In October of 1760, a young King George III of England’s reign began, marking a new birth for England and her colonies. One month later, a more humble figure, Joseph Plumb Martin, was born. Here Elizabeth Jones tells the story of Joseph Plumb Martin, the author of a very famous book about the American Revolution.

Jospeh Martin Plumb and his wife in the 19th century.

Jospeh Martin Plumb and his wife in the 19th century.

“Alexander never could have conquered the world without private soldiers. “ - Joseph Plumb Martin

Joseph Plumb Martin was born on November 21, 1760. He was raised by his grandparents in Connecticut. He lived the complicated life of a boy growing up in the storm brewing in colonial America. And like many other American boys in 1776, he enlisted in the militia following the battles of Lexington and Concord.

What makes Private Joseph Plumb Martin stand out in history?

For well over a hundred years, nothing. But in 1962, an obscure memoir of the experiences of an enlisted soldier in the Revolutionary War was republished as Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the world noticed.

Martin first published his account in 1830, titling it Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, Interspersed with Anecdotes of Incidents that Occurred Within His Own Observations. It didn’t sell well. It probably had something to do with the title.

Whatever the case, the rebrand was successful, and history took notice. Martin’s narrative has since taken its place as one of the key primary sources of information about the Revolutionary War.

So what?

Private Martin carried around a quill and journal and, between arduous marches and ear-splitting cannon fire, kept a log of his experiences in Washington’s Continental Army. His memoir provides a unique perspective on the everyday life of an enlisted soldier.

 

Insights from Yankee Doodle Dandy

But how much insight can the dusty writings of a long-dead, stocking-wearing patriot provide? As it turns out, plenty. Below are some musings of a teenager coming of age during one of the most turbulent periods of history.

 

On martial life:

Enlisting at the start of the war and serving until after the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the war in 1783, Joseph Plumb Martin was a veteran of several major engagements that occurred during the Revolution. He served during battles and sieges, such as the inconclusive Battle of Monmouth and the climactic Siege of Yorktown. He describes his experiences as a Continental soldier in detail.

“As there was no cessation of duty in the army, I must commence another campaign as soon as the succeeding one is ended. There was no going home and spending the winter season among friends, and procuring a new recruit of strength and spirits. No—it was one constant drill, summer and winter, like an old horse in a mill, it was a continual routine.”

 

On Fort Mifflin:

In 1777, Private Joseph Plumb Martin was stationed at Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River just outside of British-occupied Philadelphia. The fort was under intense fire from the guns of massive ships, and Martin describes it in excruciating detail. The uncomfortable intensity with which he describes his experience makes it unflinchingly real.

“I was … sent to reinforce those in the fort [Mifflin], which was then besieged by the British. Here 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.”

Martin adds:

“During the whole night, at intervals of a quarter or half an hour, the enemy would let off all their pieces, and although we had sentinels to watch them and at every flash of their guns to cry, "a shot," upon hearing which everyone endeavored to take care of himself, yet they would ever and anon, in spite of all our precaution, cut up some of us.”

 

On Valley Forge:

When Martin initially joined the fight for independence, he enlisted in the Connecticut militia for a short stint.

“I wished only to take a priming before I took upon me the whole coat of paint for a soldier,” Martin wrote prior to his first enlistment.

 

Martin’s Service

He served in the militia for the better part of a year until his term of service expired and he was discharged on Christmas Day of 1776 - the same day that the Continental Army was preparing to cross the Delaware and surprise the Hessians at Trenton.

But in 1777 he reenlisted, serving as a private in General George Washington’s Continental Army. The conditions were miserable and the pay, if it arrived at all, was laughable. So why did Martin reenlist?

“If I once undertake, thought I, I must stick to it, there will be no receding,” he wrote. Martin marched with Washington’s Army to Valley Forge, where they encamped for the winter of 1777-78.

 At times and in places in his memoirs he is dark about the war, its leaders, and the overall cause, but he stays true and is insightful when he talks about how important he feels that the war is:

"Our prospect was indeed dreary. In our miserable condition, to go into the wild woods and build us habitations to stay (not to live) in, in such a weak, starved and naked condition, was appalling in the highest degree. But dispersion, I believe, was not thought of, at least, I did not think of it. We had engaged in the defense of our injured country and were willing, nay, we were determined to persevere as long as such hardships were not altogether intolerable."

 

Conclusion

Joseph Plumb Martin’s account of his time in the Revolutionary Army has helped historians gain a clearer picture of the everyday drudgeries of a Continental Soldier, bringing to light details that had long been lost to history. The importance of Martin’s impact on the study of the American Revolution for both the professional and hobby historian cannot be overstated.

 

Find out more about Elizabeth and her work at https://elizabethmjoneswrites.com.

