My favorite books on childhood in Civil War Era America

Why are we passionate about this?

We are two historians who have been writing together for about a decade now, first on project related to race relations after WWI, then on a book about debates over the enlistment age in nineteenth century America. Rebecca teaches at UCSD while Frances works at the University of Sydney in Australia, but we regularly meet online to write together and talk about our favorite new books.


We wrote...

Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in Civil War America

By Frances M. Clarke, Rebecca Jo Plant,

Book cover of Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in Civil War America

What is our book about?

The first study to focus on underage enlistment in the U.S. Civil War, Of Age demonstrates that a full ten percent of the Union army enlisted when below the age of eighteen. Looking at both the Confederate and Union armies, it explains why mid-nineteenth century American society and culture facilitated youth enlistment, even as medical experts decried it. Tracing the heated conflicts between parents who sought to recover their sons and military and federal officials who resisted their claims, this book exposes larger, underlying struggles over the centralization of legal and military power.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant Why did I love this book?

Who gets to claim “childhood innocence” and the protections that come with this designation? Certainly not Black children in nineteenth-century America, according to Robin Bernstein. They were instead pictured as “pickaninnies”—comic figures who felt no pain, whatever mischief befell them. This book won a slew of awards for good reason: reading the racial ‘scripts’ in seemingly innocuous cultural products like children’s picture books, dolls, and knickknacks, Bernstein reveals how race-making hides in plain sight.

By Robin Bernstein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Racial Innocence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2013 Book Award Winner from the International Research Society in Children's Literature
2012 Outstanding Book Award Winner from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education
2012 Winner of the Lois P. Rudnick Book Prize presented by the New England American Studies Association
2012 Runner-Up, John Hope Franklin Publication Prize presented by the American Studies Association
2012 Honorable Mention, Distinguished Book Award presented by the Society for the Study of American Women Writers

Dissects how "innocence" became the exclusive province of white children, covering slavery to the Civil Rights era
Beginning in the mid nineteenth century in America, childhood became synonymous…


Book cover of The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century

Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant Why did I love this book?

Grinspan’s fluid prose wonderfully evokes the social world of antebellum politics, showing the central role that children and young people played in the nation’s political life. In an age when popular amusements in small towns were few, politicking provided compelling spectacle and diversion for Americans of all ages. Among many other insights, Grinspan shows how the emotional intensity that male youths brought to politics—especially as members of quasi-military organizations like Wide Awake Clubs—helped define the raucous tenor of the 1850s that led to the Civil War.

By Jon Grinspan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Virgin Vote as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There was a time when young people were the most passionate participants in American democracy. In the second half of the nineteenth century--as voter turnout reached unprecedented peaks--young people led the way, hollering, fighting, and flirting at massive midnight rallies. Parents trained their children to be "violent little partisans," while politicians lobbied twenty-one-year-olds for their "virgin votes"-the first ballot cast upon reaching adulthood. In schoolhouses, saloons, and squares, young men and women proved that democracy is social and politics is personal, earning their adulthood by participating in public life.

Drawing on hundreds of diaries and letters of diverse young Americans--from…


Book cover of Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant Why did I love this book?

This inspired, award-winning study looks at how black and white households were reshaped in Virginia after the Civil War. It’s full of captivating stories: Black parents trying to wrest their children away from former enslavers; once-privileged White families having to send their boys or girls into the job market to compensate for the loss of enslaved laborers; or officials coping with masses of orphaned children. It also shows the different ways that adults used ideas of childhood for political ends, as well as how children themselves fared in the aftermath of war.

By Catherine A. Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Intimate Reconstructions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Intimate Reconstructions, Catherine Jones considers how children shaped, and were shaped by, Virginia's Reconstruction. Jones argues that questions of how to define, treat, reform, or protect children were never far from the surface of public debate and private concern in post-Civil War Virginia. Through careful examination of governmental, institutional, and private records, the author traces the unpredictable paths black and white children traveled through this tumultuous period. Putting children at the center of the narrative reveals the unevenness of the transitions that defined Virginia in the wake of the Civil War: from slavery to freedom, from war to peace,…


Book cover of The Children's Civil War

Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant Why did I love this book?

When this work first came out, it was the only wide-ranging study of children’s lives during the American Civil War. Marten revealed how much there was to know about this topic, and how much there was to work with—not just material produced by adults for or about children—from picture books and board games to artwork and literature—but also a wealth of letters, diaries, and newspapers written by children to document their wartime experiences. Marten, as either author or editor, subsequently followed up with numerous books that have expanded research in this area. But this one remains a favourite for its readable prose and deadpan asides.

By James Marten,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Children's Civil War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Children--white and black, northern and southern--endured a vast and varied range of experiences during the Civil War. Children celebrated victories and mourned defeats, tightened their belts and widened their responsibilities, took part in patriotic displays and suffered shortages and hardships, fled their homes to escape enemy invaders and snatched opportunities to run toward the promise of freedom. Offering a fascinating look at how children were affected by our nation's greatest crisis, James Marten examines their toys and games, their literature and schoolbooks, the letters they exchanged with absent fathers and brothers, and the hardships they endured. He also explores children's…


Book cover of Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North

Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant Why did I love this book?

Historians have charted the long, slow process of emancipation in Northern states. But no one has looked before at how children fared during this process. Webster’s ground-breaking work shows that it was virtually impossible for Black children in ostensibly free states to escape politics: as individuals living in a racist society, and as symbols of African Americans’ future, whatever they did or said was invariably surveilled, dissected, and judged. Racist thinking and racialised structures also severely curtailed freedom for the young.

Many Black Northern children were indentured or bound out, often in exploitative labor arrangements that restricted future possibilities. Others were confined to institutions like reformatories or orphanages, usually segregated based on pseudoscientific understandings of race that marked Black children as deviant, violent, or inferior. Circumventing the way Black suffering has been obscured in historical records, Webster manages to piece together archival fragments that show widespread victimization of Black children alongside the creative methods they used to resist their subjugation.

By Crystal Lynn Webster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For all that is known about the depth and breadth of African American history, we still understand surprisingly little about the lives of African American children, particularly those affected by northern emancipation. But hidden in institutional records, school primers and penmanship books, biographical sketches, and unpublished documents is a rich archive that reveals the social and affective worlds of northern Black children. Drawing evidence from the urban centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, Crystal Webster's innovative research yields a powerful new history of African American childhood before the Civil War. Webster argues that young African Americans were frequently left…


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The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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