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Teens of the Revolution

Meet five young people who risked their lives during the bloody war for our nation’s independence

When most people think of the heroes of the American Revolution, icons such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams usually come to mind. But many of the colonists called on to fight the battle for independence were unsung teenagers.

In 1774, fed up with the taxes imposed on the American Colonies by Britain’s King George III , colonial leaders held their first Continental Congress in Philadelphia to challenge Britain’s rule. The following year, the Congress approved the formation of a Continental Army and named Washington as its commander. But who would fight? Half of the 2.8 million people living in the 13 Colonies then were 16 or younger, so young people were needed to fill the ranks.

Officially, soldiers had to be at least 16, but boys as young as 10 sometimes enlisted, either with their parents’ permission or by hiding their age. Young girls aided the cause too, taking care of and defending farms and delivering messages across enemy lines. For some young people, especially the poor, the war offered an opportunity to display their patriotism and forge a new life in a new nation.

There are many heroes of the American Revolution. When most people think of them, icons such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams usually come to mind. But many of the colonists who fought for independence were teenagers.

In 1774, colonial leaders were fed up with the taxes Britain’s King George III put on the American Colonies. They held their first Continental Congress in Philadelphia to challenge Britain’s rule. The following year, the Congress approved the formation of a Continental Army. It named Washington as its commander.

But who would fight? Half of the 2.8 million people living in the 13 Colonies then were 16 or younger. That meant young people were needed to fill the ranks.

Officially, soldiers had to be at least 16, but boys as young as 10 sometimes enlisted. Younger soldiers either got their parents’ permission or hid their age. Young girls aided the cause too. They took care of and defended farms and delivered messages across enemy lines. For some young people, especially the poor, the war offered an opportunity to show their patriotism and forge a new life in a new nation.

“The promise of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is certainly on the minds of a lot of teens of the period,” says Matthew Skic, a curator at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “They are thinking about how they can take action to help determine their future.”

These are the stories of five young people who played important roles in the Revolutionary War.

“The promise of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is certainly on the minds of a lot of teens of the period,” says Matthew Skic, a curator at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “They are thinking about how they can take action to help determine their future.”

These are the stories of five young people who played important roles in the Revolutionary War.

Sybil Ludington, 16

Riding in the Dead of Night to Save Her Village

Photo Illustration by Shane Rebenschied

One spring night in 1777, a messenger pounded on the door of the house in Fredericksburg, New York, where 16-year-old Sybil Ludington lived with her parents and siblings. The man had come with a warning: British troops were destroying the nearby town of Danbury.

Located just 12 miles away in Connecticut, Danbury was a key supply base for the Continental Army. Earlier that day, about 2,000 British soldiers had ransacked the town, setting fire to thousands of pounds of goods, torching houses, and forcing the residents to flee.

The messenger had ridden several miles on horseback from Danbury to reach Sybil’s father, Colonel Henry Ludington, who was the leader of the local militia of farmers and laborers. The colonel’s forces were needed to fight off the British, but his men were spread over many miles. Someone would have to ride into the night and gather them. After his long journey, the messenger was too exhausted to go any further, and Sybil’s father needed to stay home to organize his men when they arrived.

One spring night in 1777, a messenger pounded on the door of a house in Fredericksburg, New York. There, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington lived with her parents and siblings. The man had come with a warning: British troops were destroying the nearby town of Danbury.

Located just 12 miles away in Connecticut, Danbury was a key supply base for the Continental Army. Earlier that day, about 2,000 British soldiers had ransacked the town. They set fire to thousands of pounds of goods, torched houses, and forced the residents to flee.

The messenger had ridden several miles on horseback from Danbury to reach Sybil’s father, Colonel Henry Ludington. He was the leader of the local militia of farmers and laborers. The colonel’s forces were needed to fight off the British, but his men were spread over many miles. Someone would have to ride into the night and gather them. After his long journey, the messenger was too exhausted to go any further. And Sybil’s father needed to stay home to organize his men when they arrived.