References

1776by David McCullough

The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier by Joseph Plumb Martin

http://www.ushistory.org/march/phila/mifflin.htm

The American Revolutionary War saw thirteen mere colonies declare themselves independent from one of world history’s most powerful empires, the British Empire. Even more revolutionary were the remarkable men that fostered the Revolutionary War - from aristocratic men and lawyers to silversmiths such as Paul Revere and self-made statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Yet, even these exceptional men could not have officially declared the colonies “free and independent states” without the rally of ordinary men, women, and yes, children. Casey Titus explains.

A statue of Sybil Ludington in Carmel, New York.

A statue of Sybil Ludington in Carmel, New York.

Nicknamed the “Female Paul Revere,” Sybil Ludington was only sixteen years of age when she embarked on horse through the night in order to warn Patriot militia of the approaching British Army. Sybil was born in 1761 in Fredericksburg, (now called Ludingtonville) New York. She was the eldest of twelve children and the daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington who had fought in the French and Indian War. Loyal to the British crown until 1773, Colonel Ludington volunteered to lead their local militia in Duchess County, New York, during the Revolutionary War. His area of command was along a vulnerable route between Connecticut and the coast of Long Island Sound that British troops could easily take.

On the night of April 26, 1777, two years after the famous Midnight Ride, barely 16-year old Sybil Ludington was putting her younger siblings to bed when a horseman reached the Ludington residence with news that a nearby town, Danbury, Connecticut, was attacked by British forces. Danbury at the time contained a supply depot for the Continental Army. Colonel Ludington’s regiment was disbanded and returned to their homes, the horseman was exhausted, and there was no neighbor to contact. Sybil then volunteered to ride through the countryside and alert the disbanded militia.

 

Night Ride

Her night-long ride began at 9 PM. Sybil rode through the stormy night on roads roamed by outlaws, British soldiers, and loyalists. She rode through the towns of Kent, Mahopac, and Stormville bringing her through both Putnam and Dutchess Counties in New York, her only defense being her horse Star and a stick she carried throughout her ride. Some historians believe that along Ludington’s ride, a man offered to travel with her but instead, she turned him away to warn a town called Brewster of the impending British forces. One account retells that Ludington defended herself against an outlaw that attempted to accost her. Sybil Ludington rode a total of 40 miles (twenty miles more than Paul Revere’s ride) and warned the approximately 400 militiamen who gathered at the Ludington residence to fight the British under her father’s command. Her exact words were, “The British are burning Danbury. Muster at Ludington’s at daybreak!”

Meanwhile, the militia captain of the British forces that attacked Danbury, William Tryon, decided to burn Danbury, capture its supplies, and withdraw towards Long Island Sound. Although the militia arrived too late to defend Danbury, they were able to force the British to retreat in what became known as the Battle of Ridgefield, making them pay dearly for their destruction of Danbury. Sybil returned to her home at dawn the next day, soaked with rain and exhausted.

For her heroic acts, Sybil received personal thanks from General George Washington of the Continental Army and General Rochambeau, the French commander fighting alongside the patriots. Future Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, wrote to Colonel Ludington: “I congratulate you on the Danbury expedition. The stores destroyed have been purchased at a pretty high price to the enemy.” Her father, Colonel Ludington’s memoir claims:

One who even now rides from Carmel to Cold Spring will find rugged and dangerous roads, with lonely stretches. Imagination only can picture what it was a century and a quarter ago, on a dark night, with reckless bands of “Cowboys” and “Skinners” abroad in the land. But the child performed her task, clinging to a man’s saddle, and guiding her steed with only a hempen halter, as she rode through the night, bearing the news of the sack of Danbury. There is no extravagance in comparing her ride to that of Paul Revere and its midnight message. Nor was her errand less efficient than his. By daybreak, thanks to her daring, nearly the whole regiment was mustered before her father’s house at Fredericksburg.

 

Following the end of the Revolutionary War, Sybil Ludington married a farmer and innkeeper, Edmond Ogden at the age of the twenty-three and had one son named Henry, presumably after her father. She died on February 26, 1839 in Catskill, New York. She was buried near her father in the Patterson Presbyterian Cemetery in Patterson, New York.

Following her death and the revelation of her little known heroic ride in 1907, several commemorations were made in her honor. In 1912, a poem by Fred C. Warner, On an April Night 1777, narrated her journey using the form and style of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1863). In the 1930s the New York State Education Department posted historical-marker signs along her probable route and her home site. In 1940, a statue of her and her horse, Star, was erected by Anna Hyatt Huntington and placed on Gleneida Avenue in Carmel, New York. In 1975, Ludington became the thirty-fifth woman to be honored on a United States postal stamp.

A plaque underneath her statue in New York reads:

Sybil Ludington – Revolutionary War Heroine, April 26, 1777. Called out the volunteer militia by riding through the night, alone, on horseback, at the age of 16, alerting the countryside to the burning of Danbury, Conn, by the British.

 

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