April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
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. …
While resting here, which was not more than twenty minutes or half an hour, the Americans and British were warmly engaged within sight of us. What were the feelings of most or all the young soldiers at this time, I know not, but I know what were mine. But let mine or theirs be what they might, I saw a lieutenant who appeared to have feelings not very enviable; whether he was actuated by fear or the canteen I cannot determine now. I thought it fear at the time, for he ran round among the men of his company, sniveling and blubbering, praying each one if he had aught against him, or if he had injured anyone that they would forgive him, declaring at the same time that he, from his heart, forgave them if they had offended him, and I gave him full credit for his assertion; for had he been at the gallows with a halter about his neck, he could not have shown more fear or penitence. A fine soldier you are, I thought, a fine officer, an exemplary man for young soldiersl I would have then suffered anything short of death rather than have made such an exhibition of myself …
We were soon called upon to fall in and proceed. We had not gone far, about half a mile, when … we overtook a small party of the artillery here, dragging a heavy twelvepounder upon a field carriage, sinking halfway to the naves in the sandy soil. They plead hard for some of us to assist them to get on their piece; our officers, however, paid no attention to their entreaties, but pressed forward towards a creek, where a large party of Americans and British were engaged. By the time we arrived, the enemy had driven our men into the creek, or rather millpond, (the tide being up), where such as could swim got across; those that could not swim, and could not procure anything to buoy them up, sunk. The British, having several fieldpieces stationed by a brick house, were pouring the canister and grape upon the Americans like a shower of hail. They would doubtless have done them much more damage than they did, but for the twelve-pounder mentioned above; the men, having gotten it within sufficient distance to reach them, and opening a fire upon them, soon obliged them to shift their quarters. There was in this action a regiment of Maryland troops, (volunteers) all young gentlemen. When they came out of the water and mud to us, looking like water rats, it was a truly pitiful sight. Many of them were killed in the pond, and more were drowned. Some of us went into the water after the fall of the tide, and took out a number of corpses and a great many arms that were sunk in the pond and creek.•
• American Brigadier General William Alexander (Lord Stirling), left alone with the Maryland and Delaware regiments on the hills by the collapse of the American left and center, made a courageous withdrawal through Gowanus Creek and its marshes. The heaviest fighting developed around the Vechte-Cortelyou house, commanding the road to South Brooklyn. The house has been reconstructed at present-day Fifth Avenue and Third Street, Brooklyn, about a city block from its original location.
Our regiment lay on the ground we then occupied the following night. The next day, in the afternoon, we had a considerable tight scratch with about an equal number of the British, which began rather unexpectedly, and a little whimsically. A few of our men (I mean of our regiment) went over the creek upon business that usually employed us, that is, in search of something to eat. There was a field of Indian corn at a short distance from the creek, with several cocks of hay about halfway from the creek to the cornfield; the men purposed to get some of the corn, or anything else that was eatable. When they got up with the haycocks, they were fired upon by about an equal number of the British, from the cornfield; our people took to the hay, and the others to the fence, where they exchanged a number of shots at each other, neither side inclining to give back. A number, say forty or fifty more of our men, went over and drove the British from the fence; they were by this time reinforced in their turn, and drove us back. The two parties kept thus alternately reinforcing until we had the most of our regiment in the action. After the officers came to command, the English were soon routed from the place, but we dare not follow them for fear of falling into some snare, as the whole British army was in the vicinity of us. I do not recollect that we had anyone killed outright, but we had several severely wounded, and some, I believe, mortally.
Our regiment was alone, no other troops being near where we were lying. We were upon a rising ground, covered with a young growth of trees; we felled a fence of trees around us to prevent the approach of the enemies’ horse. We lay there a day longer. In the latter part of the afternoon there fell a very heavy shower of rain which wet us all to the skin and much damaged our ammunition…
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.
But “the ease of a winter at home” caused Joseph Martin to “alter his mind” about the army, and on April 12, 1777, he enlisted for the duration under the Continental Establishment in Colonel John Chandler’s Eighth Connecticut, serving through the summer in the Hudson Highlands. That fall, Howe, despite Washington’s efforts to stop him at Brandy-wine Creek on September 11, 1777, took the rebel capital, Philadelphia. Washington then called in reinforcements, including four regiments from the Highlands, to strike Howe’s army at Germantown. At first, all went well; then the battle turned and the Americans were routed.
In order to hold and utilize Philadelphia, Howe first had to clear the Delaware River of the rebels. After knocking out one of their forts at Billingsport and futilely assaulting another at Red Bank, he turned his attention late that fall upon Fort Mifflin on Mud Island, in the river opposite Red Bank. To succor Fort Mifflin, Washington ordered two Connecticut regiments to the island. “Here,” recalled Martin, “without winter clothing, not a scrap of either shoes or stockings to my legs or feet, I endured hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses.” Too, he was subjected to one of the most terrible bombardments of the war: The island, as it is called, is nothing more than a mud flat in the Delaware, lying upon the west side of the channel. It is diked around the fort, with sluices so constructed that the fort can be laid under water at pleasure, (at least, it was so when I was there, and I presume it has not grown much higher since.) On the eastern side, next the main river, was a zigzag wall built of hewn stone, built, as I was informed, before the Revolution at the king’s cost. At the southeastern part of the fortification (for fort it could not with propriety be called) was a battery of several long eighteen-pounders. At the southwestern angle was another battery with four or five twelve- and eighteen-pounders and one thirty-two-pounder. At the northwestern corner was another small battery with three twelve-pounders. There were also three blockhouses in different parts of the enclosure, but no cannon mounted upon them, nor were they of any use whatever to us while I was there. On the western side, between the batteries, was a high embankment, within which was a tier of palisadoes. In front of the stone wall, for about half its length, was another embankment, with palisadoes on the inside of it, and a narrow ditch between them and the stone wall. On the western side of the fortification was a row of barracks, extending from the northern part of the works to about half the length of the fort. On the northern end was another block of barracks which reached nearly across the fort from east to west. In front of these was a large square two-story house, for the accommodation of the officers of the garrison. Neither this house nor the barracks were of much use at this time, for it was as much as a man’s life was worth to enter them, the enemy often directing their shot at them in particular. In front of the barracks and other necessary places were parades and walks; the rest of the ground was soft mud. I have seen the enemy’s shells fall upon it and sink so low that their report could not be heard when they burst, and I could only feel a tremulous motion of the earth at the time. At other times, when they burst near the surface of the ground, they would throw the mud fifty feet in the air.
