Private Yankee Doodle

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By this time our whole party had arrived, and the British had obtained a position that suited them, as I suppose, for they returned our fire in good earnest, and we played the second part of the same tune. They occupied a much higher piece of ground than we did, and had a small piece of artillery, which the soldiers called a grasshopper. We had no artillery with us. The first shot they gave us from this piece cut off the thigh bone of a captain, just above the knee, and the whole heel of a private in the rear of him. We gave it to poor Sawney • (for they were Scotch troops) so hot that he was forced to fall back and leave the ground they occupied. When our commander saw them retreating and nearly joined with their main body, he shouted, “Come, my boys, reload your pieces, and we will give them a set-off.” We did so, and gave them the parting salute, and the firing on both sides ceased. We then laid ourselves down under the fences and bushes to take breath, for we had need of it. …

• A contemporary slang word for a Scot.

One little incident happened during the heat of the cannonade, which I was eyewitness to, and which I think would be unpardonable not to mention. A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.•

• Mary Ludwig Hayes, wife of a Pennsylvania private whom she followed to war and who, this day, seems to have been assigned to a gun battery. A woman of no education who smoked, chewed tobacco, and “swore like a trooper,” she won immortal fame as Molly Pitcher.

Battle may be the supreme test of the soldier, but as Martin himself recognized, it is not the only one. There is much more to be endured and surmounted. Of prolonged, forced marches, for instance, he remarked, “Believe me … I have felt more anxiety, undergone more fatigue and hardships, suffered more every way in performing one of those tedious marches than ever I did in fighting the hottest battle …” Hunger was for Martin, as for most of the Continental Army, a continuing hardship, and his Narrative is full of concern about “belly timber.” A few months after joining the Continental forces in 1777 he was observing: Starvation seemed to be entailed upon the army and every animal connected with it. The oxen, brought from New England for draught, all died, and the southern horses fared no better; even the wild animals that had any concern with us suffered. A poor little squirrel, who had the ill luck to get cut off from the woods and fixing himself on a tree standing alone and surrounded by several of the soldiers’ huts, sat upon the tree till he starved to death and fell off the tree. He, however, got rid of his misery soon. He did not live to starve by piecemeal six or seven years.

As in all wars, the field quarters of the common foot-soldier were frequently lacking in comfort. On one nightmarch, Martin remembered, a thunderstorm developed.

We were conducted into our bedroom, a large wood, by our landlords, the officers, and left to our repose, while the officers stowed themselves away snugly in the houses of the village, about a half mile distant. We struck us up fires and lay down to rest our weary bones, all but our jawbones, they had nothing to weary them. About midnight it began to rain, which soon put out all our fires, and by three or four o’clock it came down in torrents. There we were, but where our careful officers were, or what had become of them we knew not … The men began to squib off their pieces • in derision of the officers, supposing they were somewhere amongst us, and careless of our condition, but none of them appearing, the men began firing louder and louder, till they had brought it to almost a running fire. At the dawn, the officers, having I suppose heard the firing, came running from their warm, dry beds, almost out of breath, exclaiming, “Poor fellows! Are you not almost dead?” We might have been for aught they knew or cared. However, they marched us off to the village, wet as drowned rats, put us into the houses, where we remained till the afternoon and dried ourselves.

• Muskets not primed with a full charge of powder would go off with a sound that was more whimper than bang—in effect, a kind of martial “Bronx cheer.”

After Monmouth, the war came to a stalemate in the north. A French army arrived to bolster the Americans, but at the time it proved of little help. During 1778, Private Martin was transferred briefly to the light infantry and with it operated often against the Tory sympathizers in the Hudson Highlands.