- Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution by Caroline Cox
Caroline Cox's precisely argued and elegantly written study of childhood and war, Boy Soldiers of the American Revolution, becomes in her practiced hands an exploration of the joys and sorrows of childhood in an early American world of harsh limitations and a disquisition on memory at the end of the life course. As Robert Middlekauff indicates in his foreword for the book, "writing a book about boys in the Revolution required resourcefulness and sensitive imagination. Caroline Cox had both" (xiii). We are cheated of her ultimate voice in this work and for future studies, as her early death at fifty-nine years of age came before she was able to complete this volume. Still, her book probes the experiences of children who lived ordinary rather than privileged lives and makes it clear that even as early Americans expected a longer period of childhood, they still wanted children to work—and work hard.
As Cox establishes early in the book, the history of childhood is difficult because it relies on a very limited source base. Her earlier distinguished work on the social history of the Continental army, however, exposed the potential of the federal Revolutionary War pension claims records for this kind of history. In this book, she uses the recollections of more than one hundred child soldiers—all boys who enlisted before sixteen years of age—as well as rare memoirs produced by a select few of them. These sources flesh out both the social circumstances that led boys as young as nine into the Continental forces and their military lives. And beyond illuminating the history of childhood, this book is a wonderful example of the possibilities that accompany revitalizing military history with social and cultural history.
American and British parents had long been dubious about their minor sons serving in war. As Cox shows, it was very unusual for boys under sixteen to serve in the armed forces before or shortly after the revolution. How and why they came to do so during the revolution therefore demands explanation. After all, being a soldier did not train a boy in necessary skills for his adult life, and parents legitimately feared any training a boy received would be counterproductive, given the consistent association of soldiering with the poorest of the poor and their swearing and carousing. During the revolution, some families reassured themselves that their boys would be carefully brought up in the army by sending them to war with their fathers or at least with older brothers. But others were persuaded to enlist their sons because financial necessity made the boys' wartime wages attractive. [End Page 786] Sometimes boys under sixteen were sent as substitutes for their fathers. In a few revealingly sad cases, boys were bartered away by stepparents and forced to serve without compensation. Others ran away from harsh, unstable, or poor households and used enlistment as a way to better their lives. The unpleasant conditions that brought them to the army evidently were not forgotten over time. Even when petitioning as old men, few pretended their enlistments were strictly driven by an ideological attachment to the patriot cause. Instead, they remembered the harsh realities that led vulnerable boys into military life. They served, and others reaped the financial rewards.
Motivation is a complicated thing. Some boys no doubt were forced into military service, but Cox's examination of the culture of boys' songs, reading material, sermons, stories, and public rituals celebrating military valor generally and the revolution's patriotic virtue specifically also shows that early American boys grew up in a culture saturated with martial imagery. They were inculcated in martialism as an essential part of masculinity, and in the revolutionary era they were barraged with reminders of the rightness of the patriot cause. Their life circumstances might have forced them into service early, but many were socialized to embrace an idealized vision of martial duty.
They also entered an army that made use of them. Not only was the...