‘Shooting became just like drinking a glass of water’
In his book A Long Way Gone, former child soldier, Ishmael Beah unblinkingly told of the horrors of the civil war Sierra Leone (1991-2002). Kidnapped and forced into becoming a soldier by one of the splinter groups, Beah participated in abysmal acts of violence and murder, sometime fueled by drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines and “brown brown” – a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder. Rescued by UNICEF, Beah found himself dealing with the guilt of atrocities he’d witnessed and committed. But for his rescue and rehabilitation, Beah’s story is far from unique as many thousand children have found themselves in similar or even worse circumstances.
We recoil in horror from the idea of children as soldiers, but perceive and isolate the phenomena to Third World conflicts. Certainly, most of the tens of thousands of “child soldiers” are trapped by the events in Asia and Africa, but the West has not always shied from putting minors in harm’s way.
During the War for American Independence militia service began at ages 15 or 16 (depending upon the state). For some an introduction to things military began earlier as related by Ashbel Green:
“…we had companies composed of boys from ten to fifteen years of age; none, I think, were admitted under ten, unless an individual or two of uncommon growth; and at sixteen all were enrolled in the adult militia. Each company elected its own officers, consisting of a captain, a first and second lieutenant, an ensign, and two or three sergeants. We had wooden guns, but as much like muskets as we could get them… We frequently met for training, drilling and marching. The manual exercise was learned by all… In all this, we were encouraged and cheered on by our parents. Nor was this military training, in the existing state of the country, a useless or unimportant employment. Life, liberty, property, and indeed all that freemen value, was believed to be in jeopardy, and not to be preserved, otherwise than by force of arms; and this training of boys, not only cherished in them a military spirit, but prepared them to act with skill and efficiency, as soon as they were enrolled in the legally established militia…”
Elkanah Watson recalled a similar experience:
“I remained at an ordinary common-school until the age of 20. This school was kept by Alexander Scammel and Peleg Wadsworth; both, afterward, distinguished officers of the army. In common with the other patriotic spirits of the age, they evidently saw the approach of the coming tempest. I remember them as early as 1771, intently studying military tactics; and I have often seen them engaged in a garden adjoining my father’s, drilling each other. They formed the boys into a military company; and our school soon had the air of a miniature arsenal, with our wooden guns and tin bayonets suspended round the walls. At twelve o’clock, the word was given, “To arms,” and each boy seized his gun; then, led by either Scammel or Wadsworth, we were taught military evolutions, and marched over hills, through swamps, often in the rain, in the performance of these embryo military duties. A sad and impressive commentary upon the effect of these early influences is afforded by the fact, that half this company perished in the conflict of the Revolution.
When the conflict began in earnest young men were called upon to serve. One extreme example of a child soldier was Israel Trask who noted in his pension claim:
“…having completed the tenth year of my age the fifth day of February , I volunteered in the service of the United States as a soldier in a company commanded by Capt. John Low….” Trask’s duties were “…care of the baggage and property of the mess…” He also noted “…my duty alternately was to take the edibles prepared at the mess to the officers on duty, which in some instance [were] miles distant….”
Some very young soldiers served as musicians and their positions have taken on a rather romantic aura. However, one of their most onerous duties was noted by Trask:
“It was here I witnessed for the first time public punishment inflicted in the regiment. Five or six soldiers were condemned to be flogged…This incident was impressed on my memory with increased force from the interest made to exonerate Major Putnam’s son from his share of the duty of applying the cat to the naked backs of the criminals that fell to him as a drummer…. A year or two older than myself, he was, however, obliged to submit and take his share of the unpleasant duty with his colleagues.”
Trask re-enlisted in 1776 and turned to privateering at the ripe age of 12. He served several voyages for the remainder of the war, was captured three times, impressed into Royal Navy service from one of his captures and escaped from a prison on another.
His pension claim does not spell out his duties abroad ship, but another youngster severed involuntarily aboard the HMS Namur during the Seven Years’ War. Olaudah Equiano (age approximately 12) served as “powder monkey” carrying ammunition from the magazine to the ship’s cannons. It was a perilous duty:
“My station during the engagement was on the middle-deck, where I was quartered with another boy, to bring powder to the aftermost gun; and here I was witness of the dreadful fate of many of my companions, who, in the twinkling of an eye, were dashed in pieces, and launched into eternity. Happily I escaped unhurt, though the shot and splinters flew thick about me during the whole fight… At this station my gun-mate…and I ran a very great risk for more than half an hour of blowing up the ship. For, when we had taken the cartridges out of the box, the bottoms of many of them proving rotten, the powder ran all about the deck, near the match tub, we scarcely had water enough at the last to throw on it….”
