Regular contributor Brendan Hamilton returns with more utterly fascinating research from his project examining underprivileged boys from the North’s juvenile justice system who found themselves in Union service during the American Civil War. You can catch Brendan’s previous post on this topic here. This time round he tells us the story of three boys who faced the VMI Cadets at the Battle of New Market-two of whom were Irish American.
“Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.”
With this solemn command, Confederate General John C. Breckinridge did ever so hesitantly send the Cadet Battalion of the Virginia Military Institute into action at the Battle of New Market, Virginia on 15th May 1864. Their climactic charge lives on in countless books, articles, paintings, and even a film, as does the dramatic moment Breckinridge decided to put these soldiers into the thick of battle. It was a last resort; the VMI cadets were some of Virginia’s most promising youths, on solid career paths to be officers and Southern gentlemen. In stark contrast to these young lions were the forgotten boys of the Massachusetts State Reform School who stood against them at New Market in the ranks of the 34th Massachusetts Infantry. An unknown number of former juvenile delinquents shed their brogans and their blood in the same Virginia mire, fighting the VMI cadets hand-to-hand in the desperate fight for the Union artillery. These boy soldiers had been homeless vagrants and petty thieves before the war, and were to a great extent the products of abject poverty, neglect, and wanton abuse. Some of them had even been granted early releases from the Reform School specifically to enlist. While they may have been guided by patriotic motives, the promise of an end to captivity and a source of income were also undoubtedly factors in some of their decisions to serve. No monument stands in their honor, no films have been made to tell their stories, and if anyone prayed for God’s forgiveness before ordering them into battle, their words have been lost like so many shoes in the mud.
Here are the stories of just three of these boys, Privates John Mockley, Thomas Dugan, and George H. Bascomb.
John Mockley was born in Albany, New York to Irish immigrant parents. The Mockleys were Roman Catholics who attended mass “when they could.” John Mockley’s case history record from the State Reform School characterizes his family as “poor + wretched.” His father abused his mother, drank heavily, and sometimes stole things like liquor and wood. His mother, on the other hand, was described as “a kind good woman.” She fled her abusive husband and took refuge at the local poor house in or near Springfield, Massachusetts. John Mockley’s life deteriorated further after her departure, and by the age of eleven he was roaming the streets seeking out sources of income and food. He stole money and fruit on numerous occasions and became “a great thief” over time. His case history record describes him as a “profane, untruthful, Sabbath breaker,” and a “robber of birds’ nests.” Mockley was arrested at the age of twelve, four weeks after his mother died in the poor house. The police caught him stealing a basket of crackers and $1.13 in cash and the court offered him a choice: he could spend three months incarcerated in the House of Correction among its general population of adult convicts, or he could spend his minority (potentially up to the age of 21) in the State Reform School. He chose the latter option. (1)
Mockley enlisted in the 34th Massachusetts in July of 1862 at the age of seventeen. He was 5’5” inches tall, with light hair, a light complexion, and black eyes. By the spring of 1864 he was a veteran, and had recovered from a gunshot wound he received at the Battle of Charlestown the previous October. Detached as skirmishers at New Market, Mockley and many of his comrades in Company C were cut off from the rest of the Union forces and captured during the Confederate assault. They were then sent to the infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Mockley survived the ordeal and was transferred to Wilmington, North Carolina. There, he and many of his fellow prisoners escaped to the surrounding swamps after the Confederates abandoned the prison camp following the Union capture of Wilmington in February 1865. Mockley returned North aboard a hospital ship after he was rescued by the advancing Union troops. He reenlisted in the 14th U.S. Infantry regiment that August and was honorably discharged in December 1865. (2)
