The new post comes from regular contributor Brendan Hamilton, who needs no introduction on the site. It brings another insight into Brendan’s fantastic and pioneering research on the boys from the North’s Houses of Refuge who found themselves in Union uniform during the Civil War. On this occasion he takes us through the lives of three young teenagers–two of them Irish American–who were sent to war from St. Louis, Missouri. Brendan takes up the story.

An unidentified youthful Union infantry private (Library of Congress)

The St. Louis House of Refuge in St. Louis was a county-run penal institution for juvenile offenders, established at the direction of the state of Missouri in 1855. While larger reformatories, like those in New York and Massachusetts, enlisted their inmates into the military during the Civil War by the dozens–or even the hundreds–St. Louis’s House of Refuge only recorded five direct enlistments from their institution. The stories of these five recruits from the Gateway to the West are not any less significant or insightful than those of their East Coast counterparts, however. In fact, the history of three of them in particular provides a striking illustration of inequality and privilege in Civil War era America–in 1864, a wealthy businessman, with the help of an ordained minister, used a position of public trust to claim guardianship over three minors, so that his own son could enlist them in the Union Army. Two of these three convicts-turned-recruits were Irish immigrants. While one was ultimately discharged due to his youth, the other two slipped through the recruiting depot unnoticed, and went from raising hell on the streets of St. Louis to “making Georgia howl” with General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee. (1)

The St. Louis House of Refuge photographed in 1894 (Missouri Historical Society)

The House of Refuge from which these boys hailed primarily imprisoned juveniles who were arrested or committed by family members in the city and county of St. Louis. Among them were many Irish and German immigrants, as well as children displaced and orphaned as a result of the Civil War, which had embroiled and divided the population of Missouri and led to an enormous refugee crisis as civilians fled war-torn regions to seek shelter in and around urban areas and military posts. Like many American reformatories, the St. Louis House employed its inmates as contract laborers caning chairs and making shoes. Its grounds also included a farm, where the boys could be employed and educated in growing fruits and vegetables. The verdant, idyllic exterior of the House concealed horrific conditions within its walls. An 1872 grand jury investigation laid bare a brutal system of punishments employed by the staff upon its boys. Numerous “coarsely dressed” and barefoot inmates testified to being routinely whipped. Several even stripped off their clothes to display scars and bruises for the grand jury to behold firsthand. In addition to the corporal punishments they were forced to endure, the witnesses also recounted being subjected to traumatic solitary confinement in the House’s four by nine foot, windowless, unlit, and poorly ventilated cells. One boy was confined in solitary for ten days, three of which were spent without anything to eat or drink. On the days he was actually fed, his diet was limited to bread and water. Outside of solitary, the food and drink was hardly much better, and included coffee “made out of burned bread” which frequently contained cockroaches. It is not difficult to imagine a chance to enlist the Union Army looking like an attractive opportunity to those inmates who could gain the approval of the House’s Board of Managers to do so. (2)

Headline from the 18th July 1872 issue of The Missouri Republican, regardng the grand jury investigation into the House of Refuge (Missouri Republican)

On 28th January 1864, two inmates, Patrick Dugan and Patrick O’Brien, were released for just that purpose, and accepted by the captain of the Provost Marshal as privates in the 27th Missouri Infantry. A native of County Tipperary, Patrick Dugan was committed to the House of Refuge in September 1863 after being convicted in a criminal court on charges of burglary and larceny. While his entry in the House’s commitment register suggests the Irish immigrant would have been sixteen years old at the time of both his imprisonment and release, his enlistment lists him as fifteen. Either age would have put Dugan well under the legal enlistment age of eighteen, but it appears that neither he nor the House staff made any effort to conceal that fact, and the recruiting officer and surgeon accepted him regardless. A consent form included in his enlistment papers was signed by House of Refuge President (and former St. Louis Mayor) John How, acting as the boy’s legal guardian. In addition to serving as president of the House, How was a successful leather dealer whose personal and real estate at the time of the 1860 US Census was valued at over $1 million, or nearly $37 million in today’s money.

House of Refuge President John How (Missouri Historical Society)
The consent portion of Patrick Dugan’s enlistment record, signed by John How (NARA)

Patrick Dugan, the immigrant boy for whom How claimed guardianship, did not lack living relatives. In fact, the 1860 US Census shows but one Patrick Dugan, born in Ireland circa 1848, in all of St. Louis County. He was living under the care of two older Dugans, most likely his parents, and one younger boy, presumably his brother. The head of household, John Dugan, was a forty-year-old Irish immigrant laborer. In striking contrast to John How, John Dugan claimed personal property worth just $5 in total, or about $160 today. The presence of parents was irrelevant to the House of Refuge’s staff, however; since Patrick Dugan was incarcerated there he was under the institution’s care, and they therefore had a legal claim of guardianship in loco parentis. Amazingly, the enlisting officer from the 27th Missouri was none other than John How’s son, Major James F. How. The witness signature on Dugan’s consent form was provided by the Reverend George S. Shaw, a Unitarian clergyman and former instructor at the House of Refuge who had himself enlisted in the same regiment less than a month prior. Dugan was examined and accepted by Surgeon L.D. Morse, who recorded that the young recruit was 5’5” tall, had gray eyes, sandy hair, and a light complexion. (3)

