George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War

George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War

“I am with my youngest son George compelled for the love of our Beloved country to take up arms in defense of that liberty that our for Fathers fought to establish. May Heaven grant a speedy restoration of the hapy [sic] days once enjoyed & a safe return to our beloved ones at home.” So wrote Alva Cleveland on his birthday, a few months after he followed his twelve-year-old son George into the First Wisconsin, where George served as a drummer and Alva as a nurse. He was nearly sixty years old and a master painter. He and George lived in Racine, Wisconsin, with their wife and mother, Mary, an older brother, and two older sisters (another young woman and two young children also lived with them).[1]

This poor photograph of Alva and George Cleveland, apparently taken shortly after their enlistment, is the only surviving image of either. In Alva V. Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

This rather unusual situation says a lot about the ways that Civil War-era Americans thought about parental duty, military service—and childhood.

A modern version of childhood had begun to emerge a couple of decades before the war started. It envisioned an extended, nurtured childhood free of economic responsibility. This was beyond the reach of most families, and older traditions of work prevailed for most children. Young boys had for centuries been expected to begin working as apprentices, as farm laborers, or as helpers to their fathers when they were nine or ten years old; by the nineteenth century, the decline of the apprenticeship system and the rise of the factory system led to more boys working in mills and mines. (Girls, of course, dominated the child and youth labor markets in many factory systems.) During the Gilded Age, as many as one quarter to one half of all industrial workers were teenagers, and boys and girls as young as twelve or thirteen worked in mines or with dangerous machinery. And those statistics did not include the millions of boys and girls who performed sometimes dangerous work with livestock and machinery on farms and ranches.[2]

As with so many facets of American life in the nineteenth century, the Civil War brought the tension between old and new constructions of childhood into high relief. The Clevelands provide a micro-study of those contradictions, as George and Alva performed certain parts of an idealized childhood even as they did their duty as soldiers.

Shortly after the Clevelands joined the First Wisconsin—originally raised for three months early in the war, it was re-organized as a three-year regiment in the fall of 1861—the unit headed south, traveling through Chicago, Indianapolis, and on to Kentucky. As a nurse, Alva generally rode in an ambulance or supply wagon, while George marched with his company. Alva tried to keep track of where George might be on the route of march. There’s a hint of pride when he estimated that his son “must have been one of the first to step upon shore” from the Ohio River into Kentucky. As often as possible, especially during their first few weeks on the march, Alva and George found one another for meals and at night. That often meant that George enjoyed better rations than other drummers and it certainly meant that Alva could get George out of the elements on rainy, cold nights.[3]

Inevitably, and only a couple of weeks after they enlisted, George fell ill, giving Alva a chance to combine his duties as an army nurse and as a father. George staggered into the hospital “pretty well tuckered out complaining of head ache with Simptoms [sic] of camp rash.” About midnight he was hallucinating about “all sorts of things” and needed a dose of medicine to go back to sleep. He recovered in a couple of days, which allowed Alva to show off his young soldier to a local woman who he apparently knew.[4]

Thomas Nast’s “The Drummer Boy” offered readers scenes that became part of the stereotypical narrative of drummer boys’ experiences. Harper’s Weekly, December 19, 1863.

Alva and George got together as often as possible to read letters from Mary Cleveland; one evening a few weeks after leaving Milwaukee Alva reported that they had “Rec’d a letter from home a welcome visitor read with pleasure by me & George.” Within a month of leaving Alva proudly remarked that George had written his first letter ever. And two weeks before Christmas he could happily report that George had managed perhaps his longest march yet—twelve miles.[5]

Alva seemed to get used to George’s situation, going several days without reporting on George’s whereabouts or health. Yet it must have given him pause to know that George was surrounded by the same unhealthy and rowdy conditions that he reported in his diary (and which certainly violated the notion of a nurtured childhood): bad weather; constant illness, with a number of Alva’s patients dying during the miserable winter months; accidents ranging from incidents on the march to accidental shootings in camp; drunken, violent men threatening to kill their officers; rumors of big battles fought elsewhere (Shiloh, for instance) that reminded Alva of the potential jeopardy facing George. During the months covered by the diary, the only Cleveland to get close to the shooting war was George, whose company served on the picket line a number of times and went into a line of battle at least once. He went forward with his company in mid-December—although his captain made him move back from the firing line. Alva seemed to accept George’s eagerness to get into the battle when he reported that “George and one of the other young drummers “thought it was hard that they could not go as they came to fight as well as any of them.”[6]

