The best books on childhood in Civil War Era America

Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant Author Of Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in Civil War America
By Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant

Who are we?

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.

The books we picked & why

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Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights

By Robin Bernstein,

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

Why 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.


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

By Jon Grinspan,

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

Why 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.


Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

By Catherine A. Jones,

Book cover of Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

Why 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.


The Children's Civil War

By James Marten,

Book cover of The Children's Civil War

Why 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.


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

By Crystal Lynn Webster,

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Civil War, African Americans, and slaves?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Civil War, African Americans, and slaves.

The American Civil War Explore 194 books about the American Civil War
African Americans Explore 432 books about African Americans
Slaves Explore 58 books about slaves

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Beyond the Founders, We Mean to Be Counted, and Harnessing Harmony if you like this list.