The Life of a Soldier
Born in western Massachusetts in 1760, Joseph Plumb Martin was the son of a pastor; at the age of seven, he began living with his affluent grandfather. Almost as soon as the Revolutionary War broke out in the spring of 1775, young Joseph was eager to lend his efforts to the patriotic cause. In June 1776, at the tender age of 15, Martin enlisted for a six-month stint in the Connecticut state militia. By the end of the year, Martin had served at the Battles of Brooklyn, Kip’s Bay and White Plains in New York. Though Martin declined to reenlist when his six-month stint ended in December 1776, he later changed his mind, and on April 12, 1777 he enlisted in the 8th Connecticut division of General George Washington’s Continental Army, led by Colonel John Chandler. He would serve for the duration of the war (until 1783).
The life of a common soldier fighting on behalf of colonial independence during the American Revolution was a difficult one. Recruiters for the Continental Army targeted young and less wealthy men, including apprentices or laborers. Some (like Martin) enlisted voluntarily, while others were drafted. Among the discomforts Continental soldiers suffered were shortages of food or other supplies, long periods away from home, sinking morale and the constant threat of death.
Under Siege in Pennsylvania
In the fall of 1777, Martin’s division was one of those called to Pennsylvania, where British forces led by General William Howe had managed to take the rebel capital of Philadelphia. Over the next several months, Martin and his fellow soldiers withstood one of the fiercest bombardments of the war, as Howe’s troops laid siege to Fort Mifflin, located on Mud Island in the Delaware River. Their steadfast resistance under British fire extended the entire conflict, allowing Washington and his troops to withdraw to winter quarters at Valley Forge, too late in the season for Howe’s men to follow them.
On arriving at Valley Forge at the start of that famously long winter, Martin wrote: “Our prospect was indeed dreary. In our miserable condition, to go into the wild woods and build us habitations to stay (not to live) in, in such a weak, starved and naked condition, was appalling in the highest degree….But dispersion, I believe, was not thought of, at least, I did not think of it. We had engaged in the defense of our injured country and were willing, nay, we were determined to persevere as long as such hardships were not altogether intolerable…”
Road to Yorktown
In 1778, Private Martin was transferred to the light infantry for a brief period, during which his unit operated against Tory sympathizers in the Hudson Highlands region. He saw little action for the next year, and in December 1778 began a winter encampment with his regiment at Morristown, New Jersey. This difficult period saw the army’s first mutiny of the war, as Martin wrote: “We had borne as long as human nature could endure, and to bear longer we considered folly.” But Martin persevered, and in the summer of 1780 he was recommended for appointment as a sergeant in the new engineer corps, the Sappers and Miners. Among the corps’ principal duties were working with mines and with saps, as the approach trenches to enemy works were called.
In the summer of 1781, Martin was called upon to perform his new responsibilities after the combined French and American armies moved south to lay siege to British General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown, Virginia. He was present at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, and wrote of the momentous occasion that: “We waited with anxiety the termination of the armistice and as the time drew nearer our anxiety increased. The time at length arrived–it passed, and all remained quiet. And now we concluded that we had obtained what we had taken so much pains for, for which we had encountered so many dangers, and had so anxiously wished. Before night we were informed that the British had surrendered and that the siege was ended.”
Life After Revolution
Yorktown effectively sealed the Continental victory in the American Revolution, though the war did not formally end until 1783. After being discharged, Joseph Martin settled in Maine, near the mouth of the Penobscot River, on land that would become the town of Prospect. He served as a selectman and justice of the peace and as Prospect’s town clerk for more than two decades. In 1818, Martin applied for and was granted a pension for needy veterans offered by the federal government, declaring that “by reason of age and infirmity” he was unable to work and support his wife and five children.
In 1830, at the age of 70, Martin published his diaries, under the title “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.” Published anonymously, as was customary at the time, the book sold poorly, and was largely forgotten by the time Martin died in 1850. More than a century later, however, the work was rediscovered and republished as “Private Yankee Doodle.” Though Martin’s account was often exaggerated and embellished (at times he recounted events he could not possibly have witnessed firsthand or improved the outcomes of incidents), it stands as the most graphic, vivid and detailed first-person account of the life of a Continental soldier during the American Revolution.