Molly the Drummer Boy

In this short novel, subtitled A Story of the Revolution, Molly’s real name is Debby Mason, a fourteen-year-old daughter of the town drunk. Her father had been ordered to leave the town of Plymouth, and he planned to travel to Boston with other men who wanted to fight for independence from Great Britain. Debby was placed in the care of a harsh woman named Mrs. Lane, who was loyal to King George III. At meeting (I’m assuming that meant a church service) it had been brought up that Debby’s deceased mother had been a lady, so Mrs. Lane felt she should try to redeem the wild girl who felt fierce loyalty to her disgraced father.

At Mrs. Lane’s home Debby was never trusted, and often whipped for misdeeds. She missed both her father and the drum he’d given her, for he had known she resented the restrictions society placed on females. To save her drum from destruction Debby had hidden it in a wooded area behind her old home, and she’d sometimes sneak out of the Lane house and, with muffled sticks, beat upon her beloved drum.

In the year Debby spent with Mrs. Lane she often thought of her mother, who’d said she’d someday tell her about the home she’d lived in before her marriage. Debby remembered promising her dying mother that she’d always take care of her father.

One day Mrs. Lane told Debby to pray and ask forgiveness for the sin of spending time with Jack Martin, a boy who was considered bad company. Debby refused, for Jack was the only child who’d remained her friend after her father began drinking too much. When Debby declared she wouldn’t stop seeing Jack she was ordered to her room. Mrs. Lane would come to see her after evening prayer, and if Debby didn’t repent she’d be beaten.

Often, when Debby visited with Jack, he’d have news of her father and his friends in the Continental army. She had been giving Jack drum lessons, for he wanted to go off as a drummer boy and join the fight for freedom.

Debby went to a hiding place in her room and took out a suit of boy’s clothes “made of rough fustian.” She had taken all the money she’d earned working for Mrs. Lane and had Jack buy the clothes for her, for at night she liked to put them on and pretend she could have the adventures granted only to boys. She removed her gown, dressed in boy’s clothes, tucked her hair under a three-cornered hat, climbed out her window, and rushed off to where Jack was waiting.

Jack told her news of the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill, and that George Washington had been made general of the army. But the most important news was that her father had stopped drinking, and had fought in battles. Debby felt she needed to keep her promise to look after her father, so she took her drum and headed off to join the patriots.

After several days of walking Debby came upon a Continental army camp, gave her name as Robert Shirtliffe, said she wanted to enlist, and was accepted into the military. No need for background checks or medical exams when there was a war to fight. Soldiers started calling the new drummer boy Molly, for those who were too young to shave were given a girl’s name as a form of teasing.

Winter came and Molly (who was Debby Mason, pretending to be Robert) heard soldiers talking about the bravery of “old Mason” who had been protecting a bridge, along with a small number of other soldiers. Mason had been shot, but was not among those killed, or those who escaped. Molly decided to go looking for her hero-father, and one day was able to sneak past the sentry and set out to find him.

After walking awhile Molly came upon a drunken sentry with an English greatcoat over his ragged Continental uniform. It was her father, who mistook her for a British soldier named Captain Morley, and asked about the change of uniform. Then along came Morley, who looked exactly like Molly (who, you may recall, is really Debby, pretending to be Robert). Morley had captured Mason, and plied him with liquor to get him to tell what he knew about the Continental army. Morley tried to take Molly prisoner, but the two look-alike soldiers began to fight.

Morley shot Molly through the hand, then the bullet found a resting place in old Mason’s breast. Molly knelt at Mason’s side and asked Morley for a chance to be alone with the dying man, saying they were from the same town, and there was something that had to be said in private. Captain Morley said he would leave for a time if Molly could be trusted to remember he (who was actually a she) was a prisoner, and not try to escape.

With his dying breath Mason begged the young soldier to go to Plymouth, find his daughter Debby, and tell her that her mother had a twin sister. Mason died before finishing his story.

