J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Children Attached to the British Military

Almost all the anecdotes I know about children in Revolutionary Boston concern locals. I have a few more about the children of British imperial officials. But that leaves out a fairly large group: children associated with the British military forces. When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, there were probably scores and possibly hundreds of minors who were part of the army or navy in Boston or whose fathers were.

One child connected with the Crown military is mentioned in Customs Commmissioner Henry Hulton’s account of the coming of the war, now in the library at Princeton University. This undated anecdote comes from a section of the manuscript in which Hulton listed every act of Patriot violence he had heard of:

A Little boy belonging to the Admirals Ship, was thrown down by a person who swore he would break his leg, and then he took it up and wrenched it till it snaped.
By using the term “Little boy,” Hulton probably signaled that this wasn’t an older teen. (The word “teenager” hadn’t been invented yet, so “boys” could be as old as twenty.) The Commissioner didn’t mention the boy’s father, as he did in his next, similar anecdote, which implies the unfortunate lad probably wasn’t connected to the ship’s officers. Instead, he was probably part of the regular handful of boys in the crew.

There were also children attached to the British army—not as musicians but in soldiers’ families. I mentioned three such minors in my profile of Pvt. Edward Montgomery, one of the grenadiers tried for the Boston Massacre in 1770. He and his wife Isabela had children named Mary, Esther, and William, according to records of an official who warned that they could not call on the town for financial assistance. Neither those records nor anything else I’ve found indicates how old those children were.

Even though I’ve found few other references to such children in Boston, there were probably quite a lot. Don Hagist’s article “The Women of the British Army in America,” published in The Brigade Dispatch and now available on the web, documents how many women and children were living with the British troops in New York during 1779-80.

On 21 Nov 1779, British officers counted seven regiments containing 2,886 men, which had an additional 367 women and 296 children as dependents. On 25 Sept 1780, the command counted seven more regiments containing 3,013 men, and this time there were 542 women and 454 children. In the four regiments counted both times, the number of soldiers dropped slightly, but the number of women and children rose. So the processes of biology were not suspended during wartime.

The British troops in New York were in a different situation from those in Boston in 1768-70 and 1774-76. The New York garrison was also besieged, but it was on a big, well-fortified, well-supplied island with a generally cooperative population. Boston probably wasn’t so family-friendly when it came to soldiers’ families. Nevertheless, Crown policy and personal affection meant that some soldiers did arrive in Boston with their wives, and thus with their children.

TOMORROW: It’s back to “Back to School Week” as we consider where those military children might have gone to school.

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