- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009




By Emmy E. Werner

Potomac Books, $17.95, 190 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

Too often books about children are written in an infantile voice as if the audience is somehow unable to read adult themes unless the prose is watered down. Happily, the book at hand is a compelling history that is both clearly written and a riveting experience for both adults and young people who are interested in Revolutionary War history from a different perspective.

The story of young people, even children, in our War for Independence has not been so much “forgotten,” as the publisher’s blurb claims, as simply overlooked. Yet, as author Emmy Werner notes, America was an extraordinarily young country. The first U.S. census, taken in 1790, revealed that fully half the population throughout the 13 states was 16 years old or younger.

Moreover, while education was not universal, it was pervasive, and many of these young folks kept diaries and correspondence that found their way into various archives, where they awaited discovery. One of the interesting insights gleaned from this book can be that our Revolution loomed so large in our national consciousness and for so long at least in part because there were people who heard President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address who in their youth could have seen George Washington sworn in as our first president.

Ms. Werner brings a unique perspective to this unusual take on history. She is a developmental psychologist and research professor at the University of California at Davis and the author of numerous books about children and the impact of war. She also explains that she became a U.S. citizen after growing up in the German state of Hesse and that she was able to read the archaic German script in the various Hessian state archives where the accounts of young Hessian soldiers repose.

The scope of her research is impressive. In all, she has included eyewitness accounts of 100 American boys and girls who were between the ages of 5 and 16 at the time of the Revolutionary War. The records include correspondence found in many state history archives but also the war records in the Library of Congress and the war-veteran pension records stored in the National Archives.

Ms. Werner recounts, “The youngest soldier in this group had enlisted when he was eight years old, and nearly one out of four were below the age of sixteen when they began their service. I include reports from black as well as white boy soldiers, from teenagers imprisoned on land and on prison ships, from slave children and children held hostage by Indians, and from the children of loyalists or pacifists who opposed the war for political or religious reasons. A third of the eyewitness accounts are from girls, most of whom lived in cities; the remaining two-thirds are from boys, most of whom lived in rural areas.”

The range of the recorded memories is fascinating. John Quincy Adams was 8 years old when he witnessed the Battle of Breed’s Hill outside Boston in June 1775; he later wrote about it. More immediately, Ms. Werner included the accounts of two teenage soldiers who stood there against the British attack.

Another future president had an even more traumatic experience in the war. The oft-told tale that Andrew Jackson was struck in the cheek with a saber by a British officer is ignored. But Ms. Werner does tell how the subsequent hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 went out as a 14-year-old militiaman in 1781 to fight the British in South Carolina; how he was captured and imprisoned under barbaric conditions in Camden, where a smallpox epidemic raged; and how when he and his brother were freed to return home, the plague they brought with them wiped out his family and left him an orphan.

One of the more interesting side stories in this narrative touches on a topic studiously avoided in most of the current historiography of the War for Independence: the role of the many youthful American blacks, both free and enslaved, who flocked to the British flag.

Ms. Werner has discovered archival records of scores of so-called “black Hessians,” a group of young former slaves from Virginia and the Carolinas who served in Hessian regiments as drummers and fifers — some as young as 10 — and opted to seek their freedom by going back to Germany with their units once the war was ended.

Those who survived the harsh European winters ultimately settled down and married into German families. Hundreds of other escaped slaves who had taken their skills into British service were repatriated by British commanders, and many were resettled in Nova Scotia or in the Bahamas.

Not all the stories recounted here will appeal to uplifted patriotism or the spirit of adventure. There are somber accounts of the brutal conditions of prison ships, of violence and even rape as well as the gut-gripping memories of being very young in the face of death and pain on the battlefield. War, especially a civil war, offers sanctuary to no one regardless of gender, let alone of age.

Yet this tightly written narrative not only retells the story of its youthful eyewitnesses, it carries us forward in time so we can see how they lived their lives, not always as presidents but invariably with pride in their contribution as well as their survival.

Read this book before you pass it on to a young friend.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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