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

 

 

The Battle of White Plains

On October 19, 1776, after being delayed by a clash with Massachusetts Colonel John Glover and his men at Pelham Bay, British General William Howe and his army camped at New Rochelle, New York. Howe was waiting for supplies and 8,000 Hessian reinforcements under the command of General Wilhelm von Knyphausen.  The British intended to launch a maneuver that would encircle and defeat General George Washington’s army at Harlem Heights.

Washington was aware of the British advance. He sent General Charles Lee on a scouting mission north. Lee returned with the advice that the army move to White Plains because it was more defensible and contained a supply depot.

Rufus Putnam
Rufus Putnam

Colonel Rufus Putnam (General Israel Putnam’s cousin) was sent on a reconnaissance mission to discover the British position and determine how soon they might reach White Plains.

Putnam returned with disturbing intelligence of Howe’s proximity to White Plains. In response, Washington hasten the American army’s lugubrious retreat north along the west bank of the Bronx River. He dispatched Putnam with orders to Lord Alexander Stirling, whose troops were furthest north, to immediately march to White Plains.

The Continental Army arrived at White Plains ahead of Howe’s army. It provided time for Washington’s men to construct their defenses. Washington established his headquarters at the Elijah Miller House on October 23, and chose a defensive position that he fortified with two lines of entrenchments. The trenches were situated on raised terrain, protected on the right by the swampy ground near the Bronx River, with steeper hills further back as a place of retreat. The American defenses were 3 miles long. Beyond that, across the Bronx River on the right, was Chatterton’s Hill, which commanded the plain over which the British would have to advance.

Washington sent the Maryland and Delaware forces, as well as some Connecticut regimentals and some militia to Chatterton’s Hill to join an isolated outpost held by Colonel Alexander McDougall. There approximately 2,000 men began constructing fortifications.

Chatterton-Hill
Chatterton’s Hill

During this time, General Howe’s army proceeded north to Mamaroneck where they paused for another four days to reconnoiter the roads and terrain around White Plains. On the morning of October 28, Howe ordered his entire force, 13,000 strong, forward to White Plains to attack the American lines. Howe took General Henry Clinton’s advice (which was a rare occurrence) and proceeded in several columns, with Clinton leading the one farthest right whose task would be to outflank the Americans while they fought the British on the left.

When Washington heard the British were advancing he said to his officers, “Gentlemen, you will repair to your respective posts and do the best you can.” His officers holding the lines included generals William Heath, John Sullivan, and Charles Lee. Then, Washington called for a detachment of 1,500 men under General Joseph Spencer to confront the British vanguard. Joseph Plumb Martin and Benjamin Tallmadge were among them.

1-benjamin-tallmadge-granger
Benjamin Tallmadge

The detachment crossed the Bronx River and waited behind stone walls for the enemy. They became engaged with the Hessians pouring a destructive fire into the Hessian ranks until they found that they were about to be flanked. The Americans retreated across the river and ascended the hill.

battleofwhiteplainsmap

The British advanced and began firing field pieces across the river at the American lines.  The Americans returned fire. Smoke from artillery and shot filled the air.

Howe detached several thousand of his men and twelve pieces of artillery to attack Chatterton’s Hill. The British attack was organized with Hessian regiments leading the assault. Colonel Johann Rall was to charge the American right, while a Hessian battalion under Colonel Carl von Donop was to attack the center. When they reached the river, British grenadiers charged across and pressed on up the steep and heavily wooded hill. They became targets of their own artillery which had ignited the dry autumn leaves and branches. The Hessians followed charging through the burning fields. They held their cartridge boxes above their heads to keep them from exploding.

battle-white-plains The Americans fired canister and grape into the oncoming enemy. The Royal Artillery responded with solid shot. The Americans repelled the first wave of attack as they poured musket fire into the approaching enemy. Rall’s Hessians rallied and taking heavy casualties, fought up the southern side of the hill. Rall’s charge scattered the militia and they “fled in confusion,” Colonel John Haslet of the Delaware troops reported. This exposed the American right flank.

The British pelted the Marylanders and the Delaware Regiment with a “very heavy fire of their artillery and musquetry for about half an hour.” Reinforcements arrived, but the Marylanders and Delaware men were forced to withdraw. “The Americans overpowered by their numbers, were compelled to save themselves, as best they could,” recalled Marylander Captain Samuel Smith.

Washington ordered a fighting withdrawal with the 1st Delaware Regiment guarding the rear. The Continental Army continued their retreat to North Castle, New York. Both sides suffered significant casualties. The high  price (in casualties) the British army paid for the hill was enough to discourage further aggression on General Howe’s part.

Resources:

O’Donnell, Patrick K. Washington’s Immortals New York: Grove Press, 2016. Print.

Schecter, Barnet. The Battle For New York New York: Walker & Company, 2002. Print.

McCullough, David. 1776 New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

Heath, William. Edited by William Abbatt. Memoirs of Major General William Heath New York: William Abbatt, 1901. Print.

My award-winning historical fantasy book series:

Angels & Patriots Book One. Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book One

Angels & Patriots Book Two. The Cause of 1776 is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle eBook, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited. Angels & Patriots Book Two