Fearing that Fredericksburg could be the British Army’s next target, Sybil mounted her horse and made the ride. At houses scattered across the countryside, she banged on doors, waking families and calling the men to battle. By the time she returned home, just before dawn, her father’s men were assembling nearby. Militiamen from the area were joining Continental Army units as they rushed to Connecticut to fight.

In the end, the British forces got away. But Sybil’s ride would make her a symbol of the role everyday people played in winning independence. Her story was kept alive privately by her family, and in 1880 one of her descendants shared it with a historian. From there, the legend of Sybil’s ride has grown.

“She was a tough woman who did what she had to do,” historian Vincent Dacquino, who has written four books about her, has said. “[She was] exactly what Americans are made of.”

Sybil feared that Fredericksburg could be the British Army’s next target. That pushed her to mount her horse and make the ride. She rode to houses scattered across the countryside. She banged on doors, waking families and calling the men to battle. By the time she returned home, just before dawn, her father’s men were gathering nearby. Militiamen from the area were joining Continental Army units as they rushed to Connecticut to fight.

In the end, the British forces got away. But Sybil’s ride would make her a symbol of the role everyday people played in winning independence. Her story was kept alive privately by her family. In 1880, one of her descendants shared it with a historian. From there, the legend of Sybil’s ride has grown.

“She was a tough woman who did what she had to do,” historian Vincent Dacquino, who has written four books about her, has said. “[She was] exactly what Americans are made of.”

Austin Dabney, 14*

Fighting for the Nation’s Freedom—and His Own

Photo Illustration by Shane Rebenschied: iStockPhoto/Getty Images (Sky); Shutterstock.com (all other images)

In 1779, Austin Dabney, an enslaved 14-year-old in Georgia, was sent into battle against the British. Austin’s owner, Richard Aycock, didn’t want to fight in the war. So, like many enslaved people, Austin was forced to serve in his owner’s place.

General George Washington had initially sought to bar blacks from joining the Army, amid white Southerners’ fears that arming them might lead them to revolt. But in November 1775, the British promised freedom to enslaved people who fought as loyalists, prompting Washington to reverse his stance on allowing freed blacks into the Army. “Success will depend,” he stated, “on which side can arm Negroes faster.”

In reality, both freed and enslaved blacks served. Austin was one of more than 5,000 blacks who fought on the side of the Patriots. An estimated 20,000 took up arms for the British.

Austin suffered a thigh wound in battle that left him disabled. But after the war, he received better treatment than most black soldiers. The state of Georgia paid 70 pounds to Aycock for Austin’s freedom. He also became the only black veteran to be granted land by the state for his “bravery and fortitude” and one of the few to be given a military pension for his injury.

Slavery remained entrenched in the South long after the war. But the efforts of black soldiers like Austin helped fuel an abolitionist movement that led to slavery gradually being outlawed in the North, says Alan Gilbert, the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists.

“Many whites thought rightly that it was completely dishonorable to fight for the rights of human beings—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Gilbert says, “and deny them to lots of human beings.”

In 1779, Austin Dabney, an enslaved 14-year-old in Georgia, was sent into battle against the British. Austin’s owner, Richard Aycock, didn’t want to fight in the war. So, like many enslaved people, Austin was forced to serve in his owner’s place.

General George Washington had initially sought to bar blacks from joining the Army. This was because white Southerners feared that arming slaves might lead them to revolt. But in November 1775, the British promised freedom to enslaved people who fought as loyalists. That caused Washington to reverse his stance on allowing freed blacks into the Army. “Success will depend,” he stated, “on which side can arm Negroes faster.”

In reality, both freed and enslaved blacks served. Austin was one of more than 5,000 blacks who fought on the side of the Patriots. An estimated 20,000 took up arms for the British.

Austin suffered a thigh wound in battle that left him disabled. But after the war, he received better treatment than most black soldiers. The state of Georgia paid 70 pounds to Aycock for Austin’s freedom. He became the only black veteran to be granted land by the state for his “bravery and fortitude.” He also was one of the few to be given a military pension for his injury.

