An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians in the Continental Army
Once the man’s age and service were ascertained there had to be some method of processing the information that would serve to make it useful. For statistical purposes it was decided to use the age of each musician at their first known service as a fifer or drummer. Since it was found that some of these men had switched from the fife to the drum during their service (an instance of changing from the drum to the fife is not known) the ages of these men were used twice, once for their first service as a fifer and once as a drummer. Additionally, two of the men served as company musicians and later became drum and fife majors; these cases were treated in the same manner.
There are a number of tables included in this work. The primary table shows the average ages for the total number of musicians examined. There are also four secondary tables showing the statistics for the New Jersey Regiments, Lamb’s Artillery Regiment, the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, and a group of musicians from miscellaneous units. These give some indication of the average ages within those different groupings.
The final result of this study shows a trend that supports the assertion that most of the army’s musicians were, in fact, quite mature. In the overall grouping the men’s average age was 18.5 years. When broken down as to the particular instrument played, the average for drummers was 19 years and for fifers 17 years. Boy musicians, while they did exist, were the exception rather than the rule. Though it seems the idea of a multitude of early teenage or pre-teenage musicians in the Continental Army is a false one, the legend has some basis in fact. There were young musicians who served with the army. Fifer John Piatt of the 1st New Jersey Regiment was ten years old at the time of his first service in 1776, while Lamb’s Artillery Regiment Drummer Benjamin Peck was ten years old at the time of his 1780 enlistment. There were also a number of musicians who were twelve, thirteen, or fourteen years old when they first served as musicians with the army.
Among the younger musicians the fife was the preferred instrument. This is born out not only by the age of those who served as fifers but also by one military manual of the period and the soldiers’ accounts themselves. Cuthbertson’s System for the Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry stated that the “finest children that can be had should always be chosen for Fifers; and as their duty is not very laborious, it matters not how young they are taken, when strong enough to fill the Fife, without endangering their constitutions…” As concerns the drum Cuthbertson stated that a “handsome set of Drummers, who perform their beatings well, being one of the ornaments in the shew of a battalion, care must be taken to inlist none, but such as promise a genteel figure when arrived at maturity; and as few, when past fourteen years of age, attain any great perfection on the Drum; active, ingenious lads, with supple joints, and under that age, should be only chosen…” The author further stipulated that “Boys much under fourteen, unless they are remarkably stout, are rather an incumbrance to a regiment (especially on service) as they are in general unable to bear fatigue, or even carry their Drums on a march…”3
Some musician’s narratives support the contention that the younger and smaller the musician the more likely it was he would play the fife rather than the drum. Fifer Samuel Dewees, being “about or turned of 15, but quite small of my age,” was enlisted by his father into the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment. Although he joined the army in 1777 Dewees spent the first year and a half of his service doing duty in a hospital or as waiter to the regiment’s colonel. He did not perform the duties of a musician until the summer of 1779, even though he had been wearing a musician’s uniform prior to that and must have received some sort of training as a fifer. John Piatt, a fifer in the 1st New Jersey, was ten years old when he enlisted in 1776 and claimed that sometime during his service he was “taken a prisoner at Pluckemin [New Jersey] by the British and released afterward being a Youth…”4
3. Bennett Culhbertson, Esq. A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry (Dublin, 1768), 12-13. Hugh Barty-King, The Drum (London, 1988), facing page 32, painting of Lord George Lennox and the 25th Regiment in Minorca in 1771 showing adult drummer and a fifer in the early or pre-teenage years. Painting attributed to Giuseppe Chiesa; also a discussion of British army drummer boys in the 18th century with two examples, one Joseph Brome who entered as a drummer boy at eight years of age (date unknown) and eventually became a lieutenant-general, and the other John Shipp who could not wait for his eighteenth birthday when he could be raised “to the ranks.” He was made a corporal immediately and eventually received a lieutenancy in the 87th Regiment of Foot. Barty-King also states that the normal age when boys were taken in as drummers was “between ten and twelve.” According to some inferences in this work it could be that the appellation of “drummer boy” was used for both fifers and drummers, 72-73.
4. Samuel Dewees, A History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees… The whole written (in part from a manuscript in the handwriting of Captain Dewees) and compiled by John Smith Hanna. (R. Neilson, Baltimore, 1844), 92-97, 125-126, 133-134, 138-152, enlistment and detached service; 148, some time between late summer of 1778 and spring of 1779 Dewees was serving as a waiter at Humpton’s private residence at Somerset Courthouse in New Jersey. He claimed that while he “homed” he “was dressed in a Fifer’s regimental coat and cap, with [a] horse or cow tail hanging thereon…”; 152-153, attack on Stony Point. Samuel Dewees’ pension file gives two different ages (57 years old in 1820 and 56 years old in 1818) for which reason he is not included in the age statistics of this study. A brief outline of his early services according to his memoirs is as follows: His father having been captured at Fort Washington in November of 1776 was released from prison in the beginning of 1777. Samuel Dewees was enlisted by his father as a fifer, in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment commanded by Colonel Richard Humpton, being “about or turned of 15, but quite small of my age.” Dewees served in the fall of 1777 in a hospital at the “Brandywine meeting-house” (probably Birmingham Meetinghouse), at one point under the command of Captain George Ross, Jr. of the 11th Regiment, and remained on duty with the sick or was absent from the army until the spring of 1778. Following his return to the army at Valley Forge be rejoined the 11th Pennsylvania, became waiter to Colonel Humpton and again was detached from the army. In July of 1779 when he returned to his regiment he claimed to have been “one of the musicians attached to the detachment” which attempted to attack Stony Point, though General Anthony Wayne left “the musicians (or at least a portion of them) myself included in the number behind him.” Dewees says that this assault was not successful and he did not take part in the later successful assault on July 16th (hereafter cited as Dewees, History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees).
Nigel Reed, “The Voice of Experience.” This is an excellent article containing extracts from the memoirs of Samuel Dewees (a fifer in the Pennsylvania Line) with an intelligent discussion of their content.