The British had erected five batteries with six heavy guns in each and a bomb battery with three long mortars in it on the opposite side of the water, which separated the island from the main on the west, and which was but a short distance across. They had also a battery of six guns a little higher up the river, at a place called the Hospital Point. …
Our batteries were nothing more than old spars and timber laid up in parallel lines and filled between with mud and dirt. The British batteries in the course of the day would nearly level our works, and we were, like the beaver, obliged to repair our dams in the night. 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 precautions, cut up some of us.
The engineer in the fort was a French officer by the name of [Francois Louis de] Fleury. … He was a very austere man and kept us constantly employed day and night; there was no chance of escaping from his vigilance.
Between the stone wall and the palisadoes was a kind of yard or pen, at the southern end of which was a narrow entrance not more than eight or ten feet wide, with a ditch about four feet wide in the middle, extending the whole length of the pen. Here, on the eastern side of the wall, was the only place in the fort that anyone could be in any degree of safety. Into this place we used to gather the splinters broken off the palisadoes by the enemy’s shot and make a little fire, just enough to keep from suffering. We would watch an opportunity to escape from the vigilance of Colonel Fleury, and run into this place for a minute or two’s respite from fatigue and cold. When the engineer found that the workmen began to grow scarce, he would come to the entrance and call us out. He had always his cane in his hand, and woe betided him he could get a stroke at. At his approach I always jumped over the ditch and ran down on the other side, so that he could not reach me, but he often noticed me and as often threatened me, but threatening was all, he could never get a stroke at me, and I cared but little for his threats.
It was utterly impossible to lie down to get any rest or sleep on account of the mud, if the enemy’s shot would have suffered us to do so. Sometimes some of the men, when overcome with fatigue and want of sleep, would slip away into the barracks to catch a nap of sleep, but it seldom happened that they all came out again alive. I was in this place a fortnight and can say in sincerity that I never lay down to sleep a minute in all that time.
The British knew the situation of the place as well as we did. And as their point-blank shot would not reach us behind the wall, they would throw elevated grapeshot from their mortar, and when the sentries had cried, “a shot,” and the soldiers, seeing no shot arrive, had become careless, the grapeshot would come down like a shower of hail …
I will here just mention one thing which will show the apathy of our people at this time. We had, as I mentioned before, a thirty-two-pound cannon in the fort, but had not a single shot for it. The British also had one in their battery upon the Hospital Point, which, as I said before, raked the fort, or rather it was so fixed as to rake the parade in front of the barracks, the only place we could pass up and down the fort. The artillery officers offered a gill [a half pint] of rum for each shot fired from that piece, which the soldiers would procure. I have seen from twenty to fifty men standing on the parade waiting with impatience the coming of the shot, which would often be seized before its motion had fully ceased and conveyed off to our gun to be sent back again to its former owners. When the lucky fellow who had caught it had swallowed his rum, he would return to wait for another, exulting that he had been more lucky or more dexterous than his fellows. …
We continued here, suffering cold, hunger and other miseries, till the fourteenth day of November. On that day, at the dawn, we discovered six ships of the line, all sixty-fours, a frigate of thirty-six guns, and a galley in a line just below the chevaux-de-frise ; a twenty-four-gun ship (being an old ship cut down,) her guns said to be all brass twenty-fourpounders, and a sloop of six guns in company with her, both within pistol shot of the fort, on the western side. We immediately opened our batteries upon them, but they appeared to take very little notice of us. We heated some shot, but by mistake twenty-four-pound shot were heated instead of eighteen, which was the caliber of the guns in that part of the fort. The enemy soon began their firing upon us and there was music indeed. The soldiers were all ordered to take their posts at the palisadoes, which they were ordered to defend to the last extremity, as it was expected the British would land under the fire of their cannon and attempt to storm the fort. The cannonade was severe, as well it might be, six sixty-four-gun ships, a thirty-six-gun frigate, a twentyfour-gun ship, a galley and a sloop of six guns, together with six batteries of six guns each and a bomb battery of three mortars, all playing at once upon our poor little fort, if fort it might be called. …
The enemy’s shot cut us up. I saw five artillerists belonging to one gun cut down by a single shot, and I saw men who were stooping to be protected by the works, but not stooping low enough, split like fish to be broiled.
About the middle of the day some of our galleys and floating batteries, with a frigate, fell down and engaged the British with their long guns, which in some measure took off the enemy’s fire from the fort. The cannonade continued without interruption on the side of the British throughout the day. Nearly every gun in the fort was silenced by midday. Our men were cut up like cornstalks. I do not know the exact number of the killed and wounded but can say it was not small, considering the numbers in the fort, which were only the able part of the Fourth and Eighth Connecticut regiments, with a company or two of artillery, perhaps less than five hundred in all.
The cannonade continued, directed mostly at the fort, till the dusk of the evening. As soon as it was dark we began to make preparations for evacuating the fort and endeavoring to escape to the Jersey shore. When the firing had in some measure subsided and I could look about me, I found the fort exhibited a picture of desolation. The whole area of the fort was as completely ploughed as a field. The buildings of every kind [were] hanging in broken fragments, and the guns all dismounted, and how many of the garrison sent to the world of spirits, I knew not. If ever destruction was complete, it was here. The surviving part of the garrison were now drawn off and such of the stores as could conveniently be taken away were carried to the Jersey shore.
I happened to be left with a party of seventy or eighty men to destroy and burn all that was left in the place. I was in the northwest battery just after dark when the enemy were hauling their shipping on that side higher up to a more commanding position. They were so nigh that I could hear distinctly what they said on board the sloop. One expression of theirs I well remember. “We will give it to the d——d rebels in the morning.” The thought that then occupied my mind I as well remember, “The d——d rebels will show you a trick which the devil never will; they will go off and leave you.” …
Before we could embark the buildings in the fort were completely in flames, and they threw such a light upon the water that we were as plainly seen by the British as though it had been broad day. Almost their whole fire was directed at us. Sometimes our boat seemed to be almost thrown out of the water, and at length a shot took the sternpost out of the rear boat. We had then to stop and take the men from the crippled boat into the other two, and now the shot and water flew merrily, but by the assistance of a kind Providence we escaped without any further injury …
Howe was now secure in the rebel capital. Washington watched him for a while from a position about twelve miles north northwest of the city and then chose a wintering place for his army close enough, he hoped, to limit British foraging and supply. Joseph Martin never forgot the hard days that followed, but neither did his sense of humor desert him.
We crossed the Schuylkill in a cold, rainy and snowy night [December 12] upon a bridge of wagons set end to end and joined together by boards and planks. And after a few days more maneuvering we at last settled down at a place called “the Gulf”• (so named on account of a remarkable chasm in the hills); and here we encamped some time, and here we had liked to have encamped forever—for starvation here rioted in its glory. But lest the reader should be disgusted at hearing so much said about “starvation,” I will give him something that, perhaps, may in some measure alleviate his ill humor.
• Three miles beyond the Schuylkill on Gulf Creek, present-day West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
While we lay here there was a Continental Thanksgiving ordered by Congress; and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said, a sumptuous Thanksgiving to close the year of high living we had now nearly seen brought to a close. Well, to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, reader? Guess. You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you; it gave each and every man half a gill of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar! !
After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting and hear a sermon delivered upon the happy occasion. We accordingly went, for we could not help it. … I remember the text, like an attentive lad at church. I can still remember that it was this, “And the soldiers said unto him, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, nor accuse anyone falsely.” The preacher ought to have added the remainder of the sentence to have made it complete, “And be content with your wages.” But that would not do, it would be too apropos. However, he heard it as soon as the service was over, it was shouted from a hundred tongues. Well, we had got through the services. … I had nothing else to do but to go home and make out my supper as usual, upon a leg of nothing and no turnips.
The army was now not only starved but naked. The greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I procured a small piece of raw cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasins, which kept my feet (while they lasted) from the frozen ground, although, as I well remember, the hard edges so galled my ankles, while on a march, that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterwards; but the only alternative I had was to endure this inconvenience or to go barefoot, as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough frozen ground. But hunger, nakedness, and sore shins were not the only difficulties we had at that time to encounter; we had hard duty to perform and little or no strength to perform it with.
The army continued at and near the Gulf for some days, after which we marched for the Valley Forge in order to take up our winter quarters. We were now in a truly forlorn condition,—no clothing, no provisions and as disheartened as need be. We arrived, however, at our destination a few days before Christmas. 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, especially to New Englanders, unaccustomed to such kind of hardships at home. However, there was no remedy, no alternative but this or dispersion. 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. …
We arrived at the Valley Forge in the evening [December 18]. It was dark; there was no water to be found and I was perishing with thirst. I searched for water till I was weary and came to my tent without finding any. Fatigue and thirst, joined with hunger, almost made me desperate. I felt at that instant as if I would have taken victuals or drink from the best friend I had on earth by force. I am not writing fiction, all are sober realities. Just after I arrived at my tent, two soldiers, whom I did not know, passed by. They had some water in their canteens which they told me they had found a good distance off, but could not direct me to the place as it was very dark. I tried to beg a draught of water from them but they were as rigid as Arabs. At length I persuaded them to sell me a drink for three pence, Pennsylvania currency, which was every cent of property I could then call my own, so great was the necessity I was then reduced to.
It was Martin’s good fortune to fall into some ease just after the army arrived at Valley Forge, for he was assigned to a foraging expedition which kept him roaming the countryside from snug quarters at nearby Downingtown for the rest of the winter.
With spring, Martin returned to Valley Forge, amusing his colonel by his plump well-being. On June 18, 1778, General Sir Henry Clinton, who had replaced Howe in command, evacuated Philadelphia, and when Washington set out to follow the British toward New York, Martin marched with an advance force.
Our detachment marched in the afternoon and towards night we passed through Princeton. Some of the patriotic inhabitants of the town had brought out to the end of the street we passed through some casks of ready-made toddy. It was dealt out to the men as they passed by, which caused the detachment to move slowly at this place. The young ladies of the town, and perhaps of the vicinity, had collected and were sitting in the stoops and at the windows to see the noble exhibition of a thousand hallstarved and three-quarters naked soldiers pass in review before them. I chanced to be on the wing of a platoon next to the houses, as they were chiefly on one side of the street, and had a good chance to notice the ladies, and I declare that I never before nor since saw more beauty, considering the numbers, than I saw at that time. They were all beautiful. …
We passed through Princeton and encamped on the open fields for the night, the canopy of heaven for our tent. Early next morning we marched again and came up with the rear of the British army. … We had ample opportunity to sec the devastation they made in their rout; cattle killed and lying about the fields and pastures, some just in the position they were in when shot down, others with a small spot of skin taken off their hind quarters and a mess of steak taken out; household furniture hacked and broken to pieces; wells filled up and mechanics’ and farmers’ tools destroyed. It was in the height of the season of cherries; the innocent industrious creatures could not climb the trees for the fruit, but universally cut them down. Such conduct did not give the Americans any more agreeable feelings toward them than they entertained before.
It was extremely hot weather, and the sandy plains of that part of New Jersey did not cool the air to any great degree, but we still kept close to the rear of the British army.
On Sunday morning, June 28, the advance detachments of the American Army under General Charles Lee moved to attack Clinton, as Washington came up to support them. Martin’s regiment was in the front. During the confused Battle of Monmouth which ensued, Lee retreated abruptly (an action for which he was later court-martialed) and only a brave stand led by Washington himself saved the day.
We now heard a few reports of cannon ahead. We went in a road running through a deep narrow valley, which was for a considerable way covered with thick wood; we were some time in passing this defile. …
It was ten or eleven o’clock before we got through … and came into the open fields. The first cleared land we came to was an Indian cornfield, surrounded on the east, west and north sides by thick tall trees. The sun shining full upon the field, the soil of which was sandy, the mouth of a heated oven seemed to me to be but a trifle hotter than this ploughed field; it was almost impossible to breathe. We had to fall back again as soon as we could, into the woods. By the time we had got under the shade of the trees and had taken breath, of which we had been almost deprived, we received orders to retreat, as all the left wing of the army, that part being under the command of General Lee, were retreating. Grating as this order was to our feelings, we were obliged to comply.
We had not retreated far before we came to a defile, a muddy, sloughy brook. While the artillery were passing this place, we sat down by the roadside. In a few minutes the Commander in Chief and suite crossed the road just where we were sitting. I heard him ask our officers “by whose order the troops were retreating,” and being answered, “by General Lee’s,” he said something, but as he was moving forward all the time this was passing, he was too far off for me to hear it distinctly. Those that were nearer to him said that his words were “d——n him.” Whether he did thus express himself or not I do not know. It was certainly very unlike him, but he seemed at the instant to be in a great passion; his looks if not his words seemed to indicate as much. After passing us, he rode on to the plain field and took an observation of the advancing enemy. He remained there some time upon his old English charger, while the shot from the British artillery were rending up the earth all around him. After he had taken a view of the enemy, he returned and ordered the two Connecticut brigades to make a stand at a fence, in order to keep the enemy in check while the artillery and other troops crossed the before-mentioned defile. …
When we had secured our retreat, the artillery formed a line of pieces upon a long piece of elevated ground. Our detachment formed directly in front of the artillery, as a covering party, so far below on the declivity of the hill that the pieces could play over our heads. And here we waited the approach of the enemy, should he see fit to attack us.
By this time the British had come in contact with the New England forces at the fence, when a sharp conflict ensued. These troops maintained their ground, till the whole force of the enemy that could be brought to bear had charged upon them through the fence, and after being overpowered by numbers and the platoon officers had given orders for their several platoons to leave the fence, they had to force them to retreat, so eager were they to be revenged on the invaders of their country and rights.
As soon as the troops had left this ground, the British planted their cannon upon the place and began a violent attack upon the artillery and our detachment, but neither could be routed. The cannonade continued for some time without intermission, when the British pieces being mostly disabled, they reluctantly crawled back from the height which they had occupied and hid themselves from our sight.
Before the cannonade had commenced, a part of the right wing of the British army had advanced across a low meadow and brook and occupied an orchard on our left. The weather was almost too hot to live in, and the British troops in the orchard were forced by the heat to shelter themselves from it under the trees. We had a four-pounder on the left of our pieces which kept a constant fire upon the enemy during the whole contest. After the British artillery had fallen back and the cannonade had mostly ceased in this quarter, and our detachment had an opportunity to look about us, Colonel [Joseph] Cilly of the New Hampshire Line, who was attached to our detachment, passed along in front of our line, inquiring for General [James M.] Varnum’s men, who were the Connecticut and Rhode Island men belonging to our command. We answered, “Here we are.” … “AhI” said he, “you are the boys I want to assist in driving those rascals from yon orchard.”
We were immediately ordered from our old detachment and joined another, the whole composing a corps of about five hundred men. We instantly marched towards the enemy’s right wing, which was in the orchard, and kept concealed from them as long as possible by keeping behind the bushes. When we could no longer keep ourselves concealed, we marched into the open fields and formed our line. The British immediately formed and began to retreat to the main body of their army. Colonel Cilly, finding that we were not likely to overtake the enemy before they reached the main body of the army, on account of fences and other obstructions, ordered three or four platoons from the right of our corps to pursue and attack them, and thus keep them in play till the rest of the detachment could come up. I was in this party; we pursued without order. As I passed through the orchard I saw a number of the enemy lying under the trees, killed by our fieldpiece, mentioned before. We overtook the enemy just as they were entering upon the meadow, which was rather bushy. When within about five rods of the rear of the retreating foe, I could distinguish everything about them. They were retreating in line, though in some disorder. I singled out a man and took my aim directly between his shoulders. (They were divested of their packs.) He was a good mark, being a broad-shouldered fellow. What became of him I know not; the fire and smoke hid him from my sight. One thing I know, that is, I took as deliberate aim at him as ever I did at any game in my life. But after all, I hope I did not kill him, although I intended to at the time.
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.
The next year likewise saw little action. In December, 1778, Martin marched with his regiment to a winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey—which was to be the most severely cruel encampment of the war. Martin remarked that “cold weather and snow were plenty, but beef and bread were extremely scarce in the army.” This was the “hard winter,” remembered as the most bitter and prolonged of the eighteenth century. Eventually it proved to be too much for the temper of the Connecticut men, and the army had its first serious mutiny. Ironically, it occurred on a May day when the weather already had begun to turn.
We had borne as long as human nature could endure, and to bear longer we considered folly. Accordingly, one pleasant day, the men spent the most of their time upon the parade, growling like soreheaded dogs. At evening roll call they began to show their dissatisfaction by snapping at the officers and acting contrary to their orders. After their dismissal from the parade, the officers went, as usual, to their quarters, except the adjutant, who happened to remain, giving details for next day’s duty to the orderly sergeants, or some other business, when the men, none of whom had left the parade began to make him sensible that they had something in train. He said something that did not altogether accord with the soldiers’ ideas of propriety, one of the men retorted; the adjutant called him a mutinous rascal, or some such epithet, and then left the parade. This man, then stamping the butt of his musket upon the ground, as much as to say, I am in a passion, called out, “Who will parade with me?” The whole regiment immediately fell in and formed.
We had made no plans for our future operations, but while we were consulting how to proceed, the Fourth Regiment, which lay on our left, formed, and came and paraded with us. We now concluded to go in a body to the other two regiments [the Third and Sixth] that belonged to our brigade and induce them to join with us. These regiments lay forty or fifty rods in front of us, with a brook and bushes between. We did not wish to have anyone in particular to command, lest he might be singled out for a court-martial to exercise its demency upon. We therefore gave directions to the drummers to give certain signals on the drums; at the first signal we shouldered our arms, at the second we faced, at the third we began our march to join with the other two regiments, and went off with music playing.
By this time our officers had obtained knowledge of our military maneuvering and some of them had run across the brook, by a nearer way than we had taken, it being now quite dark, and informed the officers of those regiments of our approach and supposed intentions. The officers ordered their men to parade as quick as possible without arms. When that was done, they stationed a camp guard, that happened to be near at hand, between the men and their huts, which prevented them from entering and taking their arms, which they were very anxious to do. …
When we found the officers had been too crafty for us we returned with grumbling instead of music, the officers following in the rear growling in concert. One of the men in the rear calling out, “Halt in front,” the officers seized upon him like wolves on a sheep and dragged him out of the ranks, intending to make an example of him for being a “mutinous rascal,” but the bayonets of the men pointing at their breasts as thick as hatchel teeth, compelled them quickly to relinquish their hold of him. We marched back to our own parade and then formed again. The officers now began to coax us to disperse to our quarters, but that had no more effect upon us than their threats. One of them slipped away into the bushes, and after a short time returned, counterfeiting to have come directly from headquarters. Said he, “There is good news for you, boys, there has just arrived a large drove of cattle for the army.” But this piece of finesse would not avail. All the answer he received for his labor was, “Go and butcher them,” or some such slight expression. The lieutenant colonel of the Fourth Regiment [John Sumner] now came on to the parade. He could persuade his men, he said, to go peaceably to their quarters. After a good deal of palaver, he ordered them to shoulder their arms, but the men taking no notice of him or his order, he fell into a violent passion, threatening them with the bitterest punishment if they did not immediately obey his orders. After spending a whole quiver of the arrows of his rhetoric, he … gave up the contest as hopeless and left us and walked off to his quarters, chewing the cud of resentment all the way, and how much longer I neither knew nor cared. The rest of the officers, after they found that they were likely to meet with no better success than the colonel, walked off likewise to their huts.
While we were under arms, the Pennsylvania troops, who lay not far from us, were ordered under arms and marched off their parades upon, as they were told, a secret expedition. They had surrounded us, unknown to either us or themselves (except the officers). At length, getting an item of what was going forward, they inquired of some of the stragglers what was going on among the Yankees. Being informed that they had mutinied on account of the scarcity of provisions, “Let us join them,” said they. “Let us join the Yankees; they are good fellows, and have no notion of lying here like fools and starving.” Their officers needed no further hinting. The troops were quickly ordered back to their quarters, from fear that they would join in the same song with the Yankees. We knew nothing of all this for some time afterwards.
After our officers had left us to our own option, we dispersed to our huts and laid by our arms of our own accord, but the worm of hunger gnawing so keen kept us from being entirely quiet. We therefore still kept upon the parade in groups, venting our spleen at our country and government, then at our officers, and then at ourselves for our imbecility in staying there and starving in detail for an ungrateful people who did not care what became of us, so they could enjoy themselves while we were keeping a cruel enemy from them. …
Our stir did us some good in the end, for we had provisions directly after, so we had no great cause for complaint for some time.
In the summer of 1780, Joseph Martin was recommended by his major for appointment as a sergeant in the newly formed engineer corps, the Sappers and Miners. (Martin asserts he was nominated as reward for neatly lettering the major’s name on his field chest.) The corps, “instructed in the manual and mechanical aspects of field-works” derived its name from its principal duties: to work with mines and with saps, the approach trenches to enemy works. But it had none of that to do until the combined American and French armies hurried south late in the summer of 1781 to lay siege to Lord Cornwallis at Yorktoiun, Virginia.
For the first time since he had enlisted in 1777, Martin had money in his pocketbook, and hard money at that. The French Colonel Gouvoin of the Sappers and Miners had borrowed enough money from officers of the French allies to pay his men a month’s wages, the first of any kind Martin had received in Continental service.
Arriving at Williamsburg on the James Peninsula, Washington’s army set out for Yorktown.
We marched from Williamsburg the last of September. It was a warm day. When we had proceeded about halfway to Yorktown we halted and rested two or three hours. Being about to cook some victuals, I saw a fire which some of the Pennsylvania troops had kindled a short distance off. I went to get some fire while some of my messmates made other preparations, we having turned our rum and pepper cook adrift. I had taken off my coat and unbuttoned my waistcoat, it being (as I said before) very warm. My pocketbook, containing about five dollars in money and some other articles, in all about seven dollars, was in my waistcoat pocket. When I came among the strangers they appeared to be uncommonly complaisant, asking many questions, helping me to fire, and chatting very familiarly. I took my fire and returned, but it was not long before I perceived that those kindhearted helpers had helped themselves to my pocketbook and its whole contents. I felt mortally chagrinned but there was no plaster for my sore but patience, and my plaster of that, at this time, I am sure was very small and very thinly spread, for it never covered the wound. …
We now began to make preparations for laying close siege to the enemy. We had holed him and nothing remained but to dig him out. Accordingly, after taking every precaution to prevent his escape, [we] settled our guards, provided fascines and gabions, made platforms for the batteries, to be laid down when needed, brought on our battering pieces, ammunition, fee. On the fifth of October we began to put our plans into execution.
One-third part of all the troops were put in requisition to be employed in opening the trenches. A third part ot our Sappers and Miners were ordered out this night to assist the engineers in laying out the works. It was a very dark and rainy night. However, we repaired to the place and began by following the engineers and laying laths of pine wood end-to-end upon the line marked out by the officers for the trenches. We had not proceeded far in the business before the engineers ordered us to desist and remain where we were and be sure not to straggle a foot from the spot while they were absent from us. In a few minutes after their departure, there came a man alone to us, having on a surtout, as we conjectured, it being exceeding dark, and inquired for the engineers. We now began to be a little jealous for our safety, being alone and without arms, and within forty rods of the British trenches. The stranger inquired what troops we were, talked familiarly with us a few minutes, when, being informed which way the officers had gone, he went off in the same direction, after strictly charging us, in case we should be taken prisoners, not to discover to the enemy what troops we were. We were obliged to him for his kind advice, but we considered ourselves as standing in no great need of it, for we knew as well as he did that Sappers and Miners were allowed no quarters, at least, are entitled to none, by the laws of warfare, and of course should take care, if taken, and the enemy did not find us out, not to betray our own secret.
In a short time the engineers returned and the afore-mentioned stranger with them. They discoursed together some time when, by the officers often calling him “Your Excellency,” we discovered that it was General Washington. …
It coming on to rain hard, we were ordered back to our tents, and nothing more was done that night. The next night, which was the sixth of October, the same men were ordered to the lines that had been there the night before. We this night completed laying out the works. The troops of the line were there ready with entrenching tools and began to entrench, after General Washington had struck a few blows with a pickax, a mere ceremony, that it might be said “General Washington with his own hands first broke ground at the siege of Yorktown.” The ground was sandy and soft, and the men employed that night eat no “idle bread” (and I question if they eat any other), so that by daylight they had covered themselves from danger from the enemy’s shot, who, it appeared, never mistrusted that we were so near them the whole night, their attention being directed to another quarter. There was upon the right of their works a marsh. Our people had sent to the western side of this marsh a detachment to make a number of fires, by which, and our men often passing before the fires, the British were led to imagine that we were about some secret mischief there, and consequently directed their whole fire to that quarter, while we were entrenching literally under their noses.
As soon as it was day they perceived their mistake and began to fire where they ought to have done sooner. They brought out a fieldpiece or two without their trenches, and discharged several shots at the men who were at work erecting a bomb battery, but their shot had no effect and they soon gave it over. They had a large bulldog and every time they fired he would follow their shots across our trenches. Our officers wished to catch him and oblige him to carry a message from them into the town to his masters, but he looked too formidable for any of us to encounter.
I do not remember, exactly, the number of days we were employed before we got our batteries in readiness to open upon the enemy, but think it was not more than two or three. The French, who were upon our left, had completed their batteries a few hours before us, but were not allowed to discharge their pieces till the American batteries were ready. Our commanding battery was on the near bank of the [York] river and contained ten heavy guns; the next was a bomb battery of three large mortars; and so on through the whole line. The whole number, American and French, was ninety-two cannon, mortars, and howitzers. Our flagstaff was in the ten-gun battery, upon the right of the whole. I was in the trenches the day that the batteries were to be opened. All were upon the tiptoe of expectation and impatience to see the signal given to open the whole line of batteries, which was to be the hoisting of the American flag in the ten-gun battery. About noon the much-wished-for signal went up. I confess I felt a secret pride swell my heart when I saw the “star-spangled banner” waving majestically in the very faces of our implacable adversaries. It appeared like an omen of success to our enterprise, and so it proved in reality. A simultaneous discharge of all the guns in the line followed, the French troops accompanying it with “Huzza for the Americans!” …
The siege was carried on warmly for several days, when most of the guns in the enemy’s works were silenced. We now began our second parallel, about halfway between our works and theirs. There were two strong redoubts held by the British, on their left. It was necessary for us to possess those redoubts before we could complete our trenches. One afternoon, I, with the rest of our corps that had been on duty in the trenches the night but one before, were ordered to the lines. I mistrusted something extraordinary, serious or comical, was going forward, but what I could not easily conjecture.
We arrived at the trenches a little before sunset. I saw several officers fixing bayonets on long staves. I then concluded we were about to make a general assault upon the enemy’s works, but before dark I was informed of the whole plan, which was to storm the redoubts, the one by the Americans and the other by the French. The Sappers and Miners were furnished with axes and were to proceed in front and cut a passage for the troops through the abatis, which are composed of the tops of trees, the small branches cut off with a slanting stroke which renders them as sharp as spikes. These trees are then laid at a small distance from the trench or ditch, pointing outwards, and the butts fastened to the ground in such a manner that they cannot be removed by those on the outside of them. It is almost impossible to get through them. Through these we were to cut a passage before we or the other assailants could enter.
At dark the detachment was formed and advanced beyond the trenches and lay down on the ground to await the signal for advancing to the attack, which was to be three shells from a certain battery near where we were lying. All the batteries in our line were silent, and we lay anxiously waiting for the signal. The two brilliant planets, Jupiter and Venus, were in close contact in the western hemisphere, the same direction that the signal was to be made in. When I happened to cast my eyes to that quarter, which was often, and I caught a glance of them, I was ready to spring on my feet, thinking they were the signal for starting. Our watchword was “Rochambeau,” the commander of the French forces’ name, a good watchword, for being pronounced Ro-sham-bow , it sounded, when pronounced quick, like rush-on-boys .
We had not lain here long before the expected signal was given, … by the three shells with their fiery trains mounting the air in quick succession. The word up, up, was then reiterated through the detachment. We immediately moved silently on toward the redoubt we were to attack, with unloaded muskets. Just as we arrived at the abatis, the enemy discovered us and directly opened a sharp fire upon us. We were now at a place where many of our large shells had burst in the ground, making holes sufficient to bury an ox in. The men, having their eyes fixed upon what was transacting before them, were every now and then falling into these holes. I thought the British were killing us off at a great rate. At length, one of the holes happening to pick me up, I found out the mystery of the huge slaughter.
As soon as the firing began, our people began to cry, “The fort’s our own!” and it was “Rush on boys.” The Sappers and Miners soon cleared a passage for the infantry, who entered it rapidly. Our Miners were ordered not to enter the fort, but there was no stopping them. “We will go,” said they. “Then go to the d——1,” said the commanding officer of our corps, “if you will.” I could not pass at the entrance we had made, it was so crowded. I therefore forced a passage at a place where I saw our shot had cut away some of the abatis; several others entered at the same place. While passing, a man at my side received a ball in his head and fell under my feet, crying out bitterly. While crossing the trench, the enemy threw hand grenades (small shells) into it. They were so thick that I at first thought them cartridge papers on fire, but was soon undeceived by their cracking. As I mounted the breastwork, I met an old associate. I knew him by the light of the enemy’s musketry, it was so vivid. The fort was taken and all quiet in a very short time.…
All that were in the action of storming the redoubt were exempted from further duty that night. We laid down upon the ground and rested the remainder of the night as well as a constant discharge of grape and canister shot would permit us to do, while those who were on duty for the day completed the second parallel by including the captured redoubts within it. We returned to camp early in the morning, all safe and sound, except one of our lieutenants, who had received a slight wound on the top of the shoulder by a musket shot. Seven or eight men belonging to the infantry were killed, and a number wounded.
Our duty [in the days that followed] was hazardous but not very hard. … We were on duty in the trenches twentyfour hours, and forty-eight hours in camp. The invalids did the camp duty, and we had nothing else to do but to attend morning and evening roll calls and recreate ourselves as we pleased the rest of the time, till we were called upon to take our turns on duty in the trenches again. …
After we had finished our second line of trenches there was but little firing on either, side. After Lord Cornwallis had failed to get off, upon the seventeenth day of October (a rather unlucky day for the British) he requested a cessation of hostilities for, I think, twenty-four hours, when commissioners from both armies met at a house between the lines to agree upon articles of capitulation.• We waited with anxiety the termination of the armistice and as the time drew nearer our anxiety increased. The time at length arrived—it passed, and all remained quiet. And now we concluded that we had obtained what we had taken so much pains for, for which we had encountered so many dangers, and had so anxiously wished. Before night we were informed that the British had surrendered and that the siege was ended.
• On the dark, windy night of October 16, Cornwallis made a desperate effort to save his army by evacuating Yorktown on the sea side, through Gloucester Point across the York River, but was turned back by the weather.
The next day we were ordered to put ourselves in as good order as our circumstances would admit, to see (what was the completion of our present wishes) the British army march out and stack their arms. The trenches, where they crossed the road leading to the town, were leveled and all things put in order for this grand exhibition. After breakfast, on the nineteenth, we were marched onto the ground and paraded on the right-hand side of the road, and the French forces on the left. We waited two or three hours before the British made their appearance. They were not always so dilatory, but they were compelled at last, by necessity, to appear, all armed, with bayonets fixed, drums beating, and faces lengthening. They were led by General [Charles] O’Hara, with the American General [Benjamin] Lincoln on his right, the Americans and French beating a march as they passed out between them. It was a noble sight to us, and the more so, as it seemed to promise a speedy conclusion to the contest. The British did not make so good an appearance as the German forces, but there was certainly some allowance to be made in their favor. The English felt their honor wounded, the Germans did not greatly care whose hands they were in. The British paid the Americans, seemingly, but little attention as they passed them, but they eyed the French with considerable malice depicted in their countenances. They marched to the place appointed and stacked their arms; they then returned to the town in the same manner they had marched out, except being divested of their arms. After the prisoners were marched off into the country, our army separated, the French remaining where they then were and the Americans marching for the Hudson.
Although the Continental Army had before it nearly two more years of service, and more combat lay ahead for some units, the big war was over with the surrender of Cornwal Us. Sometimes during Martin’s seven years the burdens of service and especially the broken promises of his country to provide clothing, shoes, and food, not to say a small wage, proved too much for even his generous nature. He was not above occasionally growling his resentment, as he was not above mutiny at Morristown. From time to time he anticipated with delicious satisfaction the day his fetters would be broken. But when that day finally came for him, in June of I1JS), he was not as happy as he had imagined he would be.
At length the eleventh day of June, 1783, arrived. “The old man,” our captain, came into our room, with his hands full of papers, and first ordered us to empty all our cartridge boxes upon the floor (this was the last order he ever gave us) and then told us that if we needed them we might take some of them again. They were all immediately gathered up and returned to our boxes. Government had given us our arms and we considered the ammunition as belonging to them, and he had neither right nor orders to take them from us. He then handed us our discharges, or rather furloughs, for they were in appearance no other than furloughs, permission to return home, but to return to the army again if required. This was policy in government; to discharge us absolutely in our present pitiful, forlorn condition, it was feared, might cause some difficulties which might be too hard for government to get easily over.•
• Washington endeavored to get at least three months’ back pay for the troops, but Congress could not grant even that much. To reduce the cost of maintaining the men, it directed Washington to grant furloughs and offered the troops certificates for their overdue pay. The furlough paper would automatically become a discharge upon the ratification of a final peace treaty. Congress voted the men their arms as a farewell gift, but many were obliged to sell them on their way home for travel money.
The powder in our cartridges was soon burnt. Some saluted the officers with large charges; others only squibbed them, just as each one’s mind was affected toward them. Our “old man” had a number of these last-mentioned symbols of honor and affection presented him. Some of the men were not half so liberal in the use of powder as they were when they would have given him a canteenful at once.
I confess, after all, that my anticipation of the happiness I should experience upon such a day as this was not realized; I can assure the reader that there was as much sorrow as joy transfused on the occasion. We had lived together as a family of brothers for several years, setting aside some little family squabbles, like most other families, had shared with each other the hardships, dangers, and sufferings incident to a soldier’s life; had sympathized with each other in trouble and sickness; had assisted in bearing each other’s burdens or strove to make them lighter by council and advice; had endeavored to conceal each other’s faults or make them appear in as good a light as they would bear. In short, the soldiers, each in his particular circle of acquaintance, were as strict a band of brotherhood as Masons and, I believe, as faithful to each other. And now we were to be, the greater part of us, parted forever; as unconditionally separated as though the grave lay between us. This, I say, was the case with the most, I will not say all; there were as many genuine misanthropists among the soldiers, according to numbers, as of any other class of people whatever, and some in our corps of Miners, but we were young men and had warm hearts. I question if there was a corps in the army that parted with more regret than ours did, the New Englanders in particular. Ah! it was a serious time.
Some of the soldiers went off for home the same day that their fetters were knocked off; others stayed and got their final settlement certificates, which they sold to procure decent clothing and money sufficient to enable them to pass with decency through the country and to appear something like themselves when they arrived among their friends. I was among those. …
After his discharge, Sergeant Martin set out for New England, but along the way ran into a friend and was persuaded to tarry the winter as a schoolteacher among the Dutch in upstate New York. In the spring of 1784 he pushed on to frontier Maine, where land was being offered generously to encourage settlement. On a bold headland of Cape Jettison, at the mouth of the Penobscot River, which had been the site of Fort Pownall, an outpost of the French and Indian War, he built a cabin. And in the small community that had grown up there, Joseph Martin jound employment as a farmer and laborer.
After ten years, when he was thirty-jour, he married the teen-aged daughter of a moderately well-to-do farmer and ship carpenter on the Cape. By then the town was incorporated as Prospect, and he served at various times from 1799 to 1818 as selectman and justice of the peace. From 1818 to 1843 he was town clerk. Notwithstanding his intelligence and energy he seems never to have prospered, and in 1818, when the federal government offered needy veterans a pension of ninety-six dollars a year, he applied for and was granted it. He was fifty-nine and declared that “by reason of age and infirmity” he was unable to work and support his “sickly and rheumatic” wife and five living children.
However, Martin continued to amuse himself by pen sketching and writing poetry and occasional lyrics for hymns. And he appears to have taken a proverbial second lease on life, for at seventy he wrote and published his Narrative and continued to be regarded by friends and acquaintances as an active and sociable companion when he was in his late eighties. Then he lost his vision and finally, in May of 1850, at the age of ninety, he died.
At Martin’s grave on a sunny knoll a short way upriver from the site of his first cabin on Fort Point, his town later erected a monument, and someone selected for it a most fitting epitaph, just exactly the words Joseph Plumb Martin himself might have chosen: “A Soldier of the Revolution.”