The boys of summer

Some of the best stories from Richmond during the Civil War are the ones about children getting into trouble. The boyhood impulse toward deviant behavior is truly a cross-generational phenomenon.

Some of my favorite newspaper stories from Richmond during the Civil War are the ones about children getting into trouble. I find it fascinating that the boyhood impulse toward deviant behavior is a cross-generational phenomenon. I’ve written in the past about the “street gangs” of boys in Richmond and their rock battles, but that wasn’t the only trouble kids got into during the war.

On August 16th, 1862, according to the Richmond Dispatch, some boys got into some trouble for the Civil War equivalent of playing with fireworks:

Dangerous Sport. — Since the series of battles around Richmond, the youths in certain parts of the city have been indulging in every species of sport resembling the sound and appearance of battle, sometimes to the imminent risk of life and limb. Yesterday afternoon, some of these juvenile would be heroes broke open a caisson in the neighborhood of 21st street, from which they extracted several pounds of power, with which they prepared to give the denizens of the locality a salute. A hole was burrowed in an adjacent bank and the powder deposited, and innumerable brickbats piled upon it. The match was then applied, and an explosion resulted which would have laid the report of a 24-pounder in the shade. Should not the authorities arrest the indulgence in such sport? Richmond Dispatch, 8/16/1862

You can imagine the already-frazzled nerves of the populace of Richmond, having been practically under siege for months during the Peninsula Campaign, hearing an explosion like this on the street. Perhaps it’s more fun to imagine the crowd of boys running off in every direction after they lit the fuse.

That wasn’t the only trouble the boys of Richmond got into during the summer of 1862. Back in June, some boys decided to go for the 1862 equivalent of a joy ride:

Caution to Boys. – Three boys were arrested yesterday, and carried before the Head Police, for the offence of appropriating horses, found standing in the streets, for a ride. The official lectured them, and handed them over to Assistant Provost Marshal Alexander, who placed them in Castle Godwin until evening, at which time the city official visited the office of Capt. Alexander, and the boys were again arraigned, and, as they had committed no theft, Capt. A., with the concurrence of the Head of Police, discharged them, with a warning to beware of offending again. The boys breathed freer when the portals of the Castle closed behind them.

I definitely have memories of “borrowing” my parent’s car without permission and smuggling fireworks into my bag for summer camp. While that’s not quite the same, it’s comforting to know that despite so much change over the past 150 years, there are still these kinds of common threads. It’s also interesting to think about the impact the war had on the children of Richmond. With the rationing of food and household goods, the ever-present threat of battle or siege, and the flow of wounded and dead soldiers into the city, it probably forced many to face adulthood far sooner than they would have liked. That’s why I find it heartening to read stories like this of kids being kids, using their imagination and getting into trouble, even as the realities of war were all around them.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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