Historians estimate that perhaps as many as twenty percent of Civil War soldiers enlisted under the age of 18. While enlisting officials were not supposed to accept anyone under army regulation age, in effort to fill companies and regiments, they sometimes made exceptions to the rule. Many of these youths served in support roles: musicians, hospital assistants, and couriers, among other duties, yet thousands of youngsters saw combat as arms bearing soldiers, too.
One underage soldier, James Chaney, enlisted in Co. I, 1st United States Colored Infantry, at only 16 years of age. Being so young, Chaney did not have much opportunity to leave a significant amount of documentation that recorded his brief life. Cheney, apparently born free around 1847, in Baltimore, Maryland, appears in the 1850 federal census in that city’s 18th Ward as a four year old. Residing in the household of his mother, Elizabeth “Eliza” Chaney (25 years of age), and his brothers, Isaac (6), Lewis (2), and George (3 months), were also Arlenthia Cheney (18), who was perhaps Eliza’s sister; Benjamin Thomas (18) and John W. Thomas (12). Everyone is described as “mulatto,” and only Benjamin Thomas has an occupation, “laborer,” listed. Having so many youthful individuals in the household, with so little work experience, and thus few chances to build earning power, probably meant times were financially tight for the Chaneys and Thomases.
A decade later, perhaps due to family economic needs, James, Isaac, and Lewis appear residing in a 16th Ward Baltimore hotel owned by William Dorbacker. The three Chaney boys, along with John and William Nelson, all listed as “black,” and noted as “servants,” are the only African Americans residing at the hotel. Full-service hotels of the period readily employed both free and enslaved men, women, and children to clean rooms, do laundry, serve as bell hops and barbers, cook meals, and wait on tables. Free blacks sometimes received wages, tips, and room and board as their compensation.
It was likely that the experience James Chaney gained while working in Dorbacker’s hotel helped bring him to Washington D.C. sometime between the summer of 1860 and his enlistment in the Union army in the summer of 1863. Records show that James worked as a waiter at Banks’s Restaurant and the National Hotel in Washington City before joining up. These records also state that James gave the “greater part of his wages to his mother” so she could buy food, clothes, and pay her rent. Apparently Elizabeth Chaney suffered from bad health that left her unable to work consistently and caused her “spasms . . . so severe as to render her . . . unable for five or six days to perform labor or any sort.” Thus, Elizabeth Chaney “depended upon him for the greater part of her support.” James Cheney was a model son.
National Hotel in Washington D.C. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
One wonders what James Chaney’s primary motivation was to enlist on June 28, 1863. Did he tire of his monotonous waiter duties and long to experience the supposed adventure that came with a soldier’s life? Did he think he could earn more money in the army to help support his mother? Was he more mature in his world views than we typically credit to 16-year olds and thus wish to see slavery eradicated and to prove that men of color could be just as courageous and worthy of citizenship as white men? Obviously, being officially underage, Chaney did not have to enlist. But he did!
Enlisting the 1st USCI’s Company I at age 16, with the stated occupation of waiter, Cheney measured five feet five and a half inches tall, with a complexion described as “yellow.” Signing up on June 28, 1863, on Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River, Chaney’s enlistment officer was Col. William Birney, son of noted abolitionist and former Liberty Party presidential candidate James G. Birney, and older brother of Maj. Gen. David Bell Birney, who was then leading a division in the Army of the Potomac. Experienced officer Col. John Holman received the assignment to initially command the 1st USCI.