I Was a 12-Year Old Civil War Spy

Steven Hale
3 min readFeb 21, 2020
Painting courtesy Library of Congress

The loneliness of the long-distance boy soldier.

In 1960, toy manufacturers geared up to profit from the upcoming centennial of the bloodiest chapter of American history, the Civil War (aka “War Between the States” to white southerners, aka “Wah of Nawthun Aggression” to the “Hell no, I ain’t fergittin” crowd). Kid-sized uniforms, plastic muskets, tiny battle flags, play money based on “real” Confederate money: everything the junior re-enactor would need except fake blood and a belief in states’ rights (the latter still freely available among white people at the time).

My younger brother had a grey Johnny Reb cap and I sported a blue Johnny Yank cap. I can’t recall if my choice was out of personal contrariness or an anti-slavery sentiment (not as common among white people back then as a belief in states’ rights). Maybe a little of both.

The two of us (brother against brother!) participated in one of the bitterest clashes of kiddie re-enactment, The Battle of Excelsior Grade School. The Union forces (played by the older boys, including me) encamped at a small scrub tree. At the opposite end of the playground, the Confederates (the lower grades— from our Yankee point of view, the more naive) encircled an enormous oak tree (symbolic of their 3-to-1 superiority in number if not in sophistication).

A few brief skirmishes, consisting mostly of yelling and running around, led to no casualties and no decisive victories. We were at a stalemate, unless someone could discover what their opponents were planning, so I volunteered to infiltrate the Rebels.

As inconspicuously as possible, I sauntered up to the big oak tree and stood around, hands in my pockets, hoping to pick up some vital information that would turn the tide. I may have been humming “Dixie” as a cover, but maybe not, who knows? Back then in the white south, that song was a chronic earworm.

Suddenly one of the Rebels (maybe my own little brother) noticed me: “Hey, he’s a Yankee!” and I was caught— which meant simulating being tied to the tree, surrounded by my diminutive captors.

I wish, in the great tradition of white Southern nostalgia for a non-existent past (as exemplified by my faux Confederate great-grandfather), that I could tell you I tunneled out a la…

Steven Hale

Music: Discovering the lost and forgotten. Politics: Exposing injustice. Screenwriting: Emotional storytelling.