In the war for independence, the life of a common soldier was a rough one. Soldiers served relatively short periods in state militias or longer periods in the Continental Army, raised by Congress. About two hundred thousand men enlisted for one period or another. Militias supplied the greatest number of soldiers, comprised of farmers, artisans, and some professionals. All faced war’s hardships of severe food shortages, discomfort, low morale, and danger. As a result, the Continental Congress recruited both the young and old. Typically, those with fewer resources, such as apprentices or laborers were attracted to the American Revolution. Pay and a promise of land was the typical incentive. While Some enlisted voluntarily others were drafted; the more affluent hired paid substitutes. What makes Joseph Plumb Martin unique is that his education and writing skills allowed him to keep a journal throughout his wartime activities. Later, after the war ended (1830) , he wrote a colorful portrayal of the life of a common soldier, “A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier.” Because Martin was just an ordinary soldier with no political aspirations other than to survive, his narrative has become one of the most referenced documents on the life of a common soldier.
Joseph Plumb Martin, born in Becket, Massachusetts on November 21, 1760 to the Reverend Ebenezer Martin and Susannah Plumb. At the age of seven, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Milford, Connecticut. Because his family was well-to-do (His father studied at Yale), Martin was able to receive a well-rounded education, including reading and writing. When he was 15, in 1775, he was eager to join the war effort following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. His grandparents initially opposed the idea, but agreed after Martin vowed to run away and join a naval ship as a privateer if he was not allowed to join. He joined the 8th Connecticut Regiment in June 1776 and was assigned duty in the New York City area, arriving just before the opening of the British Long Island Campaign.
Joseph Plumb Martin’s propensity to re-enlist provided him with numerous firsthand accounts of many of the critical battles in the Revolution. It is notable that Martin, for most of the war, was a mere private in the army, and his account does not involve the usual heroes of the Revolution. Scholars believe that Martin kept some type of journal during the course of the war, and fleshed it out in detail later on in his life. It is interesting to also note that while some events may be dramatized, the narrative is remarkably accurate, since Plumb Martin’s regiment would have been present at every event he writes about, according to war records of the time.
Martin participated in such notable engagements as the Battle of Brooklyn, the Battle of White Plains, the siege on Fort Mifflin and the Battle of Monmouth. He encamped at Valley Forge, witnessed John Andre being escorted to his execution and was also present during the climactic Siege of Yorktown in 1781. He was assigned to Light Infantry in 1778, attaining the rank of Corporal. In the summer of 1780, under Washington’s order to form a Corps of Sappers and Miners, he was recommended by his superior officers to be a non-commissioned officer of this regiment, and in being selected, was promoted to Sergeant. Prior to Yorktown, the corps was responsible for digging the entrenchments for the Continental Army. During the battle, they were also a vanguard for a regiment commanded by Alexander Hamilton, clearing the field of sharpened logs called abatis so that Hamilton’s regiment could capture Redoubt #10.
Martin’s narrative was originally published anonymously in 1830, at Hallowell, Maine, as 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. It has been republished in many forms, but was thought lost to history. In the mid-1950s, a first edition copy of the narrative was found and donated to Morristown National Historical Park. The book was published again by Little, Brown in 1962, in an edition edited by George F. Scheer (ISBN 0-915992-10-8) under the title Private Yankee Doodle; as well as appearing as a volume in Series I of The New York Times’ Eyewitness Accounts of the American Revolution in 1968. The current edition, published since 2001, is entitled A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin. Other current versions include a version adapted for children, entitled Yankee Doodle Boy and The Memoirs of a Revolutionary and ended with Plumb describing the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.
When Martin was discharged from duty when the Continental Army disbanded in October 1783, he taught in New York state for a year, and eventually settled on Maine’s frontier, becoming one of the founders of the town of Prospect, near modern day Stockton Springs. Over the years, he was known locally for being a farmer, selectman, Justice of the Peace and Town Clerk (the last position being held for over 25 years). He married Lucy Clewley (b. 1776) in 1794 and had five children, Joseph (b. 1799), Nathan and Thomas (twins, b. 1803), James Sullivan (b. 1810) and Susan (b. 1812). He also wrote many stories and poems over the years, most famously a narrative of his experiences during the war in 1830.
In 1794, he became involved in a bitter land dispute with Henry Knox, former Major-General in the Continental Army and Secretary of War under George Washington’s administration as President. Knox claimed that he owned Martin’s 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm, as well as the surrounding 600,000 acres (2,400 km2) in an area now known as Waldo County, Maine. Martin said that this was not true, and he had the right to farm the land. In 1797, Knox’s claim had been legally upheld, and Martin was ordered to pay $170 in rent. He could not raise the money and begged Knox to allow him to keep the land. Knox denied the request. By 1811, his farmland was cut by half, and by 1818, when he appeared in court with other Revolutionary War veterans to claim a war pension, he owned nothing.
In 1818, Martin’s war pension was approved and he received $96 a year for the rest of his life. Still, other war veterans were fighting for what they were properly owed, and in an effort to further the cause of the veterans, published his memoirs in 1830. It was not considered a success, and mainly fell to the wayside, apparently lost to history.
In 1836, a platoon of United States Light Infantry was marching though Prospect and discovered that Plumb Martin resided there. The platoon stopped outside of his house and fired a salute in honor of the Revolutionary War Hero. Joseph Plumb Martin lived to the age of 89, dying on May 2, 1850. He is buried with his wife at the Sandy Point Cemetery, outside of Prospect, Maine.