The Little Corporal

To the best of my knowledge The Little Corporal was the only children’s magazine founded as a result of the U. S. Army being unprepared to care for wounded soldiers.

When the Civil War began in 1861 the Army Medical Department had only 30 surgeons (plus assistant surgeons), no Ambulance Corps, and they were assigning nursing tasks to sick and wounded soldiers.

Civilian-run Sanitary Commissions were started to help alleviate the military medical crisis, and those commissions relied on private donations.

In 1865, a month after the war had ended, a Chicago printer named Alfred L. Sewell decided to raise money for convalescing soldiers by organizing children as the Army of the American Eagle. He had the youths sell pictures of Old Abe, the bald eagle mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. A child who sold one picture gained the rank of corporal, and higher sales meant a higher rank.

After his “army” raised $16,000 Sewell felt the children should have their own publication, with the motto of: Fighting Against Wrong, and for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Sewell wrote in the magazine’s first issue: ” ‘Oh that I had some medium through which I might talk to my gallant children’s army.’ Then the good thought spoke to me…, and said, ‘Here is the ‘Little Corporal,’ send him as your aid-de-camp. Tell him what to say and let him take besides a bundle of good things to refresh and amuse your little soldiers by the way.’ ”

Readers were known as soldiers, and when their subscription expired they were asked to reenlist for another campaign. The magazine cover always had a picture of a boy wearing an army uniform, and fictional Private Queer was in charge of the puzzle pages.

In the magazine’s early years there were articles with a connection to the Civil War – stories of Old Abe, the eagle mascot, and of the other famous Abe, President Lincoln. But most of the content appears to have consisted of instructive prose.

I’ve never read an entire issue of The Little Corporal, just a few articles posted online, such as How To Go To School (“He must go clean and neat …”) and What Does Johnny Read? (“It is a direful day for you if you have neglected to direct and cultivate his taste until he has come to be a mere devourer of the stories of wild, improbable adventures and exciting fiction, which is poured out like a flood for the destruction of our boys…”)

The magazine doesn’t strike me as being an entertaining read, and some of the articles appear to have been aimed at parents, but during the late 1860s the periodical had a circulation of 89,000 copies, and was one of the country’s leading children’s magazines.

In 1869 The Little Corporal bought out The Little Pilgrim, a magazine that had been published in Philadelphia since 1853. The editor had this to say about the merger: “The Little Pilgrim has enlisted in The Little Corporal’s army, and becomes an Aid. Private Queer resigns the position he has so honorably filled, and in the July number The Little Pilgrim will take his place and therefore bear the knapsack.” For the next couple of years the puzzle page (formerly credited to Private Queer) was named The Little Pilgrim’s Knapsack.

In 1871 the Chicago Fire destroyed Alfred L. Sewell’s publishing business, and after that Sewell gave his magazine to the editor, Emily Huntington Miller. She downplayed the military angle, and printed more family-life stories. Subscription numbers dwindled, and in 1875 The Little Corporal went the way of many other children’s periodicals of the time period – it merged with St. Nicholas Magazine. Here are the editor’s final words to her readers:

“After ten years of faithful service, the ‘Corporal’ has been put upon the retired list. We have had a long, brave march together, and it is hard parting company. You will miss your leader, and we shall miss the words of courage and devotion that came from the gallant army, East and West, North and South. But remember, you are none of you mustered out of service. Your new leader, St. Nicholas, enrolls his soldiers by the same pledge under which you first enrolled – ‘For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful’ – and the ‘Corporal’ feels safe and satisfied in leaving you to his guidance.”

I don’t plan on seeking out back issues of The Little Corporal but I’m glad that evidence of its existence is available. I hope readers of 150 years ago looked forward to monthly “visits” from the Little Corporal, Private Queer, and his later sidekick the Little Pilgrim. Getting reading material send to you through the mail must have been an important event in the 1860s and 70s, and I commend Alfred L. Sewell for creating the Army of the American Eagle and its very own publication.

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