Hampshire Twp. 9-year-old among youngest in Civil War
By Denise Moran For The Courier-News March 28, 2013 11:36AM
Photo of Chauncey Perry "Commodore" Byam, formerly of Hampshire Township, who at 9 years old was one of the youngest Union soldiers during the Civil War. This photo, from a Harper's Weekly magazine article Byam wrote in 1909, was taken when he was 11 years old. | Photo courtesy~Sycamore Public Library
Updated: May 1, 2013 2:03PM
HAMPSHIRE — Harper’s Weekly magazine once stated that Chauncey Perry “Commodore” Byam, formerly of Hampshire Township, was the youngest Union soldier during the Civil War.
The magazine was published by Harper & Brothers from 1857 to 1916. Since the article was published, other soldiers, such as Avery Brown, have laid claim to being the youngest to serve in the Union army.
Brown reportedly was 8 years old when he was mustered into the Ohio Volunteer Infantry — a year younger than Byam when he became a drummer boy with Company D of the 24th Regiment of the Iowa Volunteer Infantry.
Byam knew he was born in Henpeck, the original name of Hampshire since the 1840s. However, he said he could not remember the new name the village had adopted when Hampshire was incorporated in 1876.
Byam wrote about his life in the June 12, 1909, issue of Harper’s Weekly.
“In the year 1851, my father emigrated with his family to Illinois, settling first in Cook County, near Chicago, but soon moved to a small town in Kane County where, or in the vicinity of which, he taught school and studied law during the autumn and winter of 1851 and the succeeding fall of 1852. On October 22nd of the latter year I was born. While I do not remember the name of this town, I do distinctly recall that my older brothers and sister annoyed my infancy with the information that I was born in Henpeck, which seems to have been a nickname applied to the place of my birth, and which was rendered all the more poignant to me by reason of its proper name having been, to my mind, quite aristocratic; although, as stated, I do not recall it.”
The 1850 U.S. Federal Census stated that Byam’s father, Eber Cole, was “a resident of Hampshire Township in Kane County, Illinois.”
In addition to his father, Byam’s family consisted of his mother, Sarah; his brothers, Charles and William; and his sister, Frances.
Family in war
The family moved to Iowa when Byam was a young child. He said he first became interested in becoming a drummer when he attended a Fourth of July celebration. His family bought his first drum in 1860.
“Guided by the instructions of a drummer of the neighborhood,” Byam wrote, “I soon became very proficient. In the troubled days just preceding the war, I was in great demand as a drummer at all public gatherings, greatly to my own personal vanity and the undisguised envy of all my boy associates.”
Byam’s father became a colonel in 1862, the same year that Byam and his brothers joined the Union army. Charles enlisted at age 15, while William enlisted at age 14.
The 24th Iowa Infantry was called the “Temperance” regiment because its colonel, Byam’s father, and other officers were Methodist preachers. It later became part of General Sherman’s army. William Byam also was in the 24th Iowa Infantry, while Charles Byam served in the 6th Iowa Infantry.
“Numerous have been the claimants for the distinction of having been the youngest soldier of the Rebellion, ranging in age from 10 to 14 years,” Chauncey Byam wrote in the Harper’s article.
“It appears from the record that, in the year 1865, my name was certified up to the Pension Bureau by the War Department as being that of a person who had been honorably discharged from military service of the United States government by reason of disability incurred while in the line of duty as a volunteer soldier of the Rebellion.”
“It is a fact,” Byam added, “that by no possible chance could I have been enrolled as a volunteer but for the one circumstance of my father having been an officer of high rank, although I was certain at the time that I had passed the muster on my own merits as a drummer.”
Byam once got into trouble with his regiment. He woke up one night and mistakenly thought it was time for reveille. After sounding the call on his drum, he was chilled by the cold night air and decided to return to his bed.
From inside his tent, Byam said he heard “the footfalls and growls of the men reluctantly forming into line. Then the many roll-calls throughout camp began, but scarcely had commenced when there smote upon my ear, in clarion tones, the sound of an officer’s voice (whom I knew quite well) demanding to know, in the name of something most inflammable, the meaning of this insane comedy at two o’clock in the night.
“I was never again assigned to the duty of beating the drummer’s call for reveille.”
‘First man’ in
Byam said his main concerns while serving in the army were sickness and the lack of proper clothing. His military cap was the only article that fit perfectly.
“For a considerable time, I was forced to go barefoot,” Byam wrote. “I rarely possessed a shirt. My clothing for a long time was reduced to a single pair of ragged trousers and short jacket that buttoned up to the neck.”
Byam served during the siege at Vicksburg. He said that he “entered the enemy’s works on the morning of July 3, 1863, slightly in advance of the surrender. Not at all cast down by being held prisoner for a short hour, I was soon out and loudly boasting of having been ‘the first man’ to enter Vicksburg after the siege.”
While Byam, his father and his brothers all survived the war, his mother and sister did not. His sister died of diphtheria in 1863 at age 14. His mother died a week later.
“This was bitterly illustrative of the irony of fate,” Byam wrote, “in that the father and sons should all survive the carnage of war, whilst the mother and daughter who grieved for them should perish in a haven of supposed safety.”
Byam was honorably discharged with disability on July 26, 1863.
“With the close of the siege,” he wrote, “my part in warfare ended; for upon going into camp near the river after the surrender, I was soon taken violently ill. I was honorably discharged, carried on board a Mississippi River transport in an unconscious condition, and sent north.”
He recovered and lived to age 69. He and his wife, Cornelia, had three children: Charles, Richard and Sarah.
Byam’s obituary in the Feb. 10, 1922, issue of The Seattle Times stated: “He was said to have been the youngest soldier enlisted during the Civil War. The veteran was a former resident of Tacoma, later moving to Seattle and spending his last years at the Soldiers’ Home at Port Orchard, Washington.”
Byam is buried at the Veterans Home Cemetery in Retsil, Wash.