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An Army for the Ages

The American Civil War is often described as a young person’s fight. While many of the soldiers who fought in the war were less than 18 years of age, there were also thousands of older soldiers who filled the ranks.

The average Civil War soldier was about 25 years of age. Although one-quarter of the 2.1 million men who served in the Union military forces were foreign-born, the majority of the soldiers who fought for the union were young white males who were born in North America. African-Americans were not permitted to join the Union Army until May of 1863. By the end of hostilities, nearly 180,000 African-American men had served in the Northern military forces, mostly in the newly formed, United States Colored Troops.

Reportedly, the oldest Union soldier to serve in the war was Curtis King, who enlisted in an Iowa home guard regiment at the age of 80. He died not long after he volunteered in 1863.

The ambrotype pictured here is a large format, quarter plate image in its original gold mat and leather case. The fully uniformed soldier wears a nine button infantry frock coat and proudly holds his government issued musket. His leather bayonet scabbard can be seen suspended from his belt. His identity is unknown, but he is obviously a middle-aged soldier. Because this is an ambrotype – an image made on glass that was popular only at the beginning of the war – it is likely that this portrait was taken in 1861. By 1862, the more expensive and fragile ambrotypes had been displaced by cheaper tintype images. It could be supposed that this older soldier was imbued by the patriotic spirit of those early days of war and enlisted for what he thought would be a short and bloodless conflict. The Civil War would prove to be a grinding conflict that would ultimately take the lives of some 750,000 Americans.

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