Discipline of History.

“This was just one of many unexpected implications of underage enlistment that we discovered,” she said. “We unearthed a huge underground market of boys kidnapped into service, for instance, as well as fascinating differences in the way both sides understood age and parental rights.”

The Lincoln Prize

photo of Frances Clarke, a woman with red hair smiling at the camera

Associate Professor Frances M. Clarke

Associate Professor Clarke is the first Australian to win the highly competitive, annual Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. She shares the prize with her American co-author, Professor Rebecca Jo Plant, from the University of California, San Diego.

The Lincoln Prize rewards the finest scholarly work published in the prior year in English on Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War soldier, or the American Civil War era. It is one of the most prestigious American history awards due to the immense size of the field. Each year, thousands of scholarly works on these topics are released, with more books published on Abraham Lincoln alone than on any other individual in US history.

“We were thrilled and surprised to win the Lincoln Prize,” Associate Professor Clarke said. “We spent over a decade researching this topic and teaching ourselves all kinds of new skills - from quantitative analysis to legal history. It’s wonderful to see that work recognised.” 

photo of a book cover about American Civil War underage soldiers

Michael McDonnell, Chair, University of Sydney Discipline of History, called Clarke’s Lincoln Prize win an “extraordinary achievement”.

James G. Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, said the book was a “compelling and moving read, full of the stories of children, some as young as 11 or 12, serving in the Civil War, and the struggles of parents to reclaim or liberate their underage sons from armies.”

Associate Professor Clarke will travel to New York in April for the prize-giving ceremony at the Harvard Club, where she will take home USD$50,000 and a bronze replica of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s life-sized bust, Lincoln the Man. She will also deliver a speech at a forum in Gettysburg.

Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era was published in 2022 by Oxford University Press.

Declaration: The book was funded by an Australian Research Council grant and an equity fellowship.

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