Between 1819 and 1845, as veterans of the Revolutionary War were filing applications to receive pensions for their service, the government was surprised to learn that many of the soldiers were not men, but boys, many of whom were under the age of sixteen, and some even as young as nine. In Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution, Caroline Cox reconstructs the lives and stories of this young subset of early American soldiers, focusing on how these boys came to join the army and what they actually did in service. Giving us a rich and unique glimpse into colonial childhood, Cox traces the evolution of youth in American culture in the late eighteenth century, as the accepted age for children to participate meaningfully in society—not only in the military—was rising dramatically.
In the following excerpt (pp. 52-55), Cox explores the life of a single boy soldier and considers how “a strong desire to enlist” led him to join the army at the age of sixteen.
State of Vermont
Probate District of Bradford
in the County of Orange
At a court of Probate held in Bradford in and for the District of Bradford before the Hon. William Spenser Judge of said court—on this 7th day of August 1832 personally appeared in open court before the judge of said court now sitting Samuel Aspenwall a resident of Bradford in the County of Orange and State of Vermont aged sixty six years who first being duly sworn according to law doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the benefit of the act of Congress passed June 7th 1832.
. . . That in the month of March 1782 he joined the company of Captain Allen and a regiment of the Connecticut Militia. [He lists several officers.] That he joined this company as a substitute for one Daniel Hibbard of Windham in the county of Windham and State of Connecticut who was drafted for one year’s service. That he immediately marched to Horse Neck—near the southwest (CHK) corner of Connecticut—to guard the lines from the depredations of the Cowboys—Refugees and Skinners—[loyalists or British troops and thieves foraging from Long Island].
This was all Aspenwall had to say about his enlistment. However, his sister Mary Truman, giving a deposition in support of his claim, remembered the events of that spring vividly. She recalled her brother had “a strong desire to enlist” before he was sixteen (he celebrated that birthday six months after he joined). She listened to family conversations, knew that her father was worried about Samuel catching smallpox or finding his fellow soldiers too rough for a young boy to associate with. She could also remember his return a year later because he came back just as the family welcomed a new baby sister.
Perhaps it was like this:
In 1782, Samuel Aspenwall was fifteen years old. He could barely remember a time when his country had not been at war. He had lived all his life in Stonington, Connecticut, and even though it was not the site of any major battles, he had regularly watched the men in his community march off to serve in the Continentals, the state troops, and the militia. They had been fighting since the earliest days of the war. Stonington was only a hundred miles from Boston—close enough to help the Massachusetts militia and other troops respond to the British army’s attacks at Lexington and Concord.
That fateful spring, Aspenwall had only been nine years old, and much of what he knew about the war he learned from stories repeated around the fire at home in the evening. In the intervening years, news of the great events of the day—the defeat of patriot forces in New York and New Jersey in the following two years, the victory of General Horatio Gates at Saratoga, New York, in 1777, and the triumph of General Washington and French General Rochambeau at Yorktown in Virginia in 1781—came to Stonington from a variety of sources. Local men serving in the armed forces wrote letters home, and their families shared the news. The soldiers themselves added details when they returned. And thirdhand reports appeared in the weekly newspaper, which his father or a neighbor occasionally bought in the port town of New London, about fifteen miles away, when they went there on business. Samuel took all this in, sometimes reading the newspaper himself, listening to his parents’ conversations, or being with his father when he met relatives, friends, and neighbors to talk about politics and the war.
Some of the events of the war happened close to home. Since 1776, the British had occupied New York. New London and the neighboring fort at Groton Heights overlooked the mouth of the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound, just a few miles away by water from British forces. There were regular alarms along the coast that required the militia to turn out when enemy ships appeared on the horizon or raiding parties landed hoping to forage supplies. In 1781, the British, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, had attacked Groton Heights and overwhelmed its outnumbered defenders, killing dozens of men and taking the wounded prisoner. Some of those defenders were from Stonington and neighboring towns, and a few had been boys around Aspenwall’s age.
The following year, he felt he had been on the sidelines long enough. He now had a “Strong desire to enlist” for a year’s term in the Connecticut state troops. He thought his father, a man sympathetic to the patriot cause, would fully support him. But he was wrong. His father vehemently objected; he thought Samuel was too young for the military. He was worried about the boy going far away from home, living a hard soldiers’ life, and keeping rough company. He also knew that many soldiers had contracted smallpox and died in army camps in the early years of the war.
