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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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tempting Away British Musicians in 1778

Gen. John Burgoyne led a British army south from Canada in 1777, but met defeat at the Battles of Bennington and Saratoga. The thousands of prisoners of war became known as the “Convention Army,” after their terms of surrender. For about a year these troops were held in camps outside Boston while the two governments argued over who was breaking that agreement.

That reversed the geographic situation from that of 1774-76, when there were thousands of British soldiers inside Boston. During that earlier stretch, officers struggled to keep enlisted men from deserting to the provincials outside town. In 1777-78, disaffected British soldiers slipped into Boston in order to defect.

Among the officers in Burgoyne’s army was Lt. Thomas Anburey of the 24th Regiment. In 1789 he edited his letters home into a book titled Travels Through the Interior Parts of America, 1776-1781, which spends as much time on natural history as political disputes. He closed his letter dated 20 May 1778 with these anecdotes about deserters from among the Crown’s regimental musicians, who were mostly drummers and fifers:

I am sorry to inform you that the Americans are too successful in enticing our soldiers to desert; a few days since the whole band of the sixty-second regiment, excepting the Master, deserted in a body, and are now playing to an American regiment in Boston. . . .

You will be pleased with a noble and animated saying of a little drum-boy, not ten years old: this boy’s father, who belonged to our regiment, some time since deserted into Boston, and has been as nigh as he could venture with safety to our barracks, to entice or seize his son, and take him with him; but finding it in vain he sent an American to entreat him to go to his father, when the little fellow replied, “No; tell my father, if he is such a rascal as to desert his King and country, his son won’t; he has fed at their expence, and will die in their service.”
If this anecdote is true, this “drum-boy” was the youngest I’ve read about in the British service. Since drums were an eighteenth-century army’s signal corps, commanders wanted reliable men in that job. But of course if this boy was already traveling with his father’s regiment, they’d want to get some good out of feeding him. And he was apparently more loyal to his regiment than to his father.

The rope-tension drum shown above is available from Cooperman.

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