The Boy Soldier

I want to say, as we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home. I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away to get into such a mess as I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me. It is very trying to one’s nerves to lay under fire and not be able to do anything in return. But as soon as we were ordered forward, the fear left me, and I went forward with a will, certain we would do them up in a hurry and have this over with.¹

Elisha Stockwell, Jr.
Wisconsin 14th Regiment, Company I
enlisted at the age of 15

It was Tuesday, October 29, 1861 in old De Pere², when Henry J. Cady enlisted in the Civil War. Private Cady would join the ranks of Wisconsin’s 14th Infantry, Company F, nicknamed the “De Pere Rifles”.

In the Civil War it was quite common for boys to enlist. Although not legal, recruitment offices usually looked the other way. Today, experts estimate 1 in 5 Civil War soldiers were under the age of 18³, leaving many to dub it the “Boys’ War”. At the time of his enlistment, Henry Cady was fifteen years old.

Fellow Soldier, James K. Newton, Narrator of the story “Little Cady”

Also from De Pere, was fellow private, James K. Newton. James was 18 years old and, like Cady, the son of a prominent farming family. In the years after the war Newton would recall his friend Henry. These memories would become the basis for the short story “Little Cady”,³ authored by Newton’s wife under the pen name Jane Scarborough. The story was widely published in the years following the Civil War but was thought to be lost to time.⁴

Using “Little Cady” as source material, the following is the story of Henry J. Cady :

Henry, a childishly chubby boy barely shy of 16 years old, often spent his days attentively watching the first squads drilling near the school house.  Both his curiosity and amazement eventually led him to the doctor’s office where he recited his age and dutifully provided his rehearsed responses, hoping he’d pass the exam and enlist in what would become the bloodiest war on U.S. soil.  The doctor asked young Cady his age, and he straightened himself and obediently replied, “Not twenty yet.” The doctor laughed at this response, but certainly understood the probable fate of a young, inexperienced child entering a war that was far too complex for him to understand.

Not too long after this, Henry made it to camp. He was agreeably pleasant and was truly a breath of fresh air. His spirit had not yet been jilted by the horrors of war and his manners and domestic routines, from washing his face and hands daily to combing his hair, never faltered. Soldiers camped alongside Private Cady never heard a foul word escape his childlike, rosy lips, and they certainly never saw him partake in any whiskey or tobacco; which was a dark contrast to the angry curses of his fellow men.  On quiet evenings, Cady frequented a spot under a tree with a can of fruit in his hand, staring into the night sky and talking of home, birds, flowers, and other fragments of a young boy’s innocence.

The first march on foot from Pittsburg Landing to Corinth, which was about twenty miles, was a painstakingly long, hot, and exhausting trek. Many of the men fell out and others complained of the terrible heat. When the soldiers had to crawl through deep ravines, Henry often laughed as he made his way through the rifts.  His laughter was a delight to everyone and proved comforting to those alongside him. Young Cady never complained, and this was true in everything he did. He worked hard, he made coffee for the cooks, and he was always on the front lines amongst some of the toughest men. He would load his gun and fire as quick as the best of them, often bellowing out an Indian ‘whoop’ each time he emptied a round.

By the time a harsh and fearful winter came that year, Cady had earned his corporal stripes.  As he watched the tailor sew the stripes onto his tiny little jacket, everyone in Cady’s company was as proud of those stripes as he was. Henry befriended a lot of soldiers, tempering their hardened souls, weary of war, loss, and sometimes, hope.

Battle Flag of the Wisconsin 14th Infantry

In late Spring of 1863, during the siege of Vicksburg, a volunteer was requested to take a position held by a rebel battery.  This request was extraordinarily dangerous, but Corporal Cady was one of two volunteers to eagerly come forward. The Captain insisted Cady not go, and fortunately this time, he was spared. However, on July 4, 1863, little Cady’s company was given the great honor of leading the troops into Vicksburg. Henry was grazed by a bullet in his chest, and after realizing it was only a bruise, he mustered his strength, seized his gun and along with the others charged the fort where the confederate soldiers maintained position. Through a shower of bullets, Cady managed to sneak under a small bush where he lay, fatally wounded. His left arm was shattered below the elbow and he lost a great deal of blood.  Henry laid in the arms of fellow friend and soldier, James Newton, and buried his head into his chest, crying as if he were the only mother he would ever see again. Cady was carried off to a field hospital where he passed away shortly thereafter; a little boy– a child— without his mom or his dad beside him to bring comfort, but rather the recent memories of a childhood given up far too soon.

Cady’s cap was given to a faithful friend and soldier as a keepsake. When the soldiers went home on furlough and stepped out onto the depot platform after arriving home, Cady’s father was the first to meet the company. He clutched little Henry’s cap and wailed, “But you couldn’t bring back my boy!” Cady’s father tried in vain to reach his little boy, but after reaching Memphis, was not permitted to go any further. The child died there alone, and the cap was the only tangible reference the family had left.⁶

Cady was a living piece of every man’s best memory from home; day in and day out, he was the same brave, affectionate, perfectly innocent child.  He lived among all the sin and roughness of the dirty tumultuous camp, with all the cleanliness and purity of body and soul he would have kept on his father’s farm back home.  He went about his soldier duties—in battle, upon march, in night watch—as naturally, quietly, as sunnily, as he would have gone about his chores at home. No amount of being loved hurt him. Every man in the company would save his best morsel for him.  But then, he gave his best things to every man. And he took and gave, with the same child enjoyment of the good thing and the good fellowship.”

excerpt from “Little Cady” by Jane Scarborough

Of the hundred men who marched out of Fond du Lac with the 14th Wisconsin Company F, thirty-six were left to go into that charge where Henry Cady was mortally wounded.  Of that thirty-six, twenty-one were killed or wounded. Although Cady perished that day, his spirit lived on and served as an inspiration to the remaining company who survived.⁶

Henry and Electa’s shared headstone

In a six month period, the Cady family would lose a son and two brothers to the Civil War. Their daughter Electa (4 years younger than Henry), also died in 1863. Henry and Electa share a memorial at Lawrence Cemetery, located on their family’s old farm.

1 “Private Elisha Stockwell, Jr., Sees the Civil War” by Elisha Stockwell, Jr.
“Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865”
3 “Boy Soldiers of the Civil War” by Gareth Davies
4 “History of Brown County, Wisconsin: Past and Present, Volume 1”, by Deborah Beaumont Martin
5 “Little Cady” by Jane Scarborough
6 New version of “Little Cady” by Dawn Hoffman

A very special thanks to Dawn Hoffman, without whom, this post could not be possible.

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