Private Yankee Doodle

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The night of July 6, 1776, the smell of war mingled boldly with the smell of the salt marshes. Milford, Connecticut, was infused with a boisterous, optimistic bellicosity. That spring the rebels had driven the redcoats out of Boston; now that an enormous new British expeditionary force threatened Washington’s army at New York, all of Connecticut was signing up regiments of new levies to go down there and help, and no one doubted for a minute that the redcoats would be promptly beaten again. That night Captain Samuel Peck of the 5th Connecticut was explaining to the men of Milford that he was recruiting for an especially short tour of duty, only six months. “You’ll be out, lads, on Christmas Day.”

One of those who enlisted was Joseph Plumb Martin, fifteen and big for his age; though he did not know it, he was beginning seven almost uninterrupted years of service in the War of the Revolution. A half century later, Martin set down his recollections in A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier . It was published anonymously (a literary convention of the time) in 1830 in a remote Maine town and was soon forgotten. Today it is all but unknown, yet it remains far and away the most graphic, intimately detailed, and absorbing first-person account extant of the life and times of the Continental soldier.

After nearly a century and a half of undeserved obscurity, Joseph Plumb Martin’s Narrative is soon to be republished in its entirety by Little, Brown and Company, under the editorship of George F. Scheer. From this edition, American Heritage presents several episodes.

Following his enlistment, Joseph Martin went home to his grandfather’s, where he had lived since he was seven, was outfitted by the old gentleman with musket, bayonet, blanket, cartouche box, knapsack, and pocket Bible, and with several others of his company sailed by sloop down Long Island Sound to the wharves of Manhattan.

Soon serious business was afoot. The British high command, at last convinced that the American revolt might become a major war, was bringing a neia strategic plan to the conflict: division of the colonies along the line of the Hudson, and a concentration of strength massive enough to execute it. The first step was to secure New York City as a base. To defend the city Washington had scattered his five divisions, with one of them under noisy, brave old General Israel Putnam at Brooklyn on Long Island, where the heights commanded New York. During the night of August 26, from a broad staging area on the plains south of Brooklyn, the British, commanded by Sir William Howe, had moved up in a three-pronged attack on Putnam, who had placed half his nine thousand men behind a line of thickly wooded hills about a mile and a half advanced from his Brooklyn works.

The next morning, Private Martin was preparing to go on fatigue duty, when his sergeant major came hustling up Broadway and told the men to get to their quarters; the British were moving on Long Island, he said, and the regiment would go over. Martin confessed:

Although this was not unexpected to me, yet it gave me rather a disagreeable feeling, as I was pretty well assured I should have to snuff a little gunpowder. However, I kept my cogitations to myself, went to my quarters, packed up my clothes, and got myself in readiness for the expedition as soon as possible. I then went to the top of the house where I had a full view of that part of the Island; I distinctly saw the smoke of the field artillery, but the distance and the unfavorableness of the wind prevented my hearing their report, at least but faintly. The horrors of battle then presented themselves to my mind in all their hideousness; I must come to it now, thought I. Well, I will endeavor to do my duty as well as I am able and leave the event with Providence. We were soon ordered to our regimental parade, from which, as soon as the regiment was formed, we were marched off for the ferry. [The Long Island ferry slip was at the foot of Maiden Lane.]

At the lower end of the street were placed several casks of sea bread, made, I believe, of canel and peas-meal, nearly hard enough for musket flints; the casks were unheaded and each man was allowed to take as many as he could as he marched by. As my good luck would have it, there was a momentary halt made; I improved the opportunity thus offered me, as every good soldier should upon all important occasions, to get as many of the biscuit as I possibly could; no one said anything to me and I filled my bosom and took as many as I could hold in my hand, a dozen or more in all, and when we arrived at the ferry stairs I stowed them away in my knapsack. We quickly embarked on board the boats. As each boat started, three cheers were given by those on board, which was returned by the numerous spectators who thronged the wharves; they all wished us good luck, apparently; although it was with most of them perhaps nothing more than ceremony.

We soon landed at Brooklyn, upon the Island, marched up the ascent from the ferry to the plain. We now began to meet the wounded men, another sight I was unacquainted with, some with broken arms, some with broken legs, and some with broken heads. The sight of these a little daunted me, and made me think of home, but the sight and thought vanished together. We marched a short distance, when we halted to refresh ourselves. Whether we had any other victuals besides the hard bread I do not remember, but I remember my gnawing at them; they were hard enough to break the teeth of a rat. …