Thomas Dugan had no memory of his parents. They left him behind in his native Ireland as a small child when they emigrated to America, likely with the intention of sending for him once they had planted new roots across the Atlantic. Tragically, that was not to be; they both died shortly after arriving. Thomas Dugan emigrated instead with his aunt when he was four. She boarded him out to many different places, “but no one had any particular care of him.” He worked as a child laborer in a mill for a year and half and attended school some. Eventually, the Reverend Horatio Wood of Lowell, Massachusetts took Dugan in and arranged for a local family to let him live with them. After a few months, Dugan started keeping company with “bad boys,” refused to work, and ultimately ran away and hid out. Wood tracked the boy down and had him committed to the State Reform School in 1857 for the crime of vagrancy. Dugan’s case history characterizes him as “profane” and “untruthful” and records that he had previously stolen money, apples, and iron. He had been arrested once before for truancy. The record also indicates that while Dugan’s parents’ and aunt’s religious backgrounds were Roman Catholic, Dugan himself attended Unitarian Sabbath School at Wood’s Free Chapel. In 1859, the Reform School indentured Dugan out as a farm laborer to an E.H. Wood of Hawley, Massachusetts. He remained there at least through the time of the 1860 Federal Census. (3)
In December 1863, Thomas Dugan enlisted in Company B of the 34th Massachusetts Infantry and was paid a $60 bounty. The young recruit had blue eyes, light hair, a dark complexion, and stood 5’7 ¾” tall. He offered his age as eighteen, which was likely somewhere near the truth as much as Dugan knew it. He concealed his Irish nativity to the recruiting officer, however, giving his birthplace as Lowell. The Battle of New Market was likely Dugan’s first major combat experience, and it was nearly his last. He was seriously wounded, and spent months recovering in a military hospital in Maryland before returning to duty in December 1864. He rejoined the 34th in time for its dramatic charge on Fort Gregg during the final assault on Petersburg on April 2nd, 1865, and survived to serve through the Appomattox Campaign. (4)
George H. Bascomb
A bootmaker’s son, George H. Bascomb was a native of Worcester, Massachusetts who was committed to the State Reform School in 1856 at the age of ten for “stubbornness.” His parents were Massachusetts natives whose moral influences were characterized in Bascomb’s case history as “not very good.” The Bascombs occasionally attended meetings at Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Unitarian church, but they were generally not very religious, a fact that clearly caused consternation among the Reform School staff. George Bascomb’s case history laments that he “never heard his parents pray, nor was ever he taught a prayer by them.” The family relocated to Kansas for a short time. It is possible they were Free-Stater abolitionists moving to the then-territory of Kansas to prevent it from becoming a slave state, or perhaps they were seeking new economic opportunities. Whatever the case may have been, they were not in Kansas long before they decided to return to Massachusetts. George Bascomb attended school some and helped his father stitch boots, but he “played truant,” left home without his parents’ permission, and stayed out all night. He admitted to having smoked a cigar, but was not a habitual smoker. (5)
Young Bascomb did not adjust well to the rigid discipline of the Reform School. His case history record coolly reports that he was “whipped quite a number of times” for talking. The Reform School’s staff employed both a long leather strap and a rattan cane to discipline inmates for a variety of offenses by lashing them across their bare backs, buttocks, and the backs of their hands. Corporal punishment was employed routinely in most of America’s reformatories and could be both physically severe and emotionally scarring. Luckily for Bascomb, he was not held by the Reform School for his entire minority. He was back home with his parents by the time of the 1860 Federal Census. (6)
George H. Bascomb enlisted in Company B of the 34th Massachusetts in June 1862 at the age of fifteen, though he gave his age as eighteen. He was 5’3” tall, with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and brown hair, and he described his occupation simply as “laborer.” Bascom survived the fight with the VMI cadets at New Market uninjured, served alongside his regiment in five other major battles in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, and was present for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. (5)
(1) Massachusetts State Reform School, History of Boys; (2) Compiled Military Service Records, Life with the Thirty-fourth Mass., Andersonville and Fort McHenry Civil War Prisoner Index, US Army Enlistments; (3) Massachusetts State Reform School, History of Boys; (4) Compiled Military Service Records; (5) Massachusetts State Reform School, History of Boys, Investigation into the Management and Discipline of the State Reform School at Westborough, 1860 US Federal Census; (6) Compiled Military Service Records;
Massachusetts State Reform School, History of Boys, 1856.
U.S. Compiled Military Service Records.
U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914.
1860 US Federal Census.
Andersonville and Fort McHenry Civil War Prisoner Index.
Lincoln, William Sever. Life with the Thirty-fourth Mass. Infantry in the War of the Rebellion. Worcester, MA: Noyes, Snow, 1879.
Investigation into the Management and Discipline of the State Reform School at Westborough Before the Committee on Public Charitable Institutions. Boston: A.J. Wright, 1877.