Joseph Plumb Martin, an otherwise quiet New England farmer in the first half of the 19th century, did three remarkable things in his life:
— He lived to be 90 years old, dying in 1850.
— He wrote and published his memoirs, to little acclaim, when he was 70 years old in 1830.
— He enlisted in the Continental Army in 1776 when he was 15, then re-enlisted at 16, and was with George Washington’s army in every major engagement from the Battle of Brooklyn to the end of the war at Yorktown.
Martin produced the only full eyewitness memoir of life in the Continental Army written by a “common soldier.”
The memoir is anything but common, however. Despite his lack of education and shortcomings in the area of grammar and spelling, Martin had a sharp mind and an eye for key details. He had a good sense of himself, too, never taking his situation or his feelings too seriously. Martin maintained his point-of-view as a common soldier, not trying to explain the significance of the battles in which he participated but simply telling what he saw, what his comrades experienced, and what happened to his company.
Plenty happened. He was besieged and part of a siege. He went on long marches and spent many long, tedious days and night in camp. He went hungry and suffered bone-freezing cold. He shared the attitudes of his fellow soldiers and their resentments of the unsupportive civilian population.
Through it all, he kept a distance from the events he experienced, and he kept a sense of humor. Here’s a passage from his description of landing near Yorktown that turned out to be the final confrontation with the British:
Soon after landing we marched to Williamsburg, where we joined General Lafayette, and very soon after, our whole army arriving, we prepared to move down and pay our old acquaintance, the British, at Yorktown, a visit. I doubt not but their wish was not to have so many of us come at once as their accommodations were rather scanty. They thought, “The fewer the better cheer.” We thought, “The more the merrier.” We had come a long way to see them and were unwilling to be put off with excuses. We thought the present time quite as convenient, at least for us, as any future time could be, and we accordingly persisted, hoping that, as they pretended to be a very courtly people, they would have the politeness to come out and meet us, which would greatly shorten the time to be spent in the visit, and save themselves and us much labor and trouble, but they were too impolite at this time to do so.
Martin’s memoir, thought to be lost for many years, turned up in the 1950s and is now available in several editions. It is a valuable asset if you want to understand how America came to be.
The book reminds us that while we remember the generals and politicians who made the big decisions, they could have done nothing without the efforts of people like Joseph Plumb Martin.
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