An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians in the Continental Army
Samuel Dewees, a fifer in the Pennsylvania Line, recounted that, “…I divided my peacock feathers with Pat Coner [a drummer], and we decorated our caps in fine style with peacock plumes.” (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), 272. Illustration by Donna Neary, from Raoul F. Camus, Military Music of the American Revolution. (Chapel Hill, NC, 1976), 126
As a result of the decreasing need for new musicians the following resolution was announced on January 22, 1782:
The United States in Congress assembled have been pleased to pass the following resolves.
In Congress December 24, 1781.
Resolved, That in future no recruit shall be inlisted to serve as a drummer or fifer. When such are wanted, they shall be taken from the soldiers of the corps in such numbers and of such description as the Commander in Chief or commanding officer of a separate army shall direct, and be returned back and others drawn out as often as the good of the service shall make necessary.
On the same date General George Washington wrote to General William Heath that the resolution of Congress “respecting the Music of the Army… prohibits enlisting any More under that Denomination, but does not affect those already in service; You will be pleased therefore to Order Cloathing for them accordingly.”7
Four months later, in April 1782, the lieutenant colonel of the 10th Massachusetts Regiment wrote Heath concerning his efforts to procure musicians: “I mentioned to your honor the last time I waited on you that the 10th Massts Regt wanted a number of Drummers & Fifers to compleate their Corps – Mr. Highwell has since been with the Regt and has recommended some to me for the music though not the whole that were wanting we want three Drummers and two Fifers but at present can find but one Fifer and two Drummers who have natural Geniuses for music – the Drummers are Israel Duey and George Durreycoats the Fifer Saml Collimer they are men of small stature and I believe will answer the purpose…”8
Of those men noted in the previous letter as having “natural Geniuses for music” the records for only two have been found. George Derecoat is shown to have served in Colonel Benjamin Tupper’s 10th Regiment for twelve months in 1782 having enlisted in January of the same year. Samuel Collamore served for the same period in the same regiment and is noted as having been appointed a musician as of March 31, 1782. Evidently these men were taken out of the ranks rather than being enlisted specifically as musicians as per the December 1781 orders. One other soldier in this study, George Harley of the 2nd New Jersey, served as a drummer in 1782, apparently for the first time, and was also probably taken from the ranks.9
Although most of the studied pension applications were not very informative beyond the basic service record of the former soldiers, a few give some interesting details concerning the lives of musicians of the army. Several of these narratives corroborate each other in some aspects of the musician’s life. Samuel Dewees, the fifer, continued his services in the military sporadically after the war. During Fries Rebellion in 1799 he was attached to a company of regulars for the purpose of recruiting new soldiers and moved with them to Northampton, Pennsylvania where they “encamped two or three days.” He noted, “I had played the fife so much at this place, I began to spit blood… By the aid of the Doctor’s medicine and the kind nursing treatment I received… I was restored to health again in a few days and able to play the fife as usual.” Another fifer, Swain Parsel of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, had a similar experience. He “enlisted in the beginning of the year … as a fifer for one year… That on the expiration of this service he again enlisted in the same Regt. under Captn. Patterson – but the practice of fifing being injurious to his health, he entered the ranks as a private soldier till the termination of the war…”10
7. General Orders, 22 January 1782 and Washington to William Heath, 22 January1782, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, vol. 23 (Washington, D.C., 1937), 456-457, 457-458.
8. Lt. Colonel Tobias Fernald to Maj. Gen. William Heath, April 1782, William Heath Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 24, item 285, published in The Express (Quarterly Publication of the Brigade of the American Revolution), vol. X, no. III (Winter 1990), Drummer’s Call, submitted by Henry Cooke, 2.
9. Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War (Boston, 1898), 694, George Derecoat; 800, Samuel Collamore, fifer, Col. Tupper’s 10th Regt., service from 1 Jan. 1782, reported appointed drummer 31 March1782.
10. Dewees, History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees, 331.