Slavery remained entrenched in the South long after the war. But the efforts of black soldiers like Austin helped fuel an abolitionist movement that led to slavery gradually being outlawed in the North, says Alan Gilbert, the author of Black Patriots and Loyalists.

“Many whites thought rightly that it was completely dishonorable to fight for the rights of human beings—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Gilbert says, “and deny them to lots of human beings.”

*Most historians think Austin Dabney was born around 1765. But as is the case for many enslaved people, no birth records exist.

*Most historians think Austin Dabney was born around 1765. But as is the case for many enslaved people, no birth records exist.

Emily Geiger, 18

Outwitting the British to Deliver a Message

Photo Illustration by Shane Rebenschied; Shutterstock.com (all other images)

In July 1781, Emily Geiger, 18, set out on a dangerous mission: to deliver a message from General Nathanael Greene to General Thomas Sumter, calling for reinforcements. General Greene’s troops had been fighting the British near Greenville, South Carolina, but were outmatched. If the two units could join forces, however, Greene thought they stood a chance.   

Geiger, who lived near where the general’s troops were camped, volunteered to make the journey. But on the second day of the trip, she was stopped by three British soldiers and taken to a camp for questioning. Geiger had memorized the message. So while she was waiting to be searched, she tore the note into pieces and swallowed it.

Unable to find anything incriminating on her, the British sent her on her way. Geiger relayed the message from memory to General Sumter the next day, and the two units joined forces and eventually helped defeat the British in South Carolina.

In July 1781, Emily Geiger, 18, set out on a dangerous mission. She needed to deliver a message from General Nathanael Greene to General Thomas Sumter. It was a call for reinforcements. General Greene’s troops had been fighting the British near Greenville, South Carolina. But they were outmatched. Greene thought they stood a chance if the two units could join forces.

Geiger, who lived near where the general’s troops were camped, volunteered to make the journey. But on the second day of the trip, she was stopped by three British soldiers and taken to a camp for questioning. Geiger had memorized the message. So while she was waiting to be searched, she tore the note into pieces and swallowed it.

Unable to find anything incriminating on her, the British sent her on her way. Geiger relayed the message from memory to General Sumter the next day. As a result, the two units did join forces and eventually helped defeat the British in South Carolina.

‘Women, even back in 1776, are asserting that “all men are created equal” does indeed apply to them.’

Geiger’s story was passed down by her family and first appeared in print in the mid-1800s. It reflects the important roles women and girls played in the Revolution. Many women sewed uniforms for the troops or worked as cooks or nurses in the soldiers’ camps. Some went undercover as spies, and others even disguised themselves as men to serve in combat.

“Ideas are beginning to change about women’s roles in this emerging country,” says Skic of the Museum of the American Revolution. “Women, even back in 1776, are asserting that ‘all men are created equal’ does indeed apply to them.”

Geiger’s story was passed down by her family and first appeared in print in the mid-1800s. It reflects the important roles women and girls played in the Revolution. Many women sewed uniforms for the troops or worked as cooks or nurses in the soldiers’ camps. Some went undercover as spies, and others even disguised themselves as men to serve in combat.

“Ideas are beginning to change about women’s roles in this emerging country,” says Skic of the Museum of the American Revolution. “Women, even back in 1776, are asserting that ‘all men are created equal’ does indeed apply to them.”

Peter Francisco, 16

Standing Tall on the Battlefield

Photo Illustration by Shane Rebenschied: Cosmo Condina North America/Alamy Stock Photo (fire); PeopleImages/Getty Images (yelling); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (clouds, trees, grass); Shutterstock.com (all other images).

He was a Portuguese-born orphan who was found abandoned on the docks of Hopewell, Virginia, at the age of 5. He worked for years as an indentured servant to a blacksmith in Virginia, and by the time he enlisted with the American forces in 1776, at age 16, he had grown to be 6 feet, 6 inches tall. The story of Peter Francisco sounds like mythology. And indeed, it’s difficult to separate the teenager from the legends that surround him.

There’s the story of Peter lifting a 1,100 pound cannon onto his back to keep the British from capturing it. The one of Peter storming the British fort at Stony Point, New York, in 1779 and capturing the British flag despite suffering a bayonet slash to his stomach. And the one of George Washington being so impressed by Peter that he ordered a special 5-foot-long sword to be made for him.