But Samuel was so eager to go that he regarded his father’s disapproval as a temporary stumbling block. A determined fifteen-year-old can be a force to be reckoned with, and Samuel launched a campaign to change his father’s mind. It took so much effort that, decades later, his sister Mary could still remember the regular family discussions about whether her brother could go or not. Finally, their father relented and seized what control he could of the situation. Mary remembered that a couple of weeks before her brother left home, their father arranged for him to be inoculated against smallpox “for the purpose of joining the army with more safety.” Their father was also determined the boy should serve with men who would not corrupt him. Mary recalled her father traveling to the recruiting post with Samuel to make sure he enlisted “in a company agreeable to my father’s mind.” However, no matter what his father’s efforts were on his behalf, the boy was just glad finally to be a soldier.
IN HIS PENSION APPLICATION, Samuel Aspenwall did not say anything about his early boyhood. He began his account of his service, as did his sister Mary in her supporting deposition, with recollections of the family arguments about the lad enlisting. He said nothing about why he wanted to serve. We can imagine war news swirling around him, his family, and his town during his boyhood by reading other historical sources: local newspapers, local muster rolls that indicate that veterans were coming and going, and understanding the interactions of town life. What veterans’ anecdotes or ministers’ sermons he heard, what games played, songs sung, or books read that caused this “Strong desire,” is something difficult even to guess. We know that Aspenwall was not the only boy excited about going off to war. Orphaned Thomas Painter, who enlisted at sixteen in the summer of 1776, had, he remembered, “(as is common for Boys) an inclination for a Soldier’s life.” The same year, fifteen-year-old Joseph Plumb Martin was eager to enlist and “be called a defender of my country.” In 1780, twelve-year-old Bishop Tyler was also “anxious to go.” Like Aspenwall, he had first to get around his reluctant father. For a year, Bishop “continually importuned” his father, apparently a man with strong powers of resistance. Mr. Tyler finally relented only after arranging for his son to serve one Captain Miles as his waiter. Miles was a neighbor and friend of the family and might be able to offer the boy some protection against the dangers of war or the corrupting influence of his fellow soldiers. Bishop Tyler was thrilled.
But where did this enthusiasm for service come from for boys in the American Revolution? The distant excitement of war and the stories told by returning soldiers, relatives, neighbors, or friends are the most obvious sources of this enthusiasm, but boys had also surely heard of the illness, death, and hardship that accompanied military life. Military service provided order and daily discipline yet also permission to do things often not otherwise permitted, such as destroying property, and even killing. It could be tedious and tiring. Yet, at the very least, to a boy otherwise doing chores and going to school, it offered excitement, contact with the larger world, and the opportunity to experience intense emotions. Even though in the army he might be doing work similar to what he did at home on the farm or in the workshop, he would be laboring in different locations and with new friends.
Given the scarcity of sources for this period, it is impossible to delve into the psyches of boy soldiers of the Revolution as much we would like, but the culture that surrounded them gives us clues about the forces that gave them the inclination to enlist. The exact connection between culture and individual actions is unclear even today and of course is hard to reconstruct for the distant past. But by examining the ideals of manhood boys wished to emulate, the toys they played with, the adventure stories they read, the songs they sang, and the sermons they heard, we can see the forces that combined with the news of the day and veterans’ anecdotes to encourage them to see war as a great adventure.
From BOY SOLDIERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Caroline Cox. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Caroline Cox (1954-2014) was professor of history at the University of the Pacific and author of A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army.
- Samuel Aspenwall, W20634, Revolutionary War Pension Applications (RWPA), Record Group (RG) 15, National Archives, Washington, D. C. (NAB).↩
- Ibid.; Painter, Autobiography of Thomas Painter, 9.↩
- This imaginative account is based on Samuel Aspenwall, W20634, RWPA, RG 15, NAB; Buel, Dear Liberty, 36, 272–74; Harris, The Battle of Groton Heights; Martin, Ordinary Courage, 4–6.↩
- Painter, Autobiography of Thomas Painter, 9; Martin, Ordinary Courage, 11; Bishop Tyler, S17162, RWPA, RG 15, NAB.↩
- This subject encompasses a vast body of scholarship. A sampling of recent works is Broyles, “Why Men Love War,” 61, 56. Broyles has written of his own experiences as a young soldier in Vietnam in Brothers in Arms: A Veteran Returns to Vietnam in Search of His Enemy and Himself ; Lee, Barbarians and Brothers; Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; Maldonado-Torres, Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity.↩