A Child's Life during the Civil War
What Was Life Like for Children in the 1860s?
In researching my Civil War ancestor, I became curious about what life was like for his children. While my great-great grandfather was gone three and a half years with the 93rd Indiana Infantry, what was happening with the two young children left at home with their mother?
To find the answers to these questions, I'm reading a number of Civil War diaries and also researching the topic in books and online. I'm a retired librarian, and this is what we do for fun. If you have questions about what life was like for a child during the Civil War, please put your query in the guestbook. I'll do my best to find the answers and put them here.
The topics I'm starting with are what did children wear, what was their daily life like and how did they play (games and toys). I'm going to focus on childhood in the north, as the experience for a southern child would be somewhat different during the war and the life of a child in slavery would be even more so.
Did Children Have Sweets or Candy during the Civil War?
Yes, candy was available at that time in stores or it could be homemade. Cane sugar would probably have been difficult to get in the north since the production of sugar cane in the south was disrupted and shipping was dedicated to war activities. In the far north, maple syrup was made and across the north, sorghum was converted to syrup.
The family could dry fruits like apricots or plums to eat during the winter. Dried fruit concentrated the flavors and sweetness of the fruit and would have been a treat for the children and adults.
- Candy During the Civil War | American Civil War Forums - The Civil War buffs on this forum verified a number of candies were available in the 1860s. They mention horehound candy, Necco Wafers (called Peerless Wafers until after the war), Turkish delight, rock candy, Peppermint humbugs & peppermint sticks.
- Candy: What'd they have? - Civil War Re-enactors Forum - In this discussion, the re-enactors mention some of the same ones listed above. They added black jack sticks, peanut brittle, nonpareils, lollipops, fig and gumdrops. They also mention baked sweets such as treacle-puffs and apple-pasties.
Food Timeline: history notes - candy and recipes that would have been used in the Civil War times. These included meringues (some with hazelnut centers), coconut candy, lemon candy (rock candy), cream candy, taffy made with molasses, and candied orange or lemon peel.
Checkers Was a Popular Game
This was an easy board game to make at home with some wood and paint back in the 1800s. Antique ones are highly valued for their graphic qualities. They make nice displays for the wall.
Homemade Checkerboard from the Civil War Era
Draughts or Checkers?
Draughts is an old-fashioned name for the game of checkers. There's an illustration in the October 1864 Godey's Ladies Magazine showing children playing draughts.
Other board games that were played during the Civil War era are Yankee Pedlar and The Checkered Game of Life. Some were educational games like the Multiplication Table in Rhyme where the players matched cards. The card game of Hearts was played at that time.
Military Related Toys Were Popular
Children Played Games Like Blind Man's Bluff
- I found a drawing of older children and a young girl playing blind man's bluff. It was an illustration from Godey's Ladies Magazine, October 1864.
- Hide and Seek is still played today but goes back many generations.
- The BoardGameGeek - The site explains about a popular board game from the mid-1800s. Called Dr. Busby, it included cards that were divided into 4 families. Read more about it at the site.
- The Authors card game was played during the Civil War. We played this card game in the 1950s when I was a child. I had no idea at the time that it dated back to the Civil War era.
Children Playing - Museum Activity
Other Toys That Children Had in the 1860s
Some were homemade or could be bought from the general store or from a peddler.
- Alphabet blocks have been around for ages. A toddler in the 1860s would have a fun time stacking these and arranging the letters.
- Little girls had china head dolls or homemade rag dolls or cornhusk dolls. Usually, the china head doll would have a cloth body. Sometimes the hands and feet were china also and attached to the cloth arms and legs.
- A rocking horse made of wood was a popular toy.
- Civil War Toys and Games - A great site with descriptions and pictures of many toys and games used by children during the Civil War. You'll recognize many of them (jacks, Jacob's ladder, dominoes, cup and ball, marbles, pick up sticks, tops, quoits, and a rolling hoop.
- Building blocks - As families made wooden items for household and farm use, the leftover pieces could become playthings for the children.
- The toy soldiers that children played with in the 1860s would have been made of lead or tin or carved at home from wood. Plastic soldiers are much more recent and weren't a material available during the mid-1800s.
A Civil War Child's Doll
Young girls learned to sew by making dresses for their doll. In the diary of Carrie Berry, she mentions walking to her aunt's house to get scraps for quilts and to make clothes for her doll. These would be remnants and fabric scraps leftover from making clothes or curtains.
Carrie Berry was a 10-year-old girl living in Atlanta when General Sherman and the Union Army captured the city. In her diary, she describes the effects of the war on her family and herself. You can download for free the whole diary to read: War Through the Eyes of a Child - The Diary of Carrie Berry
A Rocking Horse Was a Fine Toy for a Civil War Child
Make Your Own Rocking Horse
If you are a woodworker, there are patterns for making wooden rocking horses. I'm sure in the 1800s there were many variations on homemade rocking horses.
I found a vintage style rocking horse made of cherry at a site called Horse Hubs. Since we don't have woodworking tools, we could buy one already made like this. It looks very sturdy and has a mane of yarn.
