Book Review: Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier, The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin

“Through much fatigue and many dangers past, The Warworn soldier’s braved his way at last.” ~~ Joseph Plumb Martin

I could think of no better way to express my love for this narrative except to offer a review. I’ve read countless quotes from Joseph’s memoir in books about the Revolutionary War and have written about him in my own novels. But to read his memoir in it’s entirety plunged me into his world during his nearly eight years of service with the Continental Army.

Joseph wrote and published his memoirs in 1830 at the age of 70. The book was lost to history, rediscover in the 1950’s, and published again in 1962. Like many memoirs, he may have embellished it, but it’s rooted in the experiences endured by the common soldier instead of the heroic accounts of men like Washington, Greene, and Knox. Nevertheless, this is an eye opening tale of suffering, endurance, and patriotism.

Joseph was born in Massachusetts on November 21, 1760, therefore he was just a teenager when he joined the army in 1776. At the time, he lived with his grandparents in Connecticut and had difficulty gaining their permission to enlist. He and his company were soon sent to New York where they saw action at Long Island, Kipp’s Bay, Harlem Heights, and White Plains.

Later in the war, he was at Germantown, the siege of Fort Mifflin, and the Battle of Monmouth. His company was shipped off to the Hudson Highlands and West Point. He spoke of Benedict Arnold’s treason and John Andre’s execution. He was with the unit of sappers at Yorktown who dug the parallel entrenchments used to besiege Cornwallis’ army.

In his memoir, Joseph paints a picture of camaraderie between he and his “messmates.” Their shared struggles with constant starvation, nakedness, lack of shelter, sickness, fatigue, and hard duty is a theme throughout.

“To have to lie, as I did, almost every other night on the cold and often wet ground… without a blanket, and with nothing but thin summer clothing, was tedious.” 

“The army was now (Valley Forge) not only starved but naked; the greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets.”

“…I have often been so beat out with long and tedious marching, that I have fallen asleep while walking the road, and not been sensible of it till I have jostled against some one in the same situation;…”

He candidly wrote about the officers who made bad decisions, quartered in homes and ate well — “for they must have victuals, let the poor men fare as they would.” His detailed descriptions of the army’s failure to provide pay and provisions, his food foraging expeditions, and food sometimes provided to the soldiers by civilians underlies the desperation he experienced enduring starvation.

Yet amid all these descriptions of misery, Joseph demonstrates a sense of humor, compassion, courage, mischief, and admiration for “handsome ladies.” He refers to those who are killed or dies as “Poor young man!” or “Poor fellow!” When his regiment returns to White Plains, he sees that the Hessians who died at the battle there the year before are ill-buried and he feels sorry for them. “Here the Hessian sculls as thick as a bomb shells; — poor fellows! they were left unburied in a foreign land…”  

When the war ended in 1783, he wrote that the happiness he had anticipated was not realized. “….there was as much sorrow as joy transfused on the occasion. We 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…”

He concludes with after the war the soldiers were never given the land they were promised nor their yearly clothing allowance. But the heart rending message was how the country vilified them — the army was idle during the war or the militia could have done the job. The soldiers’ hardships were debased and underrated.

“President Monroe was the first of all our Presidents, except President Washington, who ever uttered a syllable in the ‘old soldiers’ favor.”

Of the voices of slander, he wrote:

“It was very easy for them to build castles in the air, but they had not felt the difficulty of making them stand there.” 

“And now, kind Reader, I bid you a cordial and long farewell.” ~~ Joseph Plumb Martin

 

 

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