“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

A certain cohort of the baby boomer generation—boys born between the late 1940s and mid-1950s—spent their high school years wondering if they would be drawn into the Vietnam War. With older brothers, neighbors, and older friends anxiously awaiting their lottery numbers; with the nightly news and weekly news magazines providing images of the bloody and frustrating fighting a world away; and with no clear end in sight, most young boys spent their adolescence wondering if they would end up at the sharp end of war.

Those same forebodings or yearnings no doubt shaped the lives of Civil War-era teenagers, virtually all of whom would have had a family member or close neighbor in the army. In the Confederacy, almost complete mobilization occurred; in the United States, although the percentage of males of military age who served was closer to 40 percent, 81 percent of boys born in 1844 joined the Union army.[1]

Newark High School, c. 1860s. Courtesy of the Barringer High School Alumni Association.

A few boys—just a year or two younger than that martial cohort—attending Newark High School in New Jersey worked through their thoughts and some of their fears in the pages of the Athenaeum, a hand-written school paper published during the war. It was the second iteration of the paper. The “old Athenaeum,” as the current editors called it, had been born at the beginning of the conflict, but much had changed since then, and it was impossible for these men-in-the-making to ignore the war. At least a few of the original editors had actually gone off to war; one was an officer in the Army of the Potomac. An editorial in May 1864 remarked that the number of boys at school had dropped by half. “What makes this change[?] War! War!.” Some had joined the army but others had gone into business to replace older brothers and fathers. “They are no more,” continued the editorial in sentimental wartime rhetoric, “the vacant seats seem to proclaim.”[2]

The boys produced a few short pieces of romantic fiction, poems, and a few strained jokes (although a humorous piece on “Shaving” effectively chided fifteen and sixteen-year-olds for thinking that the “fuzz’ they managed to grow on their lips or chins earned them the right to shave every Sunday). But the bulk of the articles are painfully sincere (but also rather pompous) essays on “Perfection,” Success,” “Faithfulness,” “Home,” “Revenge,” “Perseverance,” and, somewhat improbably, “First Baby.” In the way of nineteenth century writing for young adults, most are aspirational, and they reflect both a nostalgia for childhood and a certain amount of angst about making a living in the world.[3]

At the same time, they were clearly processing their concerns about the war. Numerous pieces dealt with the war; like the juvenile magazines they seemed to be using as models of style and content, they approached the war as a source of inherently interesting news, as a fundamental threat to the nation, and as a chance to demonstrate political loyalty and masculine values. A story that could easily have been published in The Student or Schoolmate or Our Young Folks or any other juvenile magazine from the period told a typical tale of a soldier training, fighting, being captured, and escaping from Libby Prison—but this time, through a story told from the point of view of his boot![4]

A typical page from the Athenaeum. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

But a close reading of the boys’ essays reveal the fact that they are preparing themselves for the possibility of fighting. They describe hardships, but frame the war as survivable. They acknowledge the terrible sacrifices made by many soldiers but present those sacrifices as necessary for the greater good. Throughout, they balance fear with loyalty, loss with the benefit of Union, and hardship with motivation.

Although a few essays employed humor, most were dead serious. A piece on “Courage” equated moral courage with the kind of courage that “enable[d] men to encounter difficulties and dangers with firmness or without fear,” while a Christmas editorial acknowledged the joys of the season—including a welcome break from school—but urged readers not to forget “the poor soldiers . . . fighting the enemies of our country and enduring hardships to save our much-loved Union and secure freedom to all.” A reflection on “The Soldier” acknowledged that life in the army inevitably led to dissolution and sin, but also deserved our sympathy and gratitude.[5]

In a piece called “Blighted Hopes,” the boys indicated they understood the personal stake each American had in the conflict. “Thousands have died on the field of carnage,” it began. “Thousands in whose bosoms have been kindled some high some noble flame aspiring to some great object of which the power of their imagination has enabled them almost to obtain a sweet fore-sight rising up before them like some luminous orb in the far off future.” They died doing their duty, which could be a “hard master.” Some men survive the “leaden hail of the enemy” and return to happy homes, where family members wept tears of joy. But in other homes, where loved ones have failed to return safely, “vacant chairs seem to proclaim to us in loud accents, ‘Blighted Hopes.’” Widows and orphans mourn fallen husbands and fathers’ “war is indeed dashing down the anticipations of many.”[6]

The editors featured sentimental domesticity in a number of articles and a few drawings. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

A poem published in May 1864 tried to imagine the war ending, when, even as the last victims of the war were being buried and their widows began to mourn them, surviving soldiers march home: “The soldiers are coming,/from carnage and gore./They come to their homes,/to be happy once more./They have tasted the hardships,/and dangers of war;/they have learned to know well,/what soldiers are for.” A few months earlier, another poem, “The Dying Soldier,” captured with unusual poignancy—if little literary flair—the conflict between the individual tragedies of soldiers’ deaths and the necessity of those deaths in winning the war. The poem features the thoughts of a dying soldier, who understands that news of his death would break many hearts but understands that it really didn’t matter: “He thought of the tears,/Twould be shed ‘ore his fate,/he thought of the hearts,/that for him would await./It mattered but little,/he was but one./One soldier was naught;/Victory was won.”[7]

The somewhat war-weary and knowing tone of many of the essays and poems in the Athenaeum show teenaged boys, assuming—fearing—that they would eventually play their parts in the war that had been raging for most of their adolescence. They sought to create credibility, to begin to prepare for something they may have instinctively known they could never prepare themselves for, to understand the causes and reasons that the war had to be fought, to talk themselves into thinking that they would be ready when the call came.

 

[1] Dora L. Costa, The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880-1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 198.

[2] Newark High School Athenaeum, October 1863; May 1864, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, NJ.

[3] Athenaeum, April 1864. For a short overview of children’s magazines, see James Marten, “For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Northern Children’s Magazines and the Civil War,” Civil War History 41 (March 1995): 57-75.

[4] Athenaeum, April 1864.

[5] Athenaeum, October 1863; December 1863; April 1864.

[6] Athenaeum, June 1864.

[7] Athenaeum, May 1864; December 1863.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

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