Before the nation's youth got hooked on the video game craze in the early '80s, setting the groundwork for the computer culture of today, a post-World War II generation of boys, myself included, used our childhood imagination to "play army."

A century before my buddies and I were play-acting the fight against an imaginary enemy with our toy guns, there were American children not much older than ourselves living in a much more dangerous time. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, you couldn't join the Army until you were 18 years old unless you wanted to be a musician, such as a fifer, drummer or a bugler. Many people willingly overlooked the law and it's estimated that as many as 20 percent of Civil War soldiers were younger than 18.

Over 100,000 boys younger than 15 enlisted in the Union Army, and there were even 300 boys younger than 13. Tommy Hubler, thought to be the youngest member of the Union Army, was only 9 years old when he enlisted as a drummer boy!

Once a battle began, a Civil War drummer's job became very dangerous. Some boys armed themselves and fought in battle but most helped out in makeshift field hospitals. Charley King of West Chester, a drummer for the 49th Pennsylvania Regiment, became the youngest casualty of the war after suffering shrapnel wounds at Antietam. He was only 13 years old when he died three days after the battle.

A historical marker in northern Kentucky tells the story of William Horsfall, who became one of the youngest recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest military award. Standing just 4 foot and 3 inches tall, Horsfall enlisted at the age of 14 as a drummer boy in the First Regiment Kentucky Volunteers on Jan. 1, 1862, listing his occupation as "schoolboy."

During the siege of Corinth on May 21, 1862, Horsfall, who then described himself as "an independent sharpshooter," saved a wounded Union captain who was trapped between the lines. Horsfall placed his gun against a tree and in what he called "a stooping run," rushed to the officer and somehow managed to drag him to the stretcher bearers, who took him to the rear.

In Stones River battle near Murfreesboro, Tenn., Horsfall's boyish features saved him. He later wrote how, after being surrounded by the Confederates, they "took pity on his youth," enabling him "to run for his life."

Horsfall received his first Medal of Honor on Aug. 17, 1895. A second medal was presented for the same citation in 1904 when the design was changed. By age 46, his rheumatism and heart disease had become so bad that he required a live-in caretaker. He died at age 75 in 1922.

It's ironic that after the war, Horsfall tried to join a volunteer fire department in his native town but was turned away because "he was too young." Though rejected for a civilian job, the teenager had proved himself as a soldier, building the kind wartime resume that earned him the Medal of Honor.

By Jim Zbick

editor@tnonline.com