1860 U.S. Census entry for the family of John How (NARA)
1860 U.S. Census entry for the family of Patrick Dugan (NARA)

Dugan’s youthful appearance must have raised eyebrows at the Benton Barracks recruitment depot in St. Louis while the boy was stationed there awaiting transfer to his regiment. On 13th February 1864 the commander of the depot, Captain William Walker, along with Captain John A. Thompson, the post’s mustering and disbursement officer, penned a letter to the Acting Assistant Provost Marshal General, Colonel E.B. Alexander, pleading for Dugan to be released on account of his age. They reported that they “duly examined the recruit” and found him to be unfit for service due to his “extreme youth,” which rendered him ineligible by regulation, as well as their conclusion that he was “not physically developed sufficiently” for the duties of soldiering. Surgeon William Fritz examined Dugan and came to the same conclusion. If any of these officers were aware that Major How’s father–the former mayor of St. Louis–acted as guardian to provide consent for this would-be child soldier, they omitted that fact from their correspondence. It wasn’t until April that Dugan was finally discharged from the Army for disability. The order to do so finally came from Major General William S. Rosecrans, then commanding the Department of Missouri. The accompanying disability discharge noted that “with proper care and examination,” the boy’s eligibility “might have been discovered” and precluded his earlier acceptance into the Army. (4)

The Certificate of Disability “by reason of being under age” issued with respect to Patrick Dugan (NARA)

While Patrick Dugan faced additional scrutiny, two other underage House of Refuge recruits, Patrick O’Brien and James W. Bates slipped through the cracks apparently without incident. O’Brien, who, like Dugan, was an Irish native, had a long history with the House of Refuge. His sister had him committed to the institution in 1859 when he was twelve years old for the offense of “incorrigibility.” He was released eight months later, only to be returned in 1861 for the crime of larceny. This time, O’Brien served out a full year in the House, but it was only six months before he was caught stealing again and returned for a third time in May 1863. On 27th January 1864, O’Brien was released alongside Patrick Dugan to enlist in Company B of the 27th Missouri. O’Brien’s age is listed as eighteen on his enlistment, but in reality he was between sixteen and seventeen at the time. And while at 5’3” he was shorter than his younger comrade, the gray-eyed, black-haired recruit was likewise enlisted by Major How, the House of Refuge president’s son, accepted by the same examining surgeon, and made it through the recruiting depot without being called out by the officers there. O’Brien was eligible for a $60 bonus, for which he received a $13 advance payment. The teenage convict served with 27th Missouri in the Union Army of the Tennessee’s XV Corps through the Atlanta Campaign, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and the Carolinas Campaign, and at the war’s conclusion, marched with his comrades in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, D.C. in May 1865. (5)

Unidentified Union soldiers in a captured Confederate fort during the Atlanta Campaign (Library of Congress)

James W. Bates was committed to the House of Refuge early in 1862 for the crime of larceny. He was released after a year in the custody of George S. Simms of Irondale, Missouri, in what was likely an indentured servitude, but he was sent back to the House a mere ten days’ later for another act of larceny. He spent the rest of 1863 incarcerated there. When the House’s Board of Managers released Bates on 2nd February 1864 to enlist as a private in Company A of the 66th Illinois Infantry, the teenager had spent most of the war to that point behind bars. His enlistment abstract indicates he was enlisted by a “Major Howe,” who was almost certainly the same James F. How who enlisted Dugan and O’Brien. Like Dugan, Bates’ enlistment record puts his age as just fifteen at the time of his enlistment. His legal ineligibility was apparently irrelevant. The Missouri native was recorded as 5’6” tall, with black hair, hazel eyes, and a light complexion. (6)

Member’s of Birge’s Western Sharpshooters (Digital Research Library of Illinois)

The regiment to which Bates was assigned was by then a veteran unit, better known under the moniker of Birge’s Western Sharpshooters. Conceived of in 1861 by John C. Fremont as a specialized force of marksmen, the Sharpshooters were recruited from all over the Western U.S. and initially armed with highly accurate Plains Rifles. In 1863, many members of the regiment opted to use their own money to purchase themselves 16-shot Henry Repeating Rifles. It is possible Bates put part of his enlistment bounty toward this purpose. The weapons gave the regiment a distinct advantage in firepower over the single shot muzzle-loaders used by most Confederate infantrymen, and they put them to extensive use serving with the Army of the Tennessee in the Atlanta Campaign. Like his fellow inmate O’Brien in the 27th Missouri, Bates survived the battles for Atlanta and accompanied his regiment through Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign before marching with the rest of Sherman’s veteran at the Grand Review. (7)

The Grand Review in 1865 (Library of Congress)

While O’Brien and Bates finished out their enlistment terms through the end of the war, Major James F. How, who enlisted them both from his father’s House of Refuge, did not. Unlike rank and file enlisted men, who risked facing public execution for desertion, officers had the choice to resign from the Army at their own discretion. How, who had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, did so in July 1864, at the height of the critical campaign for Atlanta. Citing unspecified “private interests” requiring his attention at home, he tendered his resignation and hurried back to civilian life in St. Louis. (8)


(1) 1861 Ordinances of the City of St. Louis, St. Louis House of Refuge Commitment Register (Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center).

(2) “House of Refuge Infamy,” The Missouri Republican, 18 July 1872.

(3) Commitment Register, Compiled Military Service Records, 1860 US Federal Census, The Unitarian Register, Vol. 87.

(4) Compiled Military Service Records.

(5) Commitment Register, Compiled Military Service Records.

(6) Commitment Register, Databases of Illinois Veterans.

(7) Birge’s Western Sharpshooters in the Civil War: 1861-1865, Lorenzo A. Barker.

(8) Compiled Military Service Records.