"The music of the Army..."
An Abbreviated Study of the Ages of Musicians
in the Continental Army

(Part 1 of 2)

John U. Rees
©1993, 2002

(Originally published in The Brigade Dispatch
Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Autumn 1993, 2-8.)

The musicians of the Continental Army have long been relegated to a minor role in comparison to those soldiers who carried muskets or commanded troops in battle. In actuality the duties they performed were essential to the army and contributed greatly to discipline and order both in camp and on the battlefield. The original purpose of this study was to gain some knowledge of, and if possible ascertain a trend in, the ages of those soldiers who served as musicians. During the course of the research personal accounts by the soldiers themselves were gathered which give some further understanding of the daily lives, duties and role of musicians in the army. These soldiersí narratives have been appended to the study.

The position of a fifer or drummer was not necessarily an easy one to fill. They were expected to learn the many tunes played in the army, from popular melodies like "Roslyn Castle" to practical beats such as "Water Call" or "Roast Beef." In an eighteenth century army music was used to transmit orders and to regulate the daily routine of the soldiers. In camp the reveille and tattoo denoted the beginning and end of the soldier's day. Other calls signaled the men to assemble for meals or for detachments to gather wood and water. If the army was ordered to march the routine of the troops prior to setting off, and the accompanying music, was adjusted accordingly. While on the move music provided a cadence to regulate the rate of march, and in battle drums and fifes could transmit or supplement the commands of the officers and would hopefully bolster the morale of the soldiers to some degree.1

In addition to the oft-misunderstood nature of the role of musicians in the Continental Army certain myths about these soldiers have been propagated. Probably the most familiar portrayal of revolutionary musicians is the nineteenth century painting "The Spirit of '76" by Archibald M. Willard. Although two older men playing both fife and drum are shown in this rendering it is probably the image of the adolescent drummer that has lodged in the minds of most people. Additionally the use of boys as musicians during the American Civil War and such popular songs as "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" only served to add to the popular conception of the universal use of children as musicians. For some time the idea of proving or disproving the popular idea of the drummer boy in the Continental Army has been of interest to me. Unfortunately company and regimental rolls for the period contain very few personal descriptions of individual soldiers, thus making the task seem almost impossible. Even when descriptive rolls were made they are often rendered worthless because the document undated, making the ages given for the men impossible to use. Finally, I struck upon idea of gathering names from the muster rolls and then searching through the pension records as a way of finding musiciansí birth dates. Admittedly, this remained a hit or miss method of proceeding as is evidenced by the fact that out of 292 musicians the ages for only 67 (23 percent) were found (exclusive of the men in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment). Ages given by soldiers in their pension applications are still open to some error. Some pension documents contain birth records for the men, and these were used when available. Most of the files give only a statement by the applicant attesting to his age at the time of the deposition. Use of these places much reliance on the reliability of an individual's memory. In spite of all these caveats the following study, while hardly conclusive, still gives some idea of the average age of the musicians, as well as some insights into their military services.2

Once the men's ages and services were ascertained there had to be some method of processing the information that would serve to make it useful. For statistical purposes it was decided to use the age of each musician at their first known service as a fifer or drummer. Since it was found that some of these men had switched from the fife to the drum during their service (an instance of changing from the drum to the fife is not known) the ages of these men were used twice, once for their first service as a fifer and once as a drummer. Additionally, two of the men served as company musicians and later became drum and fife majors; these cases were treated in the same manner.

There are a number of tables included in this work. The primary table shows the average ages for the total number of musicians examined. There are also four secondary tables showing the statistics for the New Jersey Regiments, Lamb's Artillery Regiment, the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, and a group of musicians from miscellaneous units. These give some indication of the average ages within those different groupings.

The final result of this study shows a trend that supports the assertion that most of the armyís musicians were, in fact, quite mature. In the overall grouping the menís average age was 18.5 years. When broken down as to the particular instrument played, the average for drummers was 19 years and for fifers 17 years. Boy musicians, while they did exist, were the exception rather than the rule. Though it seems the idea of a multitude of early teenage or pre-teenage musicians in the Continental Army is a false one, the legend has some basis in fact. There were young musicians who served with the army. Fifer John Piatt of the 1st New Jersey Regiment was ten years old at the time of his first service in 1776, while Lamb's Artillery Regiment Drummer Benjamin Peck was ten years old at the time of his 1780 enlistment. There were also a number of musicians who were twelve, thirteen, or fourteen years old when they first served as musicians with the army.

Among the younger musicians the fife was the preferred instrument. This is born out not only by the age of those who served as fifers but also by one military manual of the period and the soldiersí accounts themselves. Cuthbertson's System for the Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry stated that the "finest children that can be had should always be chosen for Fifers; and as their duty is not very laborious, it matters not how young they are taken, when strong enough to fill the Fife, without endangering their constitutions..." As concerns the drum Cuthbertson stated that a "handsome set of Drummers, who perform their beatings well, being one of the ornaments in the shew of a battalion, care must be taken to inlist none, but such as promise a genteel figure when arrived at maturity; and as few, when past fourteen years of age, attain any great perfection on the Drum; active, ingenious lads, with supple joints, and under that age, should be only chosen..." The author further stipulated that "Boys much under fourteen, unless they are remarkably stout, are rather an incumbrance to a regiment (especially on service) as they are in general unable to bear fatigue, or even carry their Drums on a march..."3

Some musicianís narratives support the contention that the younger and smaller the musician the more likely it was he would play the fife rather than the drum. Fifer Samuel Dewees, being "about or turned of 15, but quite small of my age," was enlisted by his father into the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment. Although he joined the army in 1777 Dewees spent the first year and a half of his service doing duty in a hospital or as waiter to the regimentís colonel. He did not perform the duties of a musician until the summer of 1779, even though he had been wearing a musicianís uniform prior to that and must have received some sort of training as a fifer. John Piatt, a fifer in the 1st New Jersey, was ten years old when he enlisted in 1776 and claimed that sometime during his service he was "taken a prisoner at pluckemin [New Jersey] by the British and released afterwards being a Youth..."4

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 warís 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

First Year of Service for the Musicians Examined

1776 1777 1778 1779 1780 1781 1782
Number of Men Enlisted 12 23 17 6 4 4 1
Total: 67 Musicians  

Ages of the Musicians During Their First Year of Service

17761 - 10 years, 1 - 13 years, 2 - 16 years, 1-18 years, 1-20 years, 2-21 years, 1-23 years, 1-25 years, 1-29 years, 1-35 years

(Average age: 20.5 years)


17771 - 12 years, 1 - 13 years, 6 - 14 years, 4-17 years, 4-18 years, 1-19 years, 1-21 years, 1-23 years, 1-26 years, 1-27 years, 1-35 years, 1-38 years

(Average age: 19 years)


17781 - 13 years, 1 - 14 years, 2 - 15 years, 1-16 years, 3-17 years, 4-18 years, 2-19 years, 1-20 years, 1-24 years, 1-27 years

(Average age: 18 years)


17791 - 14 years, 1 - 16 years, 1 - 17 years,

1-21 years, 1-26 years, 1 - 28 years

(Average age: 20 years)


17801 - 10 years, 1-11 years, 1 - 14 years, 1-15 years

(Average age: 12.5 years)


1781††† 2 - 16 years, 1 - 20 years, 1 - 21 years

(Average age: 18 years)


1782††† 1 - 15 years

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:

General Orders...

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 [1776]... 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

Another old soldier, John McElroy, 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, had a unique story to tell of his service. He stated in his pension deposition, "As to my ocupation I have none being nearly blind by reason of my eyes being nearly destroyed by the accidental bursting of cartriges in the year 1779 at Sunbury Pennsylvania..." McElroy had enlisted as a fifer in 1776 and, despite the accident to his eyes, was appointed to the position of fife major in 1780. John McElroy and another fifer, Aaron Thompson of the 3rd New Jersey, both retained some mementos of their military service well after the war. The former wrote in 1820 that "I have my old Fife and knapsack yet," while a friend of Thompson noted after his death that he "had heard him [Thompson], often say so, and mention, the fact of his, having mutilated his fife in order to prevent its being stolen and that he might preserve it, as a relic, of his services in that Struggle."

A further search of the pension files would in all likelihood supply additional information about musiciansí lives as well as more evidence regarding their age. This study and the statistics it has produced give a reasonable idea of the age of the average drummer and fifer in the Continental Army, having been found to be about 18 years. More research into the personal statistics and military duties of musicians is highly desirable in order that a full picture of their services be made known. There still lie untapped many journals, letters, and other documents which may shed light on this little known aspect of the army of the revolution.

(Note: Any of the soldier's narratives given above for which sources have not been given will be found in the alphabetical listings of musicians included in the statistics section immediately following.)

Statistics for the Overall Grouping
of Musicians Examined
(Not including 11th Pennsylvania Regiment)

72 musicians total
Total Average age - 18.5 years
Average age for fifers - 17 years (17 years including fife majors)
Average age for drummers - 19 years (20 years including drum majors)

Total - 25 Average Age - 19 years
of Men
Age at Time of
Initial Service
1 10 years
1 12 years
1 13 years
2 14 years
1 15 years
3 16 years
4 17 years
4 18 years
1 19 years
1 21 years
1 23 years
1 24 years
1 25 years
1 26 years
1 27 years
2 35 years

Drum Majors

Total - 2 Average age - 28 years
1 19 years
1 38 years


Total - 37 Average Age - 17 years
1 10 years
1 11 years
2 13 years
7 14 years
2 15 years
2 16 years
6 17 years
5 18 years
2 19 years
3 20 years
3 21 years
1 23 years
1 24 years
1 28 years

