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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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Caroline Cox’s Young Continentals

Caroline Cox’s Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution was published earlier this year by the University of North Carolina Press.

Unfortunately, Cox, a professor at the University of the Pacific, passed away in 2014. She hadn’t finished writing all the book’s introductory material and may not have polished the text as much as she’d planned after feedback from her colleagues.

Cox’s friends pushed the book through to completion. Robert Middlekauff, author of The Glorious Cause, provided a foreword to take the place of the preface and acknowledgments Cox never got to write.

As published, the book shows no obvious yawning gaps, but there are some potholes. The most obvious glitch is on page 52: in the middle of a long quotation appears “(CHK),” Cox’s note to herself to go back and confirm that transcription. (I’m likewise dubious about the five exclamation points on page 144.) Daniel Granger of Andover, who served in the siege of Boston, is referred to as “David.” And I came away from the book wondering if Cox might have added a further layer of analysis to pull everything together if she’d just had more time with this manuscript.

Cox’s earlier book, A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington's Army, explored the class differences between officers and enlisted men in the Continental Army. She returned to the same main set of sources—Revolutionary War pension applications—for Boy Soldiers, focusing on pensioners who had joined the army at the age of sixteen or younger. In addition, Cox drew on a few memoirs of long-lived soldiers, the recollections from men of the same age who didn’t go to war, the experiences of American boys who fought in other wars before and after the Revolution, and general studies of childhood.

Many young Continentals were musicians, others became servants for officers, but some were (at least nominally) infantrymen. Smaller muskets, lighter drums, and the introduction of fifes into martial music made it possible for boys to fill those roles in the eighteenth-century military, Cox wrote. At the same time, British-American society was raising the age at which it expected males to do such work, so there would be far fewer under-seventeen soldiers in the War of 1812.

Often boys enlisted with their older brothers, fathers, or other relatives. Even if they were the only family members to go to war, the way the Continental Army was organized meant soldiers usually served in a company with their neighbors. “Boys rarely served without being near someone they knew,” Cox concluded.

During the Seven Years’ War, the book reports, soldiers had a poor reputation and American families had tried to keep their young sons out of the army. The Revolutionary War was different, perhaps because the cause seemed more immediate or more noble. Many veterans recalled their fathers or even their mothers encouraging them to enlist. And perhaps the Continental enlistment terms were better.

On privateers, boys usually earned half of a man’s share. In farm work, they tended to be paid about two-thirds of a man’s wages. In contrast, the Continental Army made no distinction between a fifteen-year-old soldier and a twenty-five-year-old—they got equal pay. (For many young soldiers that pay remained abstract, however; the money went to a relative or guardian.)

After the first years of the war, local drafts were the usual way for young soldiers to enter the Continental Army. A household would become responsible for supplying a soldier, and an adolescent with a greater sense of adventure and lesser responsibilities seemed like the best candidate, even if he was under seventeen. Cox wrote, “When young boys of any race substituted for their fathers and other male relatives or friends, they gave no indication later that they felt exploited. Indeed, the vast majority of substitutes, men or boys made no comment upon it other than that it happened.”

We can catch glimpses of distinctions based on age or size. At Fort Plank in New York’s Mohawk Valley, two fourteen-year-old boys had to do soldiers’ duty while a thirteen-year-old didn’t. On the other hand, Capt. Thomas Price brought his ten-year-old Thomas along to war on the Carolina frontier because he was so tall that his father feared Tories might treat him as a legitimate target at home.

Every so often Boy Soldiers shows us its subjects in all their naïveté. Two fourteen-year-olds finished their Continental enlistments at the end of 1777 and headed home. Unfortunately, their families lived in Philadelphia, which the British army had just occupied. The royal authorities quickly detained the young veterans, interrogated them, and even threatened to hang them as spies. Ultimately, the Crown let those teens go, apparently deciding that they really were stupid enough to expect they could simply go back to being boys.

To her regret, Cox did not find much information about non-white combatants. Around one in ten Continental soldiers was African-American, she estimated, but she found few examples of black boys serving in the army. Perhaps those veterans didn’t live long enough to apply for pensions. Perhaps their ages aren’t so clear from the records.

In her effort to provide context for the young soldiers’ lives, Cox mined other sources on eighteenth-century American childhood—sometimes without making a clear connection to those soldiers. There’s a long paragraph on charitable schools, for example, even though none of the book’s examples attended one. Boy Soldiers discusses violence as part of child-rearing in the eighteenth century, but it remains unclear how young soldiers compared military discipline to what they were used to at home.

To get inside her subjects’ heads, Cox chose a novel interpretive technique that just didn’t work for me. In each chapter, after quoting and analyzing some sources about a particular boy, she launched into a new section headed “Perhaps it was like this:”. Then three or so pages offer an attempt to recreate that young soldier’s experience through his eyes based on various suppositions.

Thus, Cox wrote, young fifer John Piatt “had never seen so many people in one place” as when he came to camp. But we don’t read that from Piatt himself. Such details could indeed add drama in historical fiction, but while reading this book I keep imagining other possible scenarios. “They all had to learn to play their fifes,” Cox wrote, and I couldn’t help but recall how John Greenwood learned to play for militia training days years before he ran off to join the army. Cox posited that as busy officers John Piatt’s father and uncle had no time for him, but other fathers who took their young sons to war kept them close.

Sometimes that approach even seems to get in the way of the evidence. Cox discussed John Jenks enlisting as a drummer in the 5th Connecticut Regiment in 1780, so small that he was assigned a special drum. (In this book Cox said Jenks was ten years old while her chapter in James Marten’s Children and Youth in the New Nation described him as twelve; Jenks wasn’t sure himself, according to his pension documents.) Because of Jenks’s unusual youth, and an awkward accusation of forgery, the U.S. government suspended his pension. In response, Jenks “repeatedly explained how he came to enter the army at such a young age” to various authorities. Instead of seeing his words on that topic, however, we shift into a “Perhaps it was like this:” section.

Of course, there’s only so much that those pension records can tell us. I’m particularly interested in the coming-of-age process and boys’ efforts to prove themselves as men. Memoirs may simply have more room to expound on those themes than pension applications, which focused on the basic details of service. Cox’s Boy Soldiers mines that set of sources well, and will be invaluable for future study of the topic, but I think there’s more to be gleaned about those young Continentals.

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