Child soldiers serving in the American Civil War wasn’t an uncommon phenomenon. Historians estimate that about 20% of Civil War soldiers were under 18. Some served as drummer boys on land, and others as young as 10 served as “powder boys” or “powder monkeys” on US battleships at sea. Powder monkeys — typically between ages 10 and 16 — were chosen because of their size. They could easily maneuver throughout the ship, often barefoot, while carrying two leather bags of gunpowder from the ship’s magazines to cannons in the heat of battle.
While powder monkeys existed during the Age of Sail — a time period in which global trade and naval warfare dominated the 16th and 19th centuries — it was during the Civil War that some emerged as heroes.
Powder monkeys were commonly between ages 10 and 16 and helped ferry gunpowder to restock cannons during the heat of battle. Wikimedia Commons photo.
James Machon — who held the peculiar naval rank of Boy 1st Class — served aboard the USS Brooklyn during the Battle of Mobile Bay in Alabama in August 1864. During the hellacious attack against Fort Morgan and the Tennessee rebel gunboat, Machon ferried gunpowder to restock cannons while under fire, surviving two bursting shells that landed within his vicinity. Machon kept his guns loaded and firing, culminating in the Tennessee’s surrender. As a result of his bravery, Machon was awarded the Medal of Honor.
However, Machon wasn’t the first powder monkey to receive the Medal of Honor. In fact, two others were recognized for heroism during the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April 1862. Second Class Boy Oscar Peck and Third Class Boy George Hollat, both 14 years old, were recognized for defending the USS Varuna from an intense Confederate assault by the CSS Governor Monroe and the CSS Stonewall Jackson. The pair remained aboard the USS Varuna despite suffering three ramming attempts by the two Confederate gunboats.
As the Varuna began to sink, Peck and Hollat continued to load and fire naval artillery at the enemy ships at extremely close range, badly damaging them. Each survived the battle and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.