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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Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Young British Fifer

Besides Luther Blanchard, there’s another story of a wounded fifer on 19 Apr 1775, this one on the British side. But I’ve been unsuccessful in nailing down the details.

Abram English Brown wrote Beneath Old Roof Trees in 1896 based on historical accounts, family traditions, and some fictionalization—but it’s hard to know how much of each. Setting the scene as a yearly reunion of Revolutionary War veterans in Lexington, Brown quoted a “Lieutenant Munroe” about a “little fifer”:

“He was a bright little fellow, and had piped away for [Maj. John] Pitcairn as well as he could, in coming down from Concord, until an old fellow had let fly at him from his musket loaded with shot for wild geese, and had broken one of his wings; at least, there he sat, with his fife stuck into the breast of his jacket, begging for help.”

“We gave it to him too,” cried a voice from the perch above; “although they abused our folks, young and old.”
Almost a century later, in 1994, David Hackett Fischer wrote in Paul Revere’s Ride:
Later, [Joshua] Simonds captured a musician, a boy fifer whose coat was closely buttoned, and fife projecting from it. This English fifer was but a child, and begged Simonds not to kill him. The militiaman discovered that the coat had been buttoned to staunch a fatal wound. The child was taken to an American farmhouse, and died a few days later.
The citation for that paragraph and the preceding is “Simonds, ‘The Affair in the Lexington Meetinghouse.’” Unfortunately, that source doesn’t appear in the book’s lists of first-person American accounts or local histories. Perhaps it sits unpublished in a local historical archive.

Joshua Simonds’s willingness to blow up the Lexington meetinghouse was first described in Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington in 1825, so it seems reliable. Brown’s book retold that story, citing Simonds’s descendants, and another anecdote about a prisoner. However, Brown didn’t go on to connect Simonds to the young fifer as Fischer’s book did.

Gen. Thomas Gage listed one musician killed in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, one wounded (I don’t know which regiments). Did those casualties include this young fifer? Did he die, as Fischer wrote, or survive, as Brown implied? Or is he entirely fictional?


Anonymous said...

Mr. Bell,

The current thread has brought to mind the story of another young fifer -- I came across this item in the Connecticut Gazette of January 23, 1778 (I've made slight edits; spelling, punctuation and syntax have been modernized.) For historical background, Col. Webb was part of a three-pronged raid launched from Connecticut in December 1777 to attack Long Island, but his ship ran aground off Huntington and he and about 65 others were captured:

When Col. Webb was carried into Newport and brought before the Commandant there for examination, he had with him a small boy of 8 years of age who was a Fifer in his Regiment. After General Pigot was done examining the Colonel, he turned to the Fifer and asked him "Pray, who are you, Sir?" The youngster answered him very pertly "I am one of King Hancock's men, Sir." "How came you one of King Hancock's men?" rejoined the General. "Because I have listed under him, and fight for him," answered the Fifer. "Well," said the General, "I will bring in one of King George's boys, [who will] soon whip you." "I am content," answered the youngster. Upon which the General ordered his waiter to call a fifer; [and] when he came in, the General informed him that he had, for him to whip, one of King Hancock's men. The two youngsters having agreed to box it out, at it they went, and the young American soon made the British boy cry out "enough!" upon which they were parted. [Whereupon] General Pigot came to Col. Webb and told him "that as he was going home on his parole, he might take the young Fifer with him, without any exchange, as, in his opinion, he had deserved his liberty in whipping his match in size and age."

Did many eight-year olds serve as musicians during the war? One has to wonder just how well someone so young could actually play in instrument... Further, since instruments were used as signals on the battlefield, wouldn't having an adult musician be more advisable in the first place? And lastly, was there no thought to how the sights and sounds of a battlefield might affect children so young? (Or is that too modern a concept of childhood?)

Thanks again for your terrific work,

Richard Doctorow

J. L. Bell said...

I came across that anecdote (from Moore's Diary of the American Revolution) this week myself. I'm not convinced all the details are true. It was obviously meant to cheer up Americans at a difficult time—not just the raid on Connecticut, but also the Battle of Brandywine forcing the Congress to flee, the continued British grip on Newport, the start of inflation.

Eight years old would be quite young for a fifer, though I've seen solid reports of boys as young as ten attached to the army less formally. It's possible the storyteller understated this boy's age.

Most likely a fifer or other boy with the army under age twelve or so would have been there with a father or older brother. While drummers functioned as a signal corps, fifers weren't so crucial and often were younger.

One other odd detail about this story is the reference to "King Hancock's men." By 1777 Americans had firmly committed themselves to republicanism, and they had long rejected royalists' hints that the rebellion was all about the personal ambition of certain men. Maybe this boy was throwing back a British insult.