He was unarmed, and his lack of a beard should’ve been an instant giveaway that he was too young to be a threat.
But when James Gillies was caught by British troops on a February day during the Revolutionary War, he was shown no mercy.
A band of British soldiers killed Gillies with swords on Feb. 12, 1781, near the present-day town of Summerfield, N.C.
He was just 14 years old.
Gillies, who served as the bugler for Henry Lee III, an officer better known by the nickname “Light-Horse Harry,” was one of the youngest patriots to die in the Revolutionary War.
But this teenager’s name isn’t well known. You won’t find it in textbooks or mentioned in History Channel specials.
One group of Scouts hopes to change that. Four times a year — the anniversary of his death, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Independence Day — Troop 600B of the Old North State Council meets near the spot where Bugler Boy Gillies died to hold a special ceremony.
“Our Scouts see themselves as the caretakers of the legacy of Bugler Boy Gillies,” says Troop 600B Scoutmaster Mike Matzinger. “That means not only telling his story, maintaining his memorial and visiting where he died on patriotic holidays, but also serving their county and fellow citizens in the same spirit of Gillies.
“Their troop is known in the community as the ‘Troop of Servant Leaders.’”
Why Bugler Boy Gillies?
In addition to the geographic connection — Troop 600B meets every Monday night at Oak Ridge Presbyterian Church, adjacent to the woods where Gillies was slain — Matzinger says that Gillies’ story resonates with his Scouts because Gillies died at such a young age.
“When Scouts see themselves on the timeline of history, then they understand they have an active role to play that builds on the acts of others who came before them,” Matzinger says. “Bugler Boy Gillies could have been a Scout if the program existed back then, and he would have been someone for whom the ideals of Scouting would have resonated.”
While many Revolutionary War buglers were orphans or had older relatives serving in their units, Bugler Boy Gillies volunteered for the assignment. He had parents back home in Pennsylvania.
That’s a story that really hits home for Ethan Hartman, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout in Troop 600B.
“I think about how someone so young could do so much,” Ethan says. “It makes me want to do more to help out in my community, like he did.”
As senior patrol leader, Ethan takes on the responsibility of leading the celebration of Bugler Boy Gillies’ life.
“I got to lead my fellow Scouts in commemorating Gillies,” Ethan says. “It’s important to remember him because he shows that everyone can make a difference.”
As for Scoutmaster Matzinger’s role during the four-times-a-year ceremony, he prefers to remain out of the picture.
“I stand in the background with another registered adult to make sure the Scouts stay safe and to be available to the senior patrol leader should he require anything from me,” Matzinger says. “This is a Scout-planned, Scout-led and Scout-executed event.”
The bugler and the Bugler Boy
Will Gunter, 18, is an Eagle Scout and former member of Troop 600B. He’s now a member of Sea Scout Ship 3.
Will has been playing the trumpet since sixth grade, which made him a natural choice for Troop 600B bugler a few years back.
“It’s turned into a life of its own since then,” he says, “playing the bugle at funerals for veterans, troop meetings, flag retirement ceremonies and national holidays.”
Will says he “absolutely” feels a connection to Gillies as a fellow bugler.
“The bugle has a lot of tradition, symbolism and solemn emotion to it,” Will says. “I’m proud to play it given the history but especially the connection with James Gillies. He was a local piece of history — someone who served his country. I think of his ultimate sacrifice, and hopefully I can preserve his history and pass the tradition forward.”
Passing it on
He’s passing it forward to younger Scouts like Jake Priddy, a Life Scout in Troop 600B.
As a 14-year-old, Jake says he can’t help but feel a connection to a young man who was killed at that age, even if their lives are separated by 240 years.
“I feel like it’s an honor to spend time reflecting and memorializing a boy who paid the ultimate sacrifice to his nation,” Jake says. “The role of Scouting in a community should be to always lend a helpful hand, be there when needed and strive to benefit our community. I think James would be honored to see that he is remembered.”