By AMY HEGGEN Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Gen. Alexander Macomb desperately needed more soldiers during the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh, so he turned to a group of local schoolboys.
“Nine Days a Soldier: The Story of Aiken’s Volunteers in the War of 1812,” by Dr. Joy A. Demarse and illustrated by Elyse Zielinski, tells a story based on true events of a group of 14-to-17-year-old Plattsburgh Academy boys who fought in the War of 1812.
“They wanted to enlist but couldn’t. If they were under the age of 18, they needed parental permission,” explained Demarse at a recent lecture and book signing at the War of 1812 Museum.
“They didn’t have that.”
Macomb was already using tactics to make the army in Plattsburgh seem larger than it was, and he was in need of extra men, she said, but he knew he couldn’t just let the students enlist.
“He really needed these schoolboys to supplement,” said Demarse, whose event was part of this year’s Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration. “Here’s Macomb left with 2,500 men, and he needs every good shot he can find.
“If the British hadn’t believed that he had such a large army ... they could have walked all over him.”
So the boys found sponsors and were mustered into the army under Azariah Flagg, the editor of the Plattsburgh Republican, and Martin Aiken, the captain of the Essex County Militia, both commanding officers.
The 20 youths were enlisted under the name of Aiken’s Volunteer Rifle Company; Demarse was able to identify only 17 of them during her research for her novel.
Aiken’s Volunteers, not in uniform, could have been stopped but not bothered by the British because they were boys, Demarse explained.
“They scouted for Macomb, they fought in several battles; they were the eyes and ears for Macomb,” she said.
The boys knew the area and local woods well and were able to bring information to the American forces. They fended for themselves and fought in a number of skirmishes between Sept. 6 and 12, 1814.
While transcribing the journal of H.K. Averill, one of Aiken’s Volunteers, Demarse learned of the death of a boy called Peters.
“That became one of those pivotal moments. That began to spark my interest,” she said.
Although Demarse had heard stories since childhood about Aiken’s Volunteers, she never knew of any deaths.
The journal became a main source of information while writing “Nine Days a Soldier,” along with a journal of a woman who lived on what is now Cumberland Avenue for an account of the weather and day-to-day details of the those nine days.
“I tried to create the story using what I knew about the area,” Demarse said.
She chose Hiram Walworth, the youngest volunteer at 14, as her protagonist.
“I kept thinking, ‘What would happen to that 14-year-old boy in battle?’” Demarse said.
She aimed to show the importance of Aiken’s Volunteers, while also writing a coming-of-age story that would pique students’ interest in Plattsburgh’s history.
“My goal was to create a story that people would enjoy reading and to give credit to these boys who gave so much,” Demarse said.
She said the boys seemed to grow with the experience of serving in the army.
“One of the things that really surprised me is that when the war ended, they went on to lead such incredible lives in public service,” Demarse said.
A few of Aiken’s Volunteers became lawyers, one was a bank teller in Plattsburgh, and another became postmaster general.TO BUY THE BOOK "Nine Days a Soldier: The Story of Aiken's Volunteers in the War of 1812" is available at the War of 1812 Museum, 31 Washington Road and the Clinton County Historical Museum, 98 Ohio Ave., both in Plattsburgh, and online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.