Fife Majors

Total - 2 Average Age - 22 years
1 20 years
1 24 years

Instrument Unknown

Total - 6 Average Age - 20 years
1 14 years
1 15 years
1 16 years
1 21 years
1 26 years
1 29 years

Adjusted Statistics Including 11th Pennsylvania List
(See Section III, data uncertain)

Total musicians including PA Archives list - 81
Adjusted Total Average age - 18 years
Adjusted average for fifers - 17 years (including fife majors)
Adjusted average for drummers - 19 years (including drum majors)

[See Part Two]

General Sources

The quotation in the title of this article is taken from the General Orders of June 4, 1777: "The music of the army being in general very bad; it is expected, that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them..." John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, vol. 8 (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1933), 181-182.

Revolutionary War Rolls, National Archives Microfilm Publications, Record Group 93, M246, Washington, 1980:

reel 55 to reel 62, muster rolls of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th New Jersey Regiments;

reels 128 and 129, Spencer's Additional Regiment;

reels 125 and 126, Malcom's Additional Regiment;

reel 126, Patton's Additional Regiment;

reel 126, Rawling's Additional Regiment;

reel 117 to Reel 120, Lamb's 2nd Continental Artillery Regiment.

Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives, Washington, D.C., 1976. The actual applications and related materials may be found in National Archives Microfilm Publication M804 (2,670 reels).

Raoul F. Camus, Military Music of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976).

Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution - April 1775 to December 1783 (Baltimore, 1982).

The Life and Adventures of M'D. Campbell: The Money-Maker. No publisher, no date (held in the special collections of Rutgers University).


1. Nigel Reed, "The Voice of Experience," The Continental Soldier. The Journal of the Continental Line. vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 1991), 11-16; "Drum Signals: Then and Now," ibid., vol. 4, no. 3 (Summer 1991), 9-13; "The Field Musick's Von Steuben or Musick Made Easy," ibid., vol. 4, no. 4 (Fall 1991), 11-15.

2. Robert G. Athearn, The American Heritage New Illustrated History of the United States, vol. III, "The Revolution" (New York, 1963), 202.

3. Bennett Culhbertson, Esq. A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry (Dublin, 1768), 12-13. Hugh Barty-King, The Drum (London, 1988), facing page 32, painting of Lord George Lennox and the 25th Regiment in Minorca in 1771 showing adult drummer and a fifer in the early or pre-teenage years. Painting attributed to Giuseppe Chiesa; also a discussion of British army drummer boys in the 18th century with two examples, one Joseph Brome who entered as a drummer boy at eight years of age (date unknown) and eventually became a lieutenant-general, and the other John Shipp who could not wait for his eighteenth birthday when he could be raised "to the ranks." He was made a corporal immediately and eventually received a lieutenancy in the 87th Regiment of Foot. Barty-King also states that the normal age when boys were taken in as drummers was "between ten and twelve." According to some inferences in this work it could be that the appellation of "drummer boy" was used for both fifers and drummers, 72-73.

4. 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), 92-97, 125-126, 133-134, 138-152, enlistment and detached service; 148, some time between late summer of 1778 and spring of 1779 Dewees was serving as a waiter at Humpton's private residence at Somerset Courthouse in New Jersey. He claimed that while he "homed" he "was dressed in a Fifer's regimental coat and cap, with [a] horse or cow tail hanging thereon..."; 152-153, attack on Stony Point. Samuel Dewees' pension file gives two different ages (57 years old in 1820 and 56 years old in 1818) for which reason he is not included in the age statistics of this study. A brief outline of his early services according to his memoirs is as follows: His father having been captured at Fort Washington in November of 1776 was released from prison in the beginning of 1777. Samuel Dewees was enlisted by his father as a fifer, in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment commanded by Colonel Richard Humpton, being "about or turned of 15, but quite small of my age." Dewees served in the fall of 1777 in a hospital at the "Brandywine meeting-house" (probably Birmingham Meetinghouse), at one point under the command of Captain George Ross, Jr. of the 11th Regiment, and remained on duty with the sick or was absent from the army until the spring of 1778. Following his return to the army at Valley Forge be rejoined the 11th Pennsylvania, became waiter to Colonel Humpton and again was detached from the army. In July of 1779 when he returned to his regiment he claimed to have been "one of the musicians attached to the detachment" which attempted to attack Stony Point, though General Anthony Wayne left "the musicians (or at least a portion of them) myself included in the number behind him." Dewees says that this assault was not successful and he did not take part in the later successful assault on July 16th (hereafter cited as Dewees, History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees).

Nigel Reed, "The Voice of Experience." This is an excellent article containing extracts from the memoirs of Samuel Dewees (a fifer in the Pennsylvania Line) with an intelligent discussion of their content.

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.

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.