When veteran soldiers who had served in the American Revolution began requesting pensions in the 1800’s, the commissioner, James Edwards, who was in charge of verifying the facts, was astonished. Many of the veterans claiming service were well below the age of sixteen during the war.
According to Caroline Cox, author of Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution, Edwards was a man born after the Revolution and a veteran himself of the War of 1812. By that time, the legal age to join the military had been raised from sixteen to eighteen. Edwards was shocked that veterans claimed to have participated with the troops as children, some as young as nine.
“During the eighteenth century, attitudes toward children and childhood responsibilities had shifted, and those changes continued in the beginning of the nineteenth century,” wrote Cox.
Children at much younger ages in the eighteenth century, were given responsibilities on the farm and learned to fire a musket and hunt early on. When the call to join the Continental Army came, many young sons accompanied their fathers. Other youngsters were inspired by the supposed excitement of fighting in battles. Some escaped unbearable living situations in their homes. Some wanted to use their skills as drummers or fifers to march with the troops.
Colonial families considered children capable of work at younger ages than we do today. According to Cox, a thirteen-year-old in Massachusetts was sent by his father to be a printer’s apprentice. But even younger children were “bound out” by families with too many mouths to feed or even by the courts if they determined a need. “Town officials in Middletown, Connecticut, seeking a home and employment for an impoverished seven-year-old, Rebecca Baxter, bound her out to a tailor so she could learn a trade,” wrote Cox.
America was a different place in the 1700’s.
As Caroline Cox painstakingly researched the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the daunting task of reading through applications for veteran pensions of the Revolution revealed the birthdates of many underage soldiers. These children somehow slipped into the ranks, especially if they were big for their age. Formalities of checking ages were likely overlooked when quotas of soldiers needed to be met.
When I first began intense research into the Revolutionary War period, I found a gem of a book about a fifteen-year-old soldier named Joseph Plumb Martin. As a young boy, he had gone to live with his grandparents since his mother and father were poor. He could not wait until he turned sixteen to join the militia so his grandparents agreed to let him join up when he was just fifteen. For a fascinating glimpse into the life at war, please read A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, by Joseph Plumb Martin. It is not a diary written during the war years, but his recollections written in his old age.
If you are interested in either of these books, they are both available on Amazon.
Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution: Buy here
A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Buy here
Elaine Marie Cooper has two historical fiction books that recently released: War’s Respite (Prequel novella) and Love’s Kindling. Love’s Kindling is available in both e-book and paperback. They are the first two books in the Dawn of America Series set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She penned the three-book Deer Run Saga and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. You can visit her website/ blog at www.elainemariecooper.com