Historians say these stories were likely embellished as they were passed down. Yet some aspects of them are true: Peter was exceptionally large; official documents show that despite suffering multiple wounds, he continued to re-enlist; and he did take part in many battles, including the one at Stony Point. Although he might not have been the person who captured the flag, many officers wrote about his bravery on the battlefield.

Known today as “The Giant of the Revolution,” Peter is a symbol of the courage displayed by the soldiers in the war. A monument to Peter stands in New Bedford, Massachusetts, engraved with a quote attributed to George Washington that reads: “Without him, we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the war, and with it our freedom. He was truly a one-man army.”

He was a Portuguese-born orphan who was found abandoned on the docks of Hopewell, Virginia, at the age of 5. He worked for years as an indentured servant to a blacksmith in Virginia. He enlisted with the American forces in 1776, at age 16. By then, he had grown to be 6 feet 6 inches tall. The story of Peter Francisco sounds like mythology. And indeed, it’s difficult to separate the teenager from the legends that surround him.

There’s the story of Peter lifting a 1,100 pound cannon onto his back to keep the British from capturing it. The one of Peter storming the British fort at Stony Point, New York, in 1779. It notes that he captured the British flag despite suffering a bayonet slash to his stomach. And the story of George Washington being so impressed by Peter that he ordered a special 5-foot-long sword to be made for him.

Historians say these stories were likely embellished as they were passed down. Yet some aspects of them are true. Peter was exceptionally large. Official documents also show that despite suffering multiple wounds, he continued to re-enlist. And he did take part in many battles, including the one at Stony Point. He might not have been the person who captured the flag. Either way, many officers wrote about his bravery on the battlefield.

Known today as “The Giant of the Revolution,” Peter is a symbol of the courage displayed by the soldiers in the war. A monument to Peter stands in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It’s engraved with a quote attributed to George Washington that reads: “Without him, we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the war, and with it our freedom. He was truly a one-man army.”

Joseph Plumb Martin, 15

Documenting the Triumphs and Hardships of War

Photo Illustration by Shane Rebenschied: iStockPhoto/Getty Images (clouds, trees, grass); Shutterstock.com (all other images).

Much of what historians know today about life on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War comes from Joseph Plumb Martin. In 1776, when he was 15, Joseph enlisted with a regiment in Connecticut, and later served seven years in the Continental Army.

Joseph kept a diary during that time. And in 1830, when he was 70, he published a memoir based on his journal entries, called A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier. The book sold poorly during his lifetime, but it was rediscovered more than a century later and republished as Private Yankee Doodle. Today it’s one of the major primary sources studied by Revolutionary War scholars. In the excerpt below, Joseph describes the hardships the soldiers faced.

Much of what historians know today about life on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War comes from Joseph Plumb Martin. In 1776, when he was 15, Joseph enlisted with a regiment in Connecticut. He later served seven years in the Continental Army.

Joseph kept a diary during that time. And in 1830, when he was 70, he published a memoir based on his journal entries. The book was called A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier. It sold poorly during his lifetime. The book was rediscovered more than a century later and republished as Private Yankee Doodle. Today it’s one of the major primary sources studied by Revolutionary War scholars. In the following excerpt, Joseph describes the hardships the soldiers faced:

Pennsylvania, 1777: Siege of Fort Mifflin

I endured hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses. Let the reader only consider for a moment and he will still be satisfied if not sickened. In the cold month of November, without provisions, without clothing, not a scrap of either shoes or stockings to my feet or legs, and in this condition to endure a siege in such a place as that was appalling in the highest degree. . . .

It was utterly impossible to lie down to get rest or sleep on account of the mud, if the enemy’s shot would have suffered us to do so. Sometimes some of the men, when overcome with fatigue and want of sleep, would slip away into the barracks to catch a nap of sleep, but it seldom happened that they all came out again alive. I was in this place a fortnight, and can say in sincerity that I never lay down to sleep a minute in all that time.