An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians in the Continental Army
(Originally published in The Brigade Dispatch
Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Autumn 1993, 2-8.)
The musicians of the Continental Army have long been relegated to a minor role in comparison to those soldiers who carried muskets or commanded troops in battle. In actuality the duties they performed were essential to the army and contributed greatly to discipline and order both in camp and on the battlefield. The original purpose of this study was to gain some knowledge of, and if possible ascertain a trend in, the ages of those soldiers who served as musicians. During the course of the research personal accounts by the soldiers themselves were gathered which give some further understanding of the daily lives, duties and role of musicians in the army. These soldiers’ narratives have been appended to the study.
The position of a fifer or drummer was not necessarily an easy one to fill. They were expected to learn the many tunes played in the army, from popular melodies like “Roslyn Castle” to practical beats such as “Water Call” or “Roast Beef.” In an eighteenth century army music was used to transmit orders and to regulate the daily routine of the soldiers. In camp the reveille and tattoo denoted the beginning and end of the soldier’s day. Other calls signaled the men to assemble for meals or for detachments to gather wood and water. If the army was ordered to march the routine of the troops prior to setting off, and the accompanying music, was adjusted accordingly. While on the move music provided a cadence to regulate the rate of march, and in battle drums and fifes could transmit or supplement the commands of the officers and would hopefully bolster the morale of the soldiers to some degree.1
In addition to the oft-misunderstood nature of the role of musicians in the Continental Army certain myths about these soldiers have been propagated. Probably the most familiar portrayal of revolutionary musicians is the nineteenth century painting “The Spirit of ’76” by Archibald M. Willard. Although two older men playing both fife and drum are shown in this rendering it is probably the image of the adolescent drummer that has lodged in the minds of most people. Additionally the use of boys as musicians during the American Civil War and such popular songs as “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” only served to add to the popular conception of the universal use of children as musicians. For some time the idea of proving or disproving the popular idea of the drummer boy in the Continental Army has been of interest to me. Unfortunately company and regimental rolls for the period contain very few personal descriptions of individual soldiers, thus making the task seem almost impossible. Even when descriptive rolls were made they are often rendered worthless because the document undated, making the ages given for the men impossible to use. Finally, I struck upon idea of gathering names from the muster rolls and then searching through the pension records as a way of finding musicians’ birth dates. Admittedly, this remained a hit or miss method of proceeding as is evidenced by the fact that out of 292 musicians the ages for only 67 (23 percent) were found (exclusive of the men in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment). Ages given by soldiers in their pension applications are still open to some error. Some pension documents contain birth records for the men, and these were used when available. Most of the files give only a statement by the applicant attesting to his age at the time of the deposition. Use of these places much reliance on the reliability of an individual’s memory. In spite of all these caveats the following study, while hardly conclusive, still gives some idea of the average age of the musicians, as well as some insights into their military services.2
1. Nigel Reed, “The Voice of Experience,” The Continental Soldier. The Journal of the Continental Line. vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 1991), 11-16; “Drum Signals: Then and Now,” ibid., vol. 4, no. 3 (Summer 1991), 9-13; “The Field Musick’s Von Steuben or Musick Made Easy,” ibid., vol. 4, no. 4 (Fall 1991), 11-15.
2. Robert G. Athearn, The American Heritage New Illustrated History of the United States, vol. III, “The Revolution” (New York, 1963), 202.