military narrative of the American Revolutionary War is often depicted in clear, bright shades of red, white and blue, with the "Star Spangled Banner" blaring loudly in the background. However, the lived reality of the American Revolutionary War was often quite brutal and harsh, particularly for the ordinary soldiers in the Colonial Army. The account of the Patriot soldier Joseph Plumb Martin, as related in the book Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Experiences of Joseph Plumb Martin, (edited by the historian James Kirby Martin), makes this fact abundantly clear.
It is important to note that the editor James Kirby Martin, unlike many chroniclers of the American Revolution both past and present, did not chose to edit the work of a prominent founding father to present a new perspective upon the war. Instead, he chose to look at the conflict through the eyes of an ordinary soldier. Rather than rhetoric about freedom, democracy, and no taxation by the British without proper representation in Parliament, more human and ordinary concerns emerge from this vision of Revolutionary America.
In early September of 1776, Joseph Plumb Martin wrote this entry that depicts the less glamorous and sad side of warfare, even in an age of muskets rather than semi-automatic weapons.
There was in this action a regiment of Maryland troops, (volunteers) all young gentlemen. When they came out of the water and mud to us, looking like water rats, it was a truly pitiful sight. Many of them were killed in the pond, and more were drowned. some of us went into the water after the fall of the tide, and took out a number of corpses and a great many arms that were sunk in the pond and creek. Our regiment lay on the ground we then occupied the following night. The next afternoon, we had a considerable tight scratch with about an equal number of the British. I do not recollect that we had anyone killed outright, but we had several severely wounded, and some, I believe, mortally.
This entry makes it clear how difficult it was to fight the British, and how easy it was to die or become wounded while fighting the opposing forces. The Colonist soldiers were less well clothed, well shod, and well armed than their opponents were. Thus even the gentlemen looked like "water rats" when going through a high tide. The poor protection the army had from the elements is further reinforced by the end of this entry which states "In the latter part of the afternoon there fell a very heavy shower of rain which wet us all to the skin and much damaged our ammunition." Ammunition and uniforms were both scarce.
A later entry form mid-November of 1777 makes the threat of death all labored under even more apparent to a reader.
We heated some shot, but by mistake twenty-four-pound shot were heated instead of eighteen, which was the caliber of the guns in that part of the fort. The enemy soon began firing upon us and there was music indeed. The soldiers were all ordered to take their posts at the palisadoes, which they were ordered to defend to the last extremity, as it was expected the British would land under the fire of their cannon and attempt to storm the fort.
Some of our officers endeavored to ascertain how many guns were fired in a minute by the enemy, but it was impossible. The fire was incessant.
Although warfare of this era is often thought of as less dire than our own, it was still a brutal practice. The only music in this unromantic account is that of guns. Because of the relative inexperience of the army, as is evidenced by the aforementioned mistake, warfare is even dangerous for the Patriots than for the British. "And I saw men who were stooping to be protected by the works, but not stooping low enough, split like fish to be broiled," Martin concludes.
Martin's contemporary account of his wartime experiences is particularly interesting because of the sense of humor he exhibits in his narration, demonstrating the grim satire Patriot soldiers evidenced in the face of their hardship. This next entry is particularly instructive because it dates from just before Christmas, a Revolutionary War event that usually calls up images of Washington crossing the Delaware, looking proud and determined. However, Martin, in the thick of battle, shows that the attitude of the army was far more ambiguous.
But lest the reader should be disgusted at hearing so much said about "starvation," I will give something that, perhaps, may in some measure alleviate his ill humor.
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 we had now nearly seen brought to a close. Well, to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us some thing to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, reader? Guess. You cannot guess. I will tell you; it gave each and every man half a gill of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar!!
The army was starving to death, tired, and miserable. No good words of cheer or patriotism could alleviate their misery.
I heard a sermon, a "thanksgiving sermon," what sort of one I do not know now, nor did I at the time I heard it. I had something else to think upon. My belly put me in remembrance of the fine Thanksgiving dinner I was to partake of when I could get it. I remember the text, like an attentive lad at church. I can still remember that it was this, "And the soldiers said unto him, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, nor accuse anyone falsely." The preacher ought to have added the remainder of the sentence to have made it complete, "And be content with your wages." But that would not do, it would be too apropos. However, he heard it as soon as the service was over. It was shouted from a hundred tongues.
This anecdote is revelatory for two reasons. It demonstrates that not all the Colonial soldiers served out of patriotism. Many served out of monetary reasons as well. It also shows how many ordinary Patriot civilians, such as the preacher, had little idea of the true struggle of the soldiers. "The army was now not only starved but naked," Martin continues, in describing "a few days before Christmas [December 18]."
In an entry from February of the next year, when talking about the army's constant companions of hunger and want, Martin mocks the writer Thomas Paine's pre-war rhetoric. "If "suffering" like this did not "try men's souls," I confess that I do not know what could." Martin is not referring to unfair taxation -- he is referring to cold and starvation and to an army ill equipped to combat a superior military power. There are few accounts in Martin's narrative of individuals, even Patriot civilians helping the army. Most of his stories revolve around Royalist supporters who informed upon the Colonial army's movements to the British. The conditions the army suffered were extreme, and those whom they were fighting for outside the army were not always fully aware of the extent of the army's privation, only of their own suffering in the face of their economic difficulties.
Martin's life also demonstrates the fact that soldiers often suffered after serving in army. By the end of his life, Martin was penniless and ill. He received a pension to support himself and his family only towards the end of his life. He published an account of his life not simply to relate his experiences, but to make money. At the end of Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin, the editor-historian James Kirby Martin notes the evaporation of subsequent public memory and gratefulness for the soldiers in relation to the realities of fighting in the War for Independence. (Martin, p. 162) Soldiers only gained pensions in 1818. Modern historians have found that great numbers of Continentals were in desperate straits after the war.
They were viewed often as doing the 'dirty work' of a war that America wished to forget after the forging of a new nation, and were "turned adrift," as Continental veteran Joseph Plumb Martin wrote "like old worn-out horses" at war's end. (Martin, p. 162)
When considering the experiences of individuals often…