In an interesting juxtaposition of events, I just finished reading Boy Soldiers of the Revolutionary War by Caroline Cox at the same time I saw The Fifth Wave. (I think I have read way too many books and seen too many movies like this – I found the plot predictable. But I digress.)
Anyway, both had as core ideas the use of children in war.
According to Cox, some boys enlisted in the Continental Army as young as nine. You read that right – nine. Admittedly, they became drummers and fifers and quite a few entered the army with fathers or older brothers. Cox reminds the reader that all children were well accustomed to hard work then and that even toddlers might be put to collecting wood or other chores.
Cox researched pension documents to confirm the existence of these boy soldiers. From their testimonies, the officers were more concerned with the physical strength of these boys than any moral concerns about putting children into war. Even though the musket was lighter than it had been (due in advances in the technology of bullet making) ten pounds still had to be carried. The soldiers also had to forage for food and were significantly more at risk of dying from disease than from any actual fighting.
What I found so interesting were the actual reasons for enlisting. In some cases patriotism was the reason but usually enlisting was prompted from more pragmatic reasons. Boys ran away from strict fathers, stepfathers and masters to whom they were apprenticed. In some cases, the father or master who could choose someone to serve in their stead chose the boy. (Can you imagine?) In some cases impoverished and/or orphaned boys joined because they had nothing else and at least they would be fed. For many of them, the army became their family. Not all served as drummers or fifers either.
One of my favorite stories involves a boy who joined the Patriot cause while his father served on the Loyalist side. Conversation at supper must have been wild. The father finally compelled the boy to desert the Continental Army and join the British but when the father was killed in battle the boy returned to the Continental Army.
By the War of 1812, opinions about child development had changed. Boys 18 and older were permitted to enlist and the age of majority had been set at 21. Although some boys accompanied their fathers into the army, they usually served as servants more than soldiers.