Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, April 24, 2009

Musings on the US Civil War

One of the PBS channels that I get is showing the Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War, an episode each week on Thursday night. In the one I was watching last night, they were talking about the composition of the Union army. If the numbers cited by the film are to be believed, there were 100,000 soldiers in the Union army who were fifteen years old and under. The youngest known soldier to be wounded was twelve.

In recent years, we have been scandalized by the child soldiers of Africa, and rightfully so, but it appears that the same phenomenon has occurred within our own history. Sure, those child soldiers that we've heard about in Africa have tended to be parts of renegade military units, and the youths in our Civil War were serving in a conventional army. That makes little difference. Of course, it wasn't just the United States that engaged in such practices in the past. Those youngsters who would have careers as officers in the British navy in the 18th and 19th centuries were apprenticed aboard warships between the ages of twelve and fourteen. And they participated fully in any combat that their vessels took part in. Perhaps this shouldn't be all that surprising. In traditional societies, boys went through manhood rituals in early adolescence, and to be a man in many of those societies meant to be a warrior. That doesn't justify the use of boys in the military, but it does serve to give it context.

One thing that really has changed since the US Civil War is the treatment of disease. Most of us don't realize what a huge factor it used to be, even in the lives of the young and healthy. During the Civil War, a soldier had a one is sixty-five chance of dying in battle. He had a one in ten chance of being wounded, but he had a one in thirteen chance of dying of disease. Such has been the impact of vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitary practices that we find such death rates from disease to be outrageous.


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