The Revolution From The Bottom

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If you want to see the American Revolution from a fresh perspective, the book of choice is A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, by Private Joseph Plumb Martin. I am happy to report that his neglected classic is being reissued by New American Library.

George Washington may have heard his share of hissing British bullets, but the general never met the “old enemy” Private Martin encountered in these places —hunger. He never marched in shoes that fell apart, then kept marching through ice and snow in bare, bleeding feet.

Martin’s story has both set-piece battles such as Monmouth and small, savage encounters with marauding Loyalists. His account of the mutiny of the Connecticut Continental Line in 1780 is riveting and amazingly evenhanded. And more than once, he tells of being refused food by hardhearted farmers or their wives. In retaliation, he and his friends felt no compunction about liberating chickens, pies, cheeses, and other eatables and drinkables.

He is equally unillusioned about the Continental Army’s officers. His company commander was so unpopular that several men decided to give him “a bit of a hoist” by slipping a canteen loaded with gunpowder under his cot. Martin saw that the device was likely to hoist the captain “out of time” and persuaded the critics not to light the fuse.

After the British surrendered at Yorktown, in 1781, Virginians paid Continental troops a reward for capturing slaves who had fled to enemy lines. Martin and his friends refused to return a group of runaways unless the owner promised them the blacks would not be punished. Martin’s disgust with slavery is vivid in his account.

The book’s editor at NAL, Cecilia Malkum Oh, says it “deserves to be read and reread for generations.” For once, this was not just prepublication puffery.

—Thomas Fleming