Society for the History of Children and Youth

No. 9
Winter 2007

Boy Soldiers: Lessons from the American Revolution
Caroline Cox
University of the Pacific

As a historian who has studied soldiers in the American Revolution, I cannot help but make connections to military activities around the world in the modern era. Alas, there is more than enough material to work with.  One connection that has attracted my attention is to the many children, mostly boys, shouldering arms in a variety of conflicts today. As I sought to understand their presence, I remembered the young soldiers I had come across who had fought for the patriot cause in the Revolutionary War. I decided to research their experiences in the hope that they might shed light on what factors might draw boys to arms today. As I slowly uncovered the eighteenth century stories, I discovered that the real understanding of boy soldiers then, and perhaps today too, lay not in their military activities– that was very much like the service of older men – but in the various economic and social forces that drew them into the army. Some boys joined for adventure and to get away from bad home situations. Yet, many more served as part of systems of family labor and networks of friendship and kinship, and their experiences help illustrate the shifting meanings of childhood itself.

For my purpose, I defined a boy as someone under the age of sixteen as that was the supposed minimum age for militia service. It was the legal minimum age to be drafted, but a draftee could hire a substitute or provide a family member to serve in his stead and a warm body able to carry a musket, no matter how young, filled the bill. The Continental Army, the regular American army in the Revolution, had no legal minimum age for service.

This basic information presented the first conundrum of the project. Participation in, and the obligations of, militia service were one of colonial society’s markers of maturity and responsible citizenship. Only those over sixteen could be drafted, but many substitutes were boys between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Some substituted for money or land, but many others served without special compensation in the place of fathers and older brothers whose labor was otherwise too valuable for a family to lose. One must reexamine, then, the meaning of the duties of citizenship if they could so easily be sloughed off and assumed by children.

Substitution, then, was often an economic decision but it was only one way in which boys’ service fit into their families’ labor needs. Boys sometimes handed over their army pay to their fathers. Some boys also earned bounty payments - a cash bonus for enlistment - and handed these over to their fathers too. On a few occasions, families were mercenary about their children’s earning possibilities. Fifteen year-old Obadiah Benge, for example, was bartered into the service “by his step-father, John Fielder, as a substitute for one James Green, [and that] his said step-father received from said James Green a horse, bridle and saddle for the same.”[1]  Military service could offer young men a chance for independence and a way of raising money for marriage. However, that was not the case for many of the boys that I have found. Few of them seem to have had a chance to or were expected to hold on to the money they earned. Therefore, understanding military service as an aspect of family labor is another way boy soldiers might be investigated.

Despite the harsh way in which Obadiah Benge’s father “forced” him into the army, Obadiah, like most boy soldiers, did not enter the service entirely among strangers. Instead, he was joining an older brother who was already there and many other boys were also joining networks of family and friends. Eleven year-old Cyrus Allen joined the Continental Army as a servant to his officer father. Elijah Lacey served as a private soldier in the Virginia troops around the time he turned fourteen in a company commanded by his much older brother Matthew Lacey. Sixteen year old Moses Piper was delighted when his friend, Joshua Davis, who was about fifteen, enlisted in the same company he was in “having been, both of them, born in … Boston, brought up in the same neighborhood, & educated at the same school.” They were “intimately acquainted” and, once in camp together, they saw each other every day. Boys and their families exploited these community networks when going off far from home and into potentially dangerous situations. Thus, the nature and meaning of these networks add meaning to boys’ enlistment and service too.[2]

This large research project is ongoing, but the early results indicate that the factors above were part of a broad range of impulses that drew boys into the army. Sometimes, it was political idealism, youthful enthusiasm, and a desire for adventure and travel that enticed boys to enlist. Others sought to get away from bad home situations, boring work, or trying masters. Whatever the impulse, it was often put to the service of families’ economic needs. As their boys went off to war, families and boys found networks of community to offer them comradeship and familiarity in an alien world. Whatever drew them into the Army, their service allows us an opportunity to explore the fluid meanings of childhood in colonial and revolutionary North America.

As to the problems of boy soldiers in the world today, these findings will not answer all the questions – or even many of them - about what draws boys into military service. Each war has its own cultural context. However, these early findings indicate that preventing boys from serving will involve changing a variety of economic and social relations and require us to rethink and re-examine the meaning of childhood in the modern world too. 

1.  Obadiah Benge, R743, Revolutionary War Pension Applications (RWPA), RG 15, National Archives Building, Washington DC, (NAB).
2.  Cyrus Allen, W8094, Elijah Lacy, W10189, Moses Piper, S33474, Joshua Davis, S38656, RWPA, RG 15, NAB.

© Society for the History of Children and Youth, 2007

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