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Joseph Plumb Martin, The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1777

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Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut eagerly joined the cause of the Revolution in 1776 at the age of fifteen years. He served in the Continental Army for almost seven years, keeping detailed diaries of his experiences. In 1830, the seventy-year-old Martin published A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier. Martin’s book provides abundant evidence of soldiers’ demonstration of the ideals of courage, initiative, self-reliance, persistence, and devotion to duty, and it paints a vivid picture of how callous civilians were toward the army. Martin wrote that many aging veterans felt most Americans just wanted to forget about the war and the sacrifices made for liberty. At the time, Martin’s memoir did not sell well. A first edition of Martin’s book was rediscovered in the 1950s and republished, providing a valuable firsthand account of his adventures and sufferings. In November 1777, with British forces firmly in control of Philadelphia, the Continental capital, Martin was among about 400 American soldiers defending nearby Fort Mifflin against a five-day British siege by more than 2,000 British troops and 250 ships.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Joseph Plumb Martin was a private for most of his military service. Why is his first-person account of the life of a common soldier especially important in understanding the American Revolution? How might his experience have differed from that of his commanders?
  2. From time to time in the narrative, Martin directly addresses his audience as “reader.” Who was his intended audience? Be as specific as possible.
  3. What was Martin’s purpose in publishing his account? To what extent did he achieve his purpose during his lifetime? To what extent was his purpose realized after his lifetime?

Vocabulary Text
cannonade (n): a period of continuous, heavy gunfire The cannonade continued without interruption on the side of the British throughout the day. Nearly every gun in the fort was silenced by mid-day. Our men were cut up like corn stalks. . . .
garrison (n): a body of troops defending the town or area at which they are stationed As soon as it was dark we began to make preparations for evacuating the fort and endeavouring to escape to the Jersey shore. When the firing had in some measure subsided and I could look about me, I found the fort exhibited a picture of desolation. . . . The surviving part of the garrison were now drawn off and such of the stores as could conveniently be taken away were carried to the Jersey shore. . . .
extol (v): to celebrate or praise Here ends the account of as hard and fatiguing a job, for the time it lasted, as occurred during the revolutionary war. Thomas Paine, in one of his political essays, speaking of the siege and defence of [Fort Mifflin], says, “they had nothing but their bravery and good conduct to cover them.” He spoke the truth. . . . But there has been but little notice taken of it; the reason of which is, there was no Washington, Putnam, or Wayne there. Had there been, the affair would have been extolled to the skies. No, it was only a few officers and soldiers who accomplished it in a remote quarter of the army. Such circumstances and such troops generally get but little notice taken of them, do what they will. Great men get great praise, little men, nothing. But it always was so and always will be. . .
gridiron (n): a grate for cooking food We arrived early in the morning, at a pretty village called Milltown or Mount-holly. . . . I was as near starved with hunger, as ever I wish to be. I strolled into a large yard . . . but I found nothing there to satisfy my hunger. But there was a barrel standing behind the door with some salt in it. Salt was as valuable as gold with the soldiers. I filled my pocket with it and went out. In the yard and about it was a plenty of geese, turkeys, ducks, and barn-door fowls; I obtained a piece of an ear of Indian corn, and seating myself on a pile of boards began throwing the corn to the fowls which soon drew a fine battalion of them about me, I might have taken as many as I pleased, but I took up one only, wrung off its head, dressed and washed it in the stream, seasoned it with some of my salt, and stalked into the first house that fell in my way, invited myself into the kitchen, took down the gridiron and put my fowl to cooking upon the coals. The women of the house were all the time going and coming to and from the room; they looked at me but said nothing.—”They asked me no questions and I told them no lies.” When my game was sufficiently broiled, I took it by the hind leg and made my exit from the house with as little ceremony as I had made my entrance. When I got into the street I devoured it after a very short grace and felt . . . refreshed. . . .
mortar (n): a thick paste used to bind together building materials such as bricks or stones The troops marched again before day; I had sadly sprained my ankle the day before, and it was much swelled. . . . I hobbled on as well as I could; the rain and travelling of the troops and baggage had converted the road into perfect mortar and it was extremely difficult for me to make headway. . . . We again turned into a wood for the night; the leaves and ground were as wet as water could make them. . . . We were forced by our old master, Necessity, to lay down and sleep if we could, with three others of our constant companions, Fatigue, Hunger and Cold.
Lent (n): a solemn religious observance during which Christians engage in prayer and fasting to grow closer to God Next morning we joined the grand army near Philadelphia . . . we were obliged to put us up huts by laying up poles and covering them with leaves; a capital shelter from winter storms. Here we continued to fast; indeed we kept a continual lent as faithfully as ever any of the most rigorous of the Roman Catholics did. But there was this exception, we had no fish or eggs or any other substitute for our commons. Ours was a real fast, and depend upon it, we were sufficiently mortified.
drubbing (n): a beating or thrashing; resounding defeat