Alva hated being separated from George. In early April, as it seemed possible that the army would be drawn into the fighting predicted near Corinth, Alva fell far behind. “The distance between Geo & me is getting to great & I cannot stand it,” he wrote. “I wish to be there or in the Neighborhood to see & hear & have Geo. With me to know & share his hardships.” Relieved about being back together; he’d been left behind about two weeks, “a long lonesome time Geo & me had not been separated before & it seemed longer than it realy [sic] was.” Once they were reunited, “he told me all the news he could think of” before they went to sleep together in George’s tent.[7]

The First Wisconsin spent several months marching and countermarching, rebuilding burned bridges, and preparing for battles they never fought. Its first major fight came at Perryville in early October 1862, although Cleveland’s diary ends before the battle. A month later, they were both discharged due to disability; apparently Alva’s injury had come from being thrown from an ambulance, although nothing is known of George’s condition. After living for a time in Milwaukee, the Clevelands moved to Kansas, where George was killed while working as a brakeman for a railroad in the mid-1880s.[8]

Alva Cleveland had never heard of a “new construction” of childhood, but he tried to live it in his care for young George in the middle of a military campaign. Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, it’s entirely possible he joined the army for the express purpose of watching out for his patriotic, adventure-seeking son; it’s unclear why else a man three times older than most soldiers would take so many unnecessary risks. Yet it is also true that most boys George’s age were already out of school, and that many only slightly older boys were already working in the famously dangerous factories and mines of the era. As a result, it might not seem so shocking that American society would so readily accept youngsters’ eager enlistments as inspiring examples of patriotic duty rather than alarming instances of putting young boys in harm’s way. The military service of George and Alva Cleveland offers a glimpse at one father-son team as they (probably quite unconsciously) worked through these competing ideas about boyhood.[9]


[1] March 13, 1862, Alva Cleveland Diary, Ms2009-113, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia; Racine Ward 5, Racine, Wisconsin, 1860 Federal Census, Roll M653_1427,, 587. The Cleveland diary has survived in two segments: a transcription of Alva’s first few months is owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society, while the manuscript of several months in 1862 owned by Virginia Tech.

[2] Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 74-93, 132.

[3] E.B. Quiner, The Military History of Wisconsin (Chicago: Clarke & Co., 1866), 428-430; Alva V. Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin, November 28, 1861.

[4] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” November 5 and 7, 1861.

[5] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” November 11 and 24, 1861.

[6] Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862,” December 18, 1861.

[7] April 11 and 12, 1862, Alva Cleveland Diary, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

[8] Quiner, The Military History of Wisconsin, 428-430; Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Madison: Democrat Printing Co. 1886), 1: 326; Milwaukee City Directory, pl 85,, accessed November 24, 2017; U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, Provo, UT, USA:, 2011, accessed November 24, 2017; Kansas, Enrollment of Civil War Veterans, 1889, Provo, UT, USA:, 2013, accessed November 24, 2017; “Introduction,” in Cleveland, “Soldiers Diary of the Civil War, 1861-1862.”

[9] Emmy E. Werner’s Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998) includes a number of stories of drummer boys and underage soldiers.


James Marten

James Marten is professor of history at Marquette University and a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians. The author, editor, or co-editor of over twenty books, including Buying and Selling Civil War Memory in Gilded Age America, Co-edited, with Caroline E. Janney (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021); America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

3 Replies to “George and Alva Go to War: Fatherhood, Childhood, and the Civil War”

    1. This was the best that we were able to produce, but someone with more technical expertise and better software could perhaps do so.

  1. I’m descended on my father’s side of the family from Elvira Cleveland, Alva’s oldest daughter. Thank you for your very thoughtful article.

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