Molly planned to keep her word and wait for Morley’s return, but she was afraid other soldiers might come along,and decided to wait while in hiding. After moving into the underbrush she fainted from the pain of her wounded hand. She awoke when two British soldiers, riding weary horses, stopped at the sight of Mason’s body, and talked of the need to spread the news that General Washington and fourteen thousand men would soon be upon them.

When Molly made her presence known she was mistaken for that look-alike Captain Morley, and said the Continental uniform helped her get behind enemy lines. Her hand was bandaged and, since she was smaller and lighter than the other soldiers, she was given one of the worn-out horses and told to tell British General Howe about Washington’s advancing troops. She mounted the best of the two horses and took off just as Captain Morley returned.

Molly made it back to her own camp and told of the coming of reinforcements, then fainted a second time. A brand new volunteer had arrived – her friend Jack Martin – who asked to tend to the wounded soldier to insure no one discovered her secret. Molly told Jack of her father’s death, and of her need to find the British soldier who looked just like her.

On Christmas Eve General Washington asked Molly to deliver a message to the Marblehead fishermen, telling them “we are ready.” Thus Molly helped to get the soldiers across the Delaware River on Christmas evening, for a surprise attack on the British the next day.

Soon after, Washington wanted to move five thousand troops during the night without the enemy knowing they had left their camp, and he asked for fifty volunteers to stay behind to keep the campfires burning, and to beat upon drums to deceive the British into thinking no one had left. It was a dangerous assignment, but Molly readily accepted the challenge, marching and drumming all night long, and being the last to leave at the break of dawn.

While trying to rejoin the Continental army Molly once again met up with look-alike Captain Morley, who tried to take her prisoner. Both soldiers shot, and both were wounded, Morley fatally. But before the British soldier died Molly learned they were cousins, for Morley’s mother was the sister of Molly’s late mother.

When wounded Molly made it back to the soldiers she served with a young surgeon saved her life, and discovered her secret. That left the dreadful question of how General Washington would react when he learned of the deceit of a female joining the army. That may not seem as though it would be the worst of her problems, but this story emphasizes the high regard every Continental soldier had for Washington, and how no one wanted to disappoint the great man.

I found this 68-page novel, first published in 1900, of interest because I know very little about the day-to-day life of a soldier during the American Revolution. Though I doubt every bit of this story is historically accurate, I did some research and learned of Deborah Sampson, who took the name of Robert Shurtliff, fought as a Continental soldier, was wounded, and treated by a surgeon who kept her secret. So the story of Debby Mason, who enlisted as Robert Shirtliffe, was no doubt inspired by history.

And I was impressed that author Harriet T. Comstock wrote as though she found no fault with a girl who wanted to behave as a boy, though in the end she reassured her readers that after Debby goes to stay with a kind and understanding lady she does learn to become a respectable young woman.

If you’d like to read Molly, the Drummer Boy the story can be downloaded free of charge at:

A Little Dusky Hero

When I saw the title of this 1902 children’s novel I wondered how a young dark-skinned hero would be represented. I was pleased with what I read.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898 Colonel Austin was in Tampa, Florida writing a letter to “the Boy and his Mother,” which was how his family was always designated. He heard someone say “Good mornin’, sah,” looked up, and saw a small black boy dressed in rags, with tear-stained cheeks.

The colonel asked the boy his name and was told George Washington McKinley Jones. (William McKinley was president during the war.) He asked where the boy’s folks were, and was told his father was in prison for life for killing a friend, and his mammy died yesterday, and had just been buried. The boy liked the Colonel’s face, and came to him because he was starving and wanted to find work. When asked what type of work he could do the boy said he was “de best shot you ebber saw.”

The boy was asked if he wanted to be a soldier boy. He said no, he wanted to be a hero. Did he know what a hero was? The lad replied in clumsy dialect (which is the only annoying part of the story): “A hero is a pusson, sah, what ain’t afraid to tackle a job too big fur other folks, an’ goes right froo wid it or dies a-doin’ it!”

