Private Yankee Doodle

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Just at dusk, I, with one or two others of our company, went off to a barn, about half a mile distant, with intent to get some straw to lodge upon, the ground and leaves being drenched in water, and we as wet as they. It was quite dark in the barn, and while I was fumbling about the floor someone called to me from the top of the mow, inquiring where I was from. I told him. He asked me if we had not had an engagement there, having heard us discharging our guns, I told him we had and a severe one, too; he asked if many were killed; I told him that I saw none killed, nor any very badly wounded. I then heard several others, as it appeared, speaking on the mow. Poor fellows, they had better have been at their posts than skulking in a barn on account of a little wet, for I have not the least doubt but that the British had possession of their mortal parts before the noon of the next day.

I could not find any straw, but I found some wheat in the sheaf, standing by the side of the floor; I took a sheaf or two and returned as fast as I could to the regiment. When I arrived the men were all paraded to march off the ground; I left my wheat, seized my musket and fell into the ranks. We were strictly enjoined not to speak, or even cough, while on the march. All orders were given from officer to officer, and communicated to the men in whispers. What such secrecy could mean we could not divine. … We marched on, however, until we arrived at the ferry, where we immediately embarked on board the batteaux and were conveyed safely to New York, where we were landed about three o’clock in the morning, nothing against our inclinations.

Washington’s bold evacuation of his men from Long Island on the night of August 29 saved a whole division of his small army—and, conceivably, the patriot cause as well. Some two weeks later, he decided to withdraw from Manhattan Island, leaving only a small garrison to hold Fort Washington, near what is now 183rd Street and Fort Washington Avenue.

Before Washington could get more than half his army and stores out of the city, Howe struck. His landing parties poured ashore at Kip’s Bay on the East River at the foot of present-day East Thirty-fourth Street under cover of a thunderous barrage from five warships. The defenders of the flimsy “lines” thrown up on the East River shore, Martin among them, fled northward until they were safe behind lines Washington had established at Harlem Heights. The rest of Washington’s forces in the city escaped by a forced twelve-mile march up the western side of the island.

Private Martin had lost his knapsack and blanket in the confusion of Kip’s Bay, and during these fall days, removed from a comfortable billet in the city, he began to get his first real taste of the field: It now began to be cool weather, especially the nights. To have to lie as I did almost every night (for our duty required it) on the cold and often wet ground without a blanket and with nothing but thin summer clothing was tedious. I have often while upon guard lain on one side until the upper side smarted with cold, then turned that side down to the place warmed by my body and let the other take its turn at smarting, while the one on the ground warmed. Thus, alternately turning for four or six hours till called upon to go on sentry, as the soldiers term it, and when relieved from a tour of two long hours at that business and returned to the guard again, have had to go through the operation of freezing and thawing for four or six hours more. In the morning the ground was white as snow with hoar frost. Or perhaps it would rain all night like a flood; all that could be done in that case was to lie down (if one could lie down), take our musket in our arms and place the lock between our thighs and “weather it out.”

Fortunately for the beleaguered Continental army, the British did not press their advantage. Finally, on October 12, they made a move to get behind Washington’s force, but he managed to withdraw to White Plains. By now, Private Martin had become enough of a typical soldier to discard any equipment he considered excess: We marched from Valentine’s Hill for the White Plains in the night. … We had our cooking utensils (at that time the most useless things in the army) to carry in our hands. They were made of cast iron and consequently heavy. I was so beat out before morning with hunger and fatigue that I could hardly move one foot before the other. I told my messmates that I could not carry our kettle any further. They said they would not carry it any further. Of what use was it? They had nothing to cook and did not want anything to cook with. We were sitting down on the ascent of a hill when this discourse happened. We got up to proceed when I took up the kettle, which held nearly a common pailful. I could not carry it. My arms were almost dislocated. I sat it down in the road and one of the others gave it a shove with his foot and it rolled down against the fence, and that was the last I ever saw of it. When we got through the night’s march, we found our mess was not the only one that was rid of their iron bondage.

Soon after, Private Martin accompanied some sick men to Norwalk for several weeks, and then was handed his discharge. He pocketed his four shillings, four pence, “mileage” money for his fifty-two-mile trek home, and walked to Milford, satisfied that he had had enough of soldiering.