I Found It at the JCB



Nicolas Ponce

< click on image for enlargement >

Boy Soldiers in the Eighteenth Century.
Nicolas Ponce, Recueil d'estampes representant les différens événemens de la guerre qui a procuré l'indépendance aux Etats Unis de l'Amérique, Paris, [1785].
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

Tuning of the Fifes:
The Life of a Boy Soldier in the Eighteenth Century

by Caroline Cox

As a researcher investigating boy soldiers (those under sixteen) in the American Revolution, I was delighted to find this French engraving from 1785 celebrating the patriot victory over the British forces at Saratoga in October 1777. Even though it wasn’t created by someone who was there at the time, I was pleased to see a youthful drummer imagined as present at the moment of surrender. At least one certainly was, although probably not as close as this romantic image would have it. And there may well have been a young fifer nearby also.

This was an exciting discovery – but it was only the first. Finding information about boys serving in any capacity is like looking for a needle in a haystack. While searching particularly for information about boys who were musicians, I found a reference to fifers in an Orderly Book from 1780 in the JCB Library collection. An Orderly Book is a notebook in which a regiment’s orders of the day were recorded. This one was kept by Major Moses Ashley of the 5th Massachusetts infantry of the Continental Army. In it, one day in late August, he called all drum and fife majors to a meeting to bring with them “all their old fifes for the purpose of having them properly sorted to the same Keys.”

It seems such a slight aside, but I smiled when I read it. We forget that officers such as Ashley had to deal with two important problems. His boy fifers often only served for short periods, not long enough to become very good at playing so they needed continuous practice. Secondly, the fife is a very limited instrument that can only be played in three keys, A, D and G. Its sound carries – some might call it shrill. So, I could imagine Major Ashley the evening before, driven to distraction listening to inexpert play on mismatched fifes, and that thought made him and his world seem more immediate and real.  

This image may also be seen on the JCB's Archive of Early American Images.

Caroline Cox, University of the Pacific, was a John Carter Brown Library Associates Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library during the winter of 2011.


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