Recently in this column appeared the story of Selden Clobridge, a teenage Civil War soldier from Turin, New York, whose battlefield career ended at the grand old age of 18 after multiple wounds that included limb loss. About 85 miles northeast of Turin, an even younger soldier took it to the extreme, receiving his discharge from the army before he became a teenager.
William R. Bastin was born in December in the town of Lawrence, near the St. Lawrence County line, east of Potsdam. A headstone gives his birth year as 1852, which corresponds with his age in three of six census records and his obituary. Other census records disagree by a year, suggesting he was born in 1851—but by any measure, he was far too young to become a soldier.
When William enlisted at Malone on September 14, 1864, he gave his age as 16. But by most indications, including interviews as an adult, he was actually three months shy of twelve years old when he joined the army, purportedly as a drummer boy. Things didn’t work out as expected, though, and he instead became a child soldier.
Young drummer boys were common during the Civil War. The position was often filled by youths under 18 who lied about their age to join the military. Most were in their teens, but some were pre-teen boys who were adopted as mascots. They generally helped with whatever tasks needed doing, but a drummer’s primary job was employing up to two dozen different drumbeats that provided instructions to soldiers. This included marching beats, signals to retreat, and famously, the long roll, which ordered an attack. It could be a dangerous, even deadly, job, but was much safer than wielding a rifle on the battlefield.
His enlistment papers described Private William Bastin as a blue-eyed, sandy-haired boy of 16. Standing just a quarter inch over five foot three, he was the shortest recruit in the group, and the drummer boy for an outfit organizing at Malone—or so he thought. As William himself later told it, the numbers were insufficient to fill a troop, so he was assigned to the newly formed Company D, which was part of New York’s 39th Regiment—a unit on its way to the battle front!
In mid-October, just thirty-three days after enlisting, young Bastin joined the fighting at Fort Sedgwick, Virginia, south of Petersburg, where he carried a gun instead of a drum. Other battles and skirmishes took place in the same general area, including at Deep Bottom and Hatcher’s Run. In March and April of 1865, the 39th fought in the Appomattox Campaign, joining General Ulysses Grant in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s army. They fought at City Point, Petersburg, White Oak Ridge, Farmville, and again at Petersburg, all in Virginia. William reported being present for the famous general’s surrender at Appomattox.
Through all the fighting and illness, the 39th lost 278 men, but William survived and was mustered out with the rest of Company D on June 7, 1865, at Alexandria, Virginia. He was free to go out with his fellow soldiers and raise a glass to victory—a glass of lemonade in his case, because this veteran fighter was still nine years short of the legal drinking age.
Six months after leaving the army, Bastin celebrated his 13th birthday back home in upstate New York. It’s a historical embarrassment that so many children fought in the Civil War, but despite his youth, William was far from being the youngest American to serve in a conflict sometimes referred to as The Boy’s War. That “honor” likely belongs to Johnny Clem, whose story is truly remarkable. But for all those teens and pre-teens, what a sad excuse for a childhood, and what a sad commentary on society that so many children well under the age of 18 were readily introduced to battlefield horrors.
William Bastin remained humbly proud of his service as one of New York’s youngest soldiers. After the war, he spent his entire life in the North Country, farming near Dickinson Center in Franklin County, and serving nearby as justice of the peace in the town of Waverly. At his passing in 1932, the Women’s Relief Corp, the Grand Army of the Republic veterans, and the American Legion gave him a proper sendoff.
Photos: Young Union soldiers (Library of Congress)
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.