An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians in the Continental Army
The age of a musician occasionally had other benefits (or possibly embarrassments) and sometimes affected the duties he performed. James Holmes, a drummer in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, was 13 years old when he joined in 1778. He stated in his deposition “that he was not in Any engagements not being permitted by his Captain, on account of his Youth was generally ordered to the rear…” Another musician, James Kirkpatrick of the 3rd New Jersey, enlisted as a fifer in 1778 at the age of 15. Two years later he exchanged his fife for a drum, probably due to experience and maturity. Philip Reamer of Malcom’s Additional Regiment and the 11th Pennsylvania had a similar experience. He enlisted as a fifer at 14 years of age in 1777 and was made a drummer in 1780, while James Purdy of Lamb’s Artillery Regiment began as a fifer in 1778 and changed to the drum the following year. In all, seven musicians in this study played both the fife and drum during their military service.5
As may well be assumed there are indications that as the war continued the numbers of younger musicians declined. In 1775 and 1776 terms of enlistment for the Continental Army soldiers were usually for no more than one year. Beginning in 1777 the army began enlisting men for three years or the war. Those musicians who had enlisted at age 14 in 1777 were 17 years old by 1780, more mature and still looking ahead to three more years of service until the war’s end.
During the course of the war the numbers of men enlisted to be musicians declined. The tables below show that the majority of the men in this sampling (60 percent) enlisted in 1777 or 1778. Beginning in 1778 and continuing through to the end of the war regimental quotas for the individual states were periodically reduced and existing regiments consolidated. These adjustments were due to the chronic problem of supplying the army with enough recruits to keep regiments at their required strengths. In this manner the number of musicians needed for the army was reduced, though the attrition caused by death, desertion, and expired enlistments ensured that periodic shortages of fifers and drummers occurred until the end of the war.6
5. Men in this study who played both the fife and drum during their service: John Scrouse, Robert Jeff, and James Purdy, Lamb’s Artillery; William Walker, 1st New Jersey; David Jacobs, Malcom’s Additional Regiment; James Kirkpatrick, 3rd New Jersey; Philip Reamer [Roemer], Malcom’s Additional and 11th Pennsylvania
6. Robert K. Wright, The Continental Army (Washington, D.C., 1983), contains a detailed narrative of organizational changes in the Continental Army.