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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Joseph Plumb Martin - Soldier of the Revolution

Re-Enactor Photo by Thomas Deitner

Joseph Plumb Martin was only fourteen years old when the first shots of the American Revolution were fired in 1775. But by the time the Continental Army was formed under the command of General George Washington in 1776, fifteen-year-old Martin was allowed by his grandparents (his guardians) to join the fight.

The Army was his home for the duration of the war.

Virtually none of us would even be aware of his existence except that, as an older veteran in his 70’s, Martin penned recollections of his experiences in the war. He felt compelled to describe his life as a soldier, explaining the incredible sacrifices he and his fellow soldiers had endured.

Martin wrote his war memoir at a time when many Americans were questioning whether or not pensions should be given to these aging veterans. Martin hoped to remind his country, for whom he had made great personal sacrifice, that the soldiers of the Continental Army were indeed worthy of support.

Here is an excerpt from his writings, published as A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier.

Campaign of 1777:

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 moccasins, which kept my feet from the frozen ground…

The army continued at and near the Gulf for some days, after which 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. We arrived, however, at our destination a few days before Christmas. 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, especially to New Englanders, unaccustomed to such kinds of hardships at home. 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 defense of our injured country and were willing, nay, we were determined to persevere as long as such hardships were not altogether intolerable. I had experienced what I thought sufficient of the hardships of a military life the year before (although nothing in comparison to what I had suffered the present campaign) … 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; but now we had nothing and saw no likelihood of any betterment of our condition. Had there fallen deep snows (and it was the time of year to expect them) or even heavy and long rainstorms, the whole army must inevitably have perished. Or had the enemy, strong and well provided as he was then, thought fit to pursue us, our poor emaciated carcasses 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 piecemeal.

I found this original, unedited narrative compelling and gripping. It is truly my favorite first-person resource for the era.

I also found another edition with commentary, entitled Ordinary Courage, Edited by James Kirby Martin, to be a useful companion to the original.

There are Amazon links to both below.


  1. Elaine, I really appreciate historical narratives or journals as they give such a first person perspective on the time or events. Thanks for a another resource.

    1. I completely agree, Janet. Thank the Lord for those who took the time to recount their lives and experiences. Truly insightful peek into the times—the language, the culture, