On February 18, 1865 John Crediford Brown, Jr., a seventh grader, ran away from home to enlist in the 20th Maine Infantry at Wells. Hard work at his father’s North Berwick brick making enterprise had developed the boy’s physique but his baby face had not yet sprouted whiskers. The Wells recruiter had a quota to fill. He took one look at the 155 lbs of muscle the boy carried on his 5’5” frame and didn’t question John’s claim that he was 18, the minimum age at which it was legal to volunteer. John was sent to Portland and issued a uniform that very day.
John C. Brown, Sr., was distraught when he learned of his son’s enlistment. With a North Berwick Town Official in tow and his 13 year old son’s birth record in his pocket, the senior Brown set off for Portland to confront Colonel Ellis Spear with the facts. Colonel Spear would not void the enlistment outright but he did approve a 3 day furlough for the boy to sort things out with his family.
Young John Brown had been 10 years old when the war broke. The stories of adventure he heard from soldiers returning from the front had lit a fire in him. He was as strong as they were and certainly able to carry a musket. After his 17 year old brother George went off to fight, John snuck out of town with 12 other, more mature potential recruits. He returned home to North Berwick for three days after enlisting but he could not be dissuaded from his intent. Reluctantly, his father acquiesced.
The child skirmished at Cedar Creek, Gravelly Run, Boydton Plank Road and Malvern Heights but the battle he remembered best was fought at Five Forks, Virginia on April 1, 1865. John was right in the thick of it as a private in the 20th Maine Infantry, in the army of the Potomac, Fifth Corps, 1st division, 1st battalion, commanded by General Sheridan. “At 3pm we were formed for a charge, my command being in the third line,” wrote General Sheridan in his battle report. “In this order we advanced three-quarters of a mile and halted. General Bartlett ordered me to move my command by the left flank some half a mile; halted and fronted. Were ordered by him to charge the enemy on his flank, which I immediately did; carried the enemy’s works, capturing a large number of prisoners and the battle flag of the Ninth Virginia Regiment. After doing this the enemy began to press us hard and we were losing men very fast.”
It was John’s 14th birthday. His two tent mates were killed that day and he was wounded in two places; once in the jaw and once in the neck. Neither injury was life threatening but he proudly wore the scar on his neck for the rest of his life. The Battle of Five Forks is sometimes referred to as the Waterloo of the Confederacy. The exhausted Army of Northern Virginia was left cut off from supplies and reinforcements. On the morning of April 9, 1865 the 20th Maine Infantry was positioned along the edge of a field near the seat of Appomattox County. A shout rang out from the left and a mounted Confederate Officer emerged from the woods waving a white flag. Everyone understood the meaning of the white flag.
Several hours later Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met in the parlor of the McLean Home in the village of Appomattox Court House, VA to discuss out the terms of surrender. John’s heart swelled with pride as he stood watch, less than 100 feet away.
After the Battle of Five Forks, Brown’s name appeared on a published list of the seriously wounded. Like the 14 year old that he was John didn’t think to write home. His father still had not heard from him three weeks later and assumed his son had died from his injuries. John Brown, Sr. wrote a letter to Colonel Spear requesting that the boy’s body be sent home to Maine. The colonel replied that the boy would be able to bring his own body home.
John C. Brown claimed to be the youngest Union volunteer to carry a musket but so did a lot of other veterans. He was living in Nasonville, RI in 1904 when William Davis of Troy, NY declared himself to the Editor of the Boston Daily Globe, to be the youngest fighting Union soldier. Brown produced documentation that proved he had been younger than Davis when he enlisted. It was not the first time he had successfully defended his title. It’s estimated that 100,000 Union soldiers were actually less than 15 years old when they volunteered to fight in the American Civil War but most of them were musicians.
After the war John worked for his father until he reached maturity. He met his first wife Sarah Boss and moved to her native Rhode Island where he spent the rest of his life. John C. Brown’s 1931 obituary referred to the 80 year old as the baby of the D. A. R.