Trask’s (voluntary) and Equiano’s (involuntary) service at such a young age was a lot more extreme than most, but service by boys in the early to mid teens was a far from uncommon occurrence. Joseph Plumb Martin of the Continental Army and John Robert Shaw of the British Army (later changing allegiances) enlisted at about the same age (15 ½). Both saw extended service.
Shaw is somewhat more picaresque than Martin; indeed, his reported reason for enlisting was to get away from paternal authority and punishment. Although his service with the British is couched in the darkest terms to make his service in a red coat as odious as possible, (having changed sides sometime in 1781) there is no denying that Shaw was exposed at an early age to some very nasty experiences. For example Shaw’s account of his role during the British raid on Old Tappan in 1778:
“The 33d regiment, to which I belonged, was about three miles off when the cruel carnage began; but as we approached, the shrieks and screams of the hapless victims whom our savage fellow soldiers were butchering, were sufficient to have melted into compassion the hearts of a Turk or Tartar.
Tongue cannot tell nor pen unfold the horrors of that dismal night. Some were seen having their arms cut off, and others with their bowels hanging out crying for mercy….”
Martin’s experiences, by contrast, have more to do with the everyday life of a soldier, which without the violence of combat could be rather unpleasant. His accounts of want of proper rations, long marches and extremes of weather show that soldiering can be quite wearing. Martin relates his being posted to a guard in the autumn of 1776:
“…To have to lie as I did almost every night (for our duty required it) on the cold and often wet ground without a blanket and with nothing but thin summer clothing was tedious. I have often while upon guard lain on one side until the upper side smarted with cold, then turned that side down to the place warmed by my body and let the other side take its turn in smarting, while the other one on the ground warmed…”
Another American soldier Hugh McDonald of North Carolina, enlisted with the Continental Army at age 14, and saw action at the battle of Germantown, October 1777. Soon after this engagement McDonald relates with evident pride:
“…my captain, George Doherty, paid a visit to the commander-in-chief, and told him that he intended to parade his children who were in his platoon in the battle of Germantown, and march them before him that he might see them…I was one of the platoon, and, as the oldest did not exceed nineteen years of age, this caused the captain to call us ‘children’….’These,’ said the captain [to Washington], ‘are the children which broke the line of rough Hessian soldiers four times at the Battle of Germantown, without the loss of but one man.’”
Washington complimented the captain and Doherty noted that he would reward the platoon with “a barrel of whiskey”. His Excellency would later send a long a “ten gallon cask of Jamaican rum…to our old captain to treat his children….”
Naturally, musket and cannon shot never inquire about their target’s age and child soldiers find out that there is no such notion as being “too young to die”. Lt. Thomas Anbury, serving with the British 24th Regiment of Foot related his experience of burial detail following the Battle of Freeman’s farm:
“Our army abounded with young officers, in the subaltern line, and in the course of this unpleasant duty three of the 20th regiment were interred together, the age of the eldest not exceeding seventeen…”
Anbury also relates the bathos of a young officer’s death from the same battle:
“…Lieutenant Hervey [sic], of the 62d, a youth of sixteen, and nephew of the Adjutant –General of the same name, received several wounds, and was repeatedly ordered off the field by Colonel Anstruther; but his heroic ardor would not allow him to quit the battle while he could stand and see his brave lads fighting beside him. A ball striking one of his legs, his removal became absolutely necessary, and while they were conveying him away, another wounded him mortally. In this situation the surgeon recommended him to take a powerful dose of opium, to avoid a seven or eight hour life of most exquisite torture…and when the Colonel entered the tent with Major Harnage…they asked whether he had any affairs they could settle for him? his reply was ‘that being a minor every thing was adjusted”; but he had just life enough to utter ‘tell my uncle, I died like a soldier’….”
Whether Lieutenant Harvey said this from true courage, the effects of the opium or a youthful folly is immaterial. His was a young life cut very short by being a child soldier.