Clothing Worn by Children in the Civil War Era
The picture at the top of this page is from a daguerreotype of Gertrude Mercer Hubbard, with her children Roberta Bell, and Mabel Hubbard Bell taken in 1860. Note the off-the-shoulder style worn by the standing child. This shows up in many photos of girls in the 1860s, so it was the style of the time.
Read a Diary by a Young Girl - from Civil War days
Village Life in America 1852-1872 Including the period of the American Civil War as told in the diary of a school-girl
This book gives a lot of fascinating details about school life, social activities, clothes, games, songs, and other childhood activities from the 1860s.
Available on Kindle for free download. You can also purchase it as a regular book.
Much of the information on this page came from old diaries such as this one (above).
She tells that her grandparents didn't allow a regular deck of cards in the home for religious reasons. They did play a card game called Dr. Busby. (see the link). Another game they played was "The Old Soldier and His Dog" which was played with counters. It is unclear if it was a board game or not.
The Reason I'm Interested in Childhood in the 1860s - I'm researching my Civil War ancestor
When Abraham Tower Bates left to serve in the 93rd Indiana Infantry at the end of August 1862, he left behind his wife, Nancy Angeline (Long) Tower with their two small children. Their son, Erastus Laban Tower, had just turned one that month. Their daughter, Laura Ann Tower, had her third birthday September 29. Abraham served in the Union Army for three years (six months of that time, he was a prisoner of war). Erastus would be four and Laura would be six around the time they once again had a father.
I found an 1861 daguerreotype of a young boy (yes, both boy and girl babies wore dresses at this age). It helped me imagine Erastus at the time his father left for war.
- Civil War on the Home Front
What was life like for a Civil War soldier's wife in Southern Indiana in the 1860s? Here's what I found on this topic.
- Women's Diaries of the Civil War Era
Fortunately there are some women's diaries published in book form and some that can be read online. They shed some light on what life was like for women in the 1860s.
- A Civil War Christmas
What was an American Christmas like during the War Between the States? Each family would have a slightly different Christmas experience, but I found out what kinds of gifts were given in the 1860s. There are descriptions of a child's Christmas and of
Children Had to Help Each Day
At an early age, children learned to help their parents during the 1800s. Especially with the father gone to war, everyone in the home needed to do some of the chores. Little girls learned to sew by stitching a sampler and mending clothing. She might make a small quilt for her doll. Over time they would learn to make clothing and quilts.
Children's Duties and Chores during the 1860s
A child would help tend the garden, pick the vegetables and fruit, and snap peas for the family meal. Girls would learn to make biscuits and other simple cookery.
The boys would bring in wood for the fire, buckets of water for the kitchen and help take care of the animals such as a cow, pigs, chickens and the horse. Older children would watch over the younger children.
We lost our last hog this morning early. Soldiers took him out of the pen. Me and Buddie went around to hunt for him and every where that we inquired they would say that they saw two soldiers driving off to kill him. We will have to live on bread.— Carrie Berry
Videos with Information or Re-Enactments - of Civil War Childhood
Would You Have Liked Being a Child in the 1860s?
Vote in the poll
Children Had Chores to do
Civil War Kid's Day - Video
Illnesses and Childhood in the 1860s - during the Civil War
Many children died quite young from illness or accidents. It was the custom at that time to have a photograph taken of the beloved child to remember them by. At first viewing, one thinks the baby is sleeping, but this is called a post-mortem picture.
- Chronic illness in the 1860s - On this forum, they talk of chronic poor health during the Civil War era. A child with a chronic ear infection might become deaf or an untreated eye condition might cause blindness.
- Plagues and Diseases - Not your ordinary genealogy site, this one tells of the diseases that killed many of our relatives in the good old days. It notes that "in Philadelphia, 1/5th of newborns did not reach age two."
- Illnesses that can be treated today with antibiotics like scarlet fever or prevented with a shot like measles might cause death or have long-term consequences in the 1860s.
An Informative Book about Home Life in the 1800s - The American Frugal Housewife
The edition I read came out in the 1830s, so certainly was available to guide the housewife of the Civil War era. It includes ways to treat various illnesses such as croup or first aid for injuries with the resources of the times. There is advice for having children help with the household chores.
It is available in Kindle as well for free reading. Great deal!
A Bed with a Handmade Quilt on It
Photos of Civil War Children
Because a person had to stay very still for the camera in Civil War times, you will see photos of a child sitting on a blanket. There is a little blurring. Actually the draping behind the child is concealing a parent who is trying to hold the young child still for the photograph.
I've collected on my Civil War Childhood Pinterest pinboard many photos for you to see.
A Child Only Had a Few Pieces of Clothing
A dress for a little girl would have pleats in the front which allows it to be let out as the child grows. A deep hem would allow for lengthening the dress as the child became taller. If the crease from the old hem needed to be covered, some braiding could be added for that.
There were no clothes closets in that time, so the clothes hung on wooden pegs on the wall.
Older boys such as teens wore pretty much the same clothes as grown men, but the jackets were shorter, ending at the waist. The jacket would have a button at the top, not all the way down. Young boys might wear short pants, but teens wore long pants.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Virginia Allain