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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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."
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.
1776by David McCullough
The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier by Joseph Plumb Martin