Colonel Austin called to another officer and told him they had a volunteer who enlisted as a hero, and the volunteer was to be fed all that he could hold. The Colonel set out to learn if the boy was telling the truth, and locals told him the boy belonged to no one. He was honest and good-natured, and could hit a bull’s-eye whenever he’d been lent a gun to use at a shooting contest. (No one explained why the boy’s father killed a friend.)

The boy was taken in as the mascot of the Ninth Infantry, and was given the shortened name of G.W. His first assigned duties were singing and dancing to amuse the soldiers.

A little while later a box came from up North addressed to George Washington McKinley Jones, in care of Colonel Austin, but since G.W. couldn’t read, he didn’t believe it was for him until he took the box to “his Colonel,” who told him it really did have his name on it. Inside the box was a private’s uniform made to the boy’s measurements. There was also a letter from the Boy and his Mother, telling him that he could repay them for the uniform by bringing the Colonel home to them, safe and sound. G.W. knew who they were, for he often looked at their photograph displayed in the Colonel’s tent.

Once G.W. had changed into his new clothes the Colonel told him to never disgrace the uniform. Now the boy had two new solemn duties – to make sure the Colonel stayed out of harm’s way, and to never break any order given to him. Disobeying his Colonel would disgrace his soldier’s uniform.

The Tampa sun was brutally hot, and while all the soldiers shed their coats, G.W. refused to unfasten a single button, for he loved his uniform, and insisted on wearing it properly. He gave daily sharp-shooting exhibitions, and everyone said he was the best shot in the camp. He was even awarded his own small rifle as a prize. Never had the boy been so happy.

The Colonel insisted G.W. be in bed by eight-thirty, and even though he loved being with the soldiers and singing for them, he couldn’t be coaxed to stay up later than he was allowed, for he’d “enlisted” to be a hero, so he couldn’t break any rules, no matter how much he wanted to.

At last the order came for them to sail to Cuba and go to war. G.W. didn’t exactly know what a war was, but he was sure it would give him a chance to be a hero. After days of G.W. being sea sick, land was reached, and a brand new tent camp was set up.

He began to hear stories of war being dangerous, and often the Colonel looked anxious, so G.W. knew he had to stay close to him, for it was his job to make sure he would return safe and sound to the Boy and his Mother. But the Colonel ordered him to never go more than a half-mile from camp, and to never go over the hill where the Colonel spent more and more time away from the others.

Fever broke out in the camp, and G.W. became the favored nurse, carrying water, bathing aching heads, and granting every request for staying close by and singing hymns he’d learned from his mother. The soldiers seemed to forget he was just a boy being over-worked.

Then the war came close enough for G.W. to know it rumbled like thunder and flashed like lightening. His weary Colonel came back one evening to tell him arrangements had been made for him to be sent to the Boy and his Mother if anything should happen to the Colonel. But how could he ever go to them if he had betrayed his duty to make sure the Colonel remained safe?

G.W.’s mother had sometimes had visions, and one day G.W. had one as well. It was about going over the hill to find the Colonel, but that would mean disobeying orders, and disgracing his uniform. He was just a boy, grown weak from tending fever victims, and his Colonel wasn’t there to advise him. How could he decide which duty he must follow?

This is a short book, little more than a long short story. It has a bit of a “preachy” tone to it, emphasizing the importance of duty and sacrifice, but I found it compelling, and will read this more than once, for it will become a permanent part of my Bookshelf Companions. There are melodramatic parts, where the sensible part of my mind told me some scenes could not have taken place, but I wanted to know what happened next, and I cared about G.W., his Colonel, the Boy and his Mother, and all those young soldiers who started out knowing little more than G.W. did about what war really was.

I won’t say here how G.W. solved his crisis of conflicting duties during time of war, but I’ll tell you that some months later his Colonel told him of another way to be a hero. He would need to learn how to make his way in life, and the Colonel wanted him to attend military school, along with the Boy. The head master wanted him there, but many would make it hard for him, because of his dark skin. If G.W. consented to the plan it would be a chance to show how brave and honest he was.

If you’d like to know the entire story A Little Dusky Hero can be downloaded free of charge at: