Martin, Joseph Plumb

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Joseph Plumb Martin

A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier

Originally published in 1830 and most recently republished as
Yankee Doodle Boy in 1995
Excerpted from Witnessing America, 1996

"My grandsire told [my grandma] that he supposed I was resolved to go into the service in some way or other and he had rather I would engage in the land service if I must engage in any."

Joseph Plumb Martin

Ayoung Connecticut farm boy, Joseph Plumb Martin (1760–1850), had been aware since 1774 that war with Great Britain was a strong possibility. At first, he vowed to himself to have nothing to do with it. But army recruiters came to his town in the spring of 1775, just after the war had unofficially begun in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The recruiters offered a payment to anyone who would enlist to fight the British. Some of the new recruits stayed at Martin's grandfather's home before they departed to fight in Boston or New York City. Fired up by the conversations he heard and the chance to earn some money, Martin changed his mind and resolved to become a soldier. He was too young then, but in the summer of 1776, Martin enlisted.

For seven years, Martin served in the Continental Army, led by General George Washington (1732–1799). He stayed with Washington for two years after the British surrender at Yorktown, right up until Washington said farewell to his troops (see entry on p. 247). Martin saw action in many of the major battles and in dozens of smaller skirmishes, and he wrote about his experiences after the war was over. Martin's book was published in 1830 under the title A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, Interspersed with Anecdotes of Incidents That Occurred Within His Own Observation. Two of Martin's war stories follow.

In the first story, the young soldier-to-be described his grandparents' reaction to his decision to enlist in the Continental Army in the spring of 1776. They were reluctant to have him go but realized he was determined to do it.

In the second story, Martin described an incident that occurred while he was on sentry (guard) duty during the 1776 campaign. He was with the Continental Army on the northern

end of Manhattan Island, New York. The British and American lines were very close to each other, and the soldiers were quite jumpy. It was late, Martin was tired, and thinking that his shift must be at an end, he approached a nervous guard to find out what time it was. The guard mistook him for an enemy and fired his weapon; this excited the other men on guard duty. When their commanding officers came to investigate, Martin denied knowing the cause of the disturbance. Word spread that a spy was loose, requiring extra attention. So Martin's guard unit was forced to remain on duty through the night. Despite his fatigue, Martin managed to find humor in the way the spy story spread so quickly.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier:

  • The Continental Army was made up of members of state militias (pronounced muh-LISH-uz). The militia men were not trained, professional soldiers. In addition to being untrained, the nineteen thousand Americans who fought in the New York campaign were poorly armed and were primarily led by amateurs. In contrast, they faced more than forty thousand professional soldiers and sailors, well armed and well supplied, supported by nearly three hundred battleships. It is no wonder that Martin and his fellow sentries were jumpy.
  • Manhattan Island was surrounded by deep water, easily navigated by British ships (the Americans had no navy). General Charles Lee (1731–1782), who had arrived there ahead of Washington, wrote to Washington that "whoever commands the sea must command the town." In fact, the Americans knew that the defense of New York was a hopeless cause. They only defended it because it would have hurt American morale to hand over such an important city without a fight.

Excerpts from A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier

[First excerpt]

One evening, very early in the spring of this year, I chanced to overhear my grandma'am telling my grandsire that I had threatenedto engage on board a man-of-war. I had told her that I would enter on board a privateer then fitting out in our neighborhood. The good old lady thought it a man-of-war, that and privateer being synonymous terms with her. She said she could not bear the thought of my being on board of a man-of-war; my grandsire told her that he supposed I was resolved to go into the service in some way or other and he had rather I would engage in the land service if I must engage in any. This I thought to be a sort of tacit consent for me to go, and I determined to take advantage of it as quick as possible.

Soldiers were at this time enlisting for a year's service. I did not like that; it was too long a time for me at the first trial; I wished only to take a priming before I took upon me the whole coat of paint for a soldier. (Martin, pp. 14–15)

[Second excerpt]

A simple affair happened, while I was upon guard at a time while we were here, which made considerable disturbance amongst the guard and caused me some extra hours of fatigue at the time. As I was the cause of it at first, I will relate it. The guard consisted of nearly two hundred men, commanded by a field officer. We kept a long chain of sentinels placed almost within speaking distance of each other, and being in close neighborhood with the enemy we were necessitated to be pretty alert. I was upon my post as sentinel about the middle of the night. Thinking we had overgone the time in which we ought to have been relieved, I stepped a little off my spot towards one of the next sentries, it being quite dark, and asked him in a low voice how long he had been on sentry. He started as if attacked by the enemy and roared out, "Who comes there?" I saw I had alarmed him and stole back to my spot as quick as possible. He still kept up his cry, "Who comes there?," and receiving no answer, he discharged his piece, which alarmed the whole guard, who immediately formed and prepared for action and sent off a non-commissioned officer and file of men to ascertain the cause of alarm.

They came first to the man who had fired and asked him what was the matter. He said that someone had made an abrupt advance upon his premises and demanded, "How comes you on, sentry?" They next came to me, inquiring what I had seen. I told them that I had not seen or heard anything to alarm me but what the other sentinel had caused. The men turned to the guard, and we were soon relieved, which was all I had wanted.

Upon our return to the guard I found, as was to be expected, that the alarm was the subject of general conversation among them. They were confident that a spy or something worse had been amongst us and consequently greater vigilance was necessary. We were accordingly kept the rest of the night under arms, and I cursed my indiscretion for causing the disturbance, as I could get no more rest during the night. I could have set all to rights by speaking a word, but it would not do for me to betray my own secret. But it was diverting to me to see how much the story gained by being carried about, both among the guard and after its arrival in the camp. (Rae, pp. 164–65)

What happened next …

As expected, the British captured New York City in September 1776. The city became British headquarters for the duration of the war. The Continental Army, under the command of General Washington, then was forced to retreat across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Joseph Plumb Martin stayed with Washington for the rest of the war. He saw the British Army surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. He remained with Washington until after the peace treaty was signed, ending the war in 1783.

Did you know …

  • The term "Yankee" originally was used for New Englanders (people from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont). The British used the word Yankee as an insult, but patriotic Revolutionary War soldiers adopted the term to show their rebel pride.
  • "Yankee Doodle" was a Revolutionary-era song whose tune came from an old British drinking song. The legend is that in 1775, a British doctor made up new words to the drinking song to poke fun at American soldiers, who were regarded by the British as "country bumpkins."
  • When George Washington arrived in New York in 1776 and began training an army, he faced many problems, including infighting among his men. The problems arose in part from an old boundary dispute, which had pitted the citizens of New York (called "Yorkers") against New Englanders ("Yankees"). Remembering their old hostility, "Yankee" volunteers often fought with "Yorker" soldiers.

Where to Learn More

Diamant, Lincoln. Yankee Doodle Days: Exploring the American Revolution. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1996.

Martin, Joseph Plumb. Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier. Edited by George F. Scheer. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

Martin, Joseph Plumb. Yankee Doodle Boy: A Young Soldier's Adventures in the American Revolution Told by Himself. Edited by George F. Scheer. Holiday House, reissued 1995.

Rae, Noel, ed. Witnessing America: The Library of Congress Book of Firsthand Accounts of Life in America 1600–1900. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Wilbur, C. Keith. Pirates and Patriots of the Revolution. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1996.

Wilbur, C. Keith. The Revolutionary Soldier: 1775–1783. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1999.

Joseph Plumb Martin, Proud Yankee Soldier

Joseph Plumb Martin was born on November 21, 1760, in Becket, Massachusetts. Ebenezer Martin, his father, was minister of a new Congregational Church. He had married Susanna Plumb, daughter of a wealthy Connecticut farmer, while attending Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. When Joseph was about seven years old, his father left the family. Joseph was left in the care of Susanna's parents, Joseph and Rebecca Plumb.

Joseph never received any formal schooling. Instead, he worked hard on his grandparents' farm, but somehow developed a love for reading and expressing himself by writing. He was only fourteen when the Revolutionary War started in 1775, too young to enlist. He did enlist in June 1776, signing on for a six-month term. He was discharged in December 1776 and returned home, thinking he had had enough of being a soldier. But life on the farm was not as satisfying as it had been, and in April 1777 he joined the Continental Army, where he served until the army was disbanded in 1783.

After the war, Martin worked as a farmer and laborer, but he never prospered. He married Lucy Clewley in 1794, and they had five children. Although his life was hard, Martin retained his sense of humor and his interest in reading and writing.

A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier was written when Martin was seventy years old. He described in detail the daily hardships of a common soldier—the fear, pain, and deaths of comrades in battle. It is perhaps the best and liveliest eyewitness account of the American Revolution written from the point of view of a Continental soldier. Martin died in 1850.

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