From Horse Thief
to Cavalry Scout
The Civil War was fought on many fronts and by ragtag bands of guer/ rillas as well as by disciplined troops. It was as a guerrilla, more specifically a “jay-hawker, ” that Will Cody first served his country. At least, that's what he thought he was doing at the time.
In the spring of 1861, when Cody arrived back in Leavenworth after his Pony Express riding days had ended, he found his mother gravely ill; she would not survive the war. “A strong Union woman, ” according to Cody's own account, “she had such great confidence in the government that she thought the war would not last over six months.” She asked her son not to join the army, and he respected her wishes. One of Cody's most appealing characteristics was certainly his devotion to his family. As long as she was alive, he was his mother's chief source of support; he felt the same responsibility toward his sisters. In 1862, however, Will Cody had no trade or occupation, only a sketchy education, and few prospects. His lack of education was not unusual at the time; Mark Twain's education, for example, ended at the age of twelve, and as late as 1890 the average American did not go beyond the fifth grade. In any event, it is virtually inarguable that the only education that matters in the long run is self/ education.
Had his family still lived in Ohio, Will Cody might have worked in a livery stable or driven a grocer's wagon. As it was, living on the frontier, he was exposed to the life of a teamster and was a wage-earner at an age when other boys were still in school, farming, or serving apprenticeships as printers, perhaps, as Mark Twain had done.
At the time of the Civil War, teenagers were welcome in the ranks of both armies; drummers and fifers could be as young as sixteen and still enlist. Cody was now fifteen, and wanted to serve somehow.