Boys in Battle: The 51st North Carolina’s Youngest Soldiers

Before reading this post, think of a 14-year-old boy you know. Then imagine him as a Confederate soldier, facing the Union onslaught at Battery Wagner or fighting for his life at Cold Harbor.

Confederate Army regulations established the minimum age for soldiers as eighteen years old. However, regiments often ignored this rule and enlisted any youngster who appeared physically capable of performing military duty. The 51st North Carolina’s ranks contained 119 boys under the age of eighteen. The three youngest lads were only 14 years old when they joined the regiment.

Private William Ledbetter was the youngest soldier to serve in the Fifty-First. Ledbetter, a resident of Cumberland County, enlisted in Company I on March 28, 1862. He was killed by a sharpshooter on June 12, 1864, near Peterburg. The Fayetteville Observer reported William’s age as 16 years, 3 months when he was killed. Based on the Observer‘s information, Private Ledbetter was born in March 1848. He joined the regiment just days after his 14th birthday.

McThomas Lewis of Black Creek travelled to Charleston and enlisted at the 51st North Carolina’s camp on James Island. Lewis joined Company A on March 1, 1863. According to 1850 and 1860 census data, Private Lewis was born between June and September 1848. He was just a few months short of 15 years old when he signed up. McThomas served with the regiment, unharmed, through the end of 1864.

Private Reddin Wilcox joined the Fifty-First on February 28, 1862. He enlisted in Company E when that unit formed up in Robeson County. Wilcox gave his age as 16 when he enlisted, but census records indicate that he may have been as young as 13. In addition, Reddin mentions that he is only 16 years old in a letter he wrote on September 12, 1864. Wilcox’s letter, paired with 1860 census data, suggests that Wilcox was born between October 1847 and July 1848, making him either 13 or 14 years old when he joined the 51st North Carolina.

Early in his enlistment, Reddin Wilcox was hospitalized twice for illness. He was wounded slightly during the Union assault on Battery Wagner in 1863. The next year, Wilcox was captured at Cold Harbor. He was sent to Point Lookout and then transferred to “Hellmira” prison camp. The young warrior died of pneumonia while in captivity.

Copyright © 2021/2022 by Kirk Ward. All rights reserved.

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