cur (n): an aggressive dog, particularly one that is in poor condition
About this time the whole British army left the city, came out, and encamped, or rather lay, on Chesnut-hill in our immediate neighbourhood; we hourly expected an attack from them. . . . We were kept constantly on the alert, and wished nothing more than to have them engage us, for we were sure of giving them a drubbing, being in excellent fighting trim, as we were starved and as cross and illnatured as curs. The British, however, thought better of the matter, and after several days manœuvering on the hill, very civilly walked off into Philadelphia again. . . .
sumptuous (adj): splendid, luxurious, expensive, lavish

half a gill (n): about 2 ounces
While we lay here there was a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress; and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least, that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said—a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living. . . . Our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, reader? . . . I will tell you: it gave each and every man half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!! After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting, and hear a sermon delivered upon the happy occasion. . . .
The army was now not only starved but naked; the greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I procured a small piece of raw cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasons, which kept my feet (while they lasted) from the frozen ground, although, as I well remember, the hard edges so galled my [ankles], while on a march, that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterwards; but the only alternative I had, was to endure this inconvenience or to go barefoot, as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough frozen ground. But hunger, nakedness and sore shins were not the only difficulties we had at that time to encounter;—we had hard duty to perform and little or no strength to perform it with. . . .
forlorn (adj): pitifully sad, abandoned, lonely [Next,] we marched for the Valley Forge in order to take up our winter-quarters. We were now in a truly forlorn condition,—no clothing, no provisions and as disheartened as need be. . . .
dispersion (n): distributed over a broad area; in this context, Martin uses the term as a euphemism for soldiers deserting their stations and leaving the army altogether However, there was no remedy,—no alternative but this or dispersion;—but dispersion, I believe, was not thought of,—at least, I did not think of it,—we had engaged in the defence of our injured country and were willing, nay, we were determined to persevere as long as such hardships were not altogether intolerable. . . . But we were now absolutely in danger of perishing, and that too, in the midst of a plentiful country. We then had but little, and often nothing to eat for days together. . . .
emaciated (adj): abnormally thin and weak Had there fallen deep snows (and it was the time of year to expect them) or even heavy and long rain-storms, the whole army must inevitably have perished. Or had the enemy, strong and well provided as he then was, thought fit to pursue us, our poor emaciated carcases must have “strewed the plain.” But a kind and holy Providence took more notice and better care of us than did the country in whose service we were wearing away our lives by piecemeal.
We arrived at the Valley Forge in the evening; it was dark; there was no water to be found, and I was perishing with thirst. I felt at that instant as if I would have taken victuals or drink from the best friend I had on earth by force. . . . At length I persuaded [two soldiers whom I did not know] to sell me a drink for three pence. . . .
I lay here two nights and one day, [before being ordered] . . . on a foraging expedition, which was nothing more nor less than to procure provisions from the inhabitants for the men in the army and forage for the poor perishing cattle belonging to it, at the point of the bayonet. . . .
birth [berth] (n): a bunk in which to sleep The next day after our arrival at [Milltown, our quarters for the winter] we were put into a small house in which was only one room, in the centre of the village. We were immediately furnished with rations of good and wholesome beef and flour, built us up some births to sleep in, and filled them with straw, and felt as happy as any other pigs that were no better off than ourselves.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What is different about the “siege and defence of” Fort Mifflin? According to Martin, why is this victory not as widely publicized and celebrated as some other battles?
  2. Why does Martin steal from the home in Milltown?
  3. What was dangerous about Martin’s actions in Milltown or Mount Holly?
  4. What factors make Martin’s travel especially difficult?
  5. Explain Martin’s reference to a “continual lent.”
  6. Martin notes that soldiers were in “excellent fighting trim, as [they] were starved and as cross and ill-natured as curs.” Explain what he means by this statement.
  7. To what extent were you surprised to see what Congress sent to the soldiers for their Thanksgiving meal? Why does Martin say the donation would “make the world stare”?
  8. Why does Martin say that the soldiers were naked?
  9. What keeps Martin from considering dispersion?
  10. What does Martin think of the way the Congress is providing for the Continental Army?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Martin uses sarcasm throughout this piece when describing the conditions of soldiers and how they were treated. Cite at least two examples of this.
  2. Why do you think Martin uses sarcasm? Consider his audience and purpose in writing this text.
  3. Describe Martin’s tone in regard to the condition of the soldiers.
  4. In light of the Thomas Paine quotation that Martin uses, explain what Martin meant by “Great men get great praise, little men get nothing.”
  5. Explain Martin’s analogy in calling ““Necessity” his master and “Fatigue, Hunger, and Cold” his constant companions.
  6. What evidence does Martin give that he practiced civic virtues such as initiative, self-reliance, courage, and persistence?
  7. How do you think Congress would have responded to Martin’s criticisms? Which perspective do you agree with more?
  8. How did the treatment of soldiers during the Revolution differ from the treatment of commanders?
  9. Explain why soldiers like Martin continued to fight in the Revolution despite the harsh conditions they endured.
  10. How might Martin’s attitude about the nation’s responsibility to military personnel relate to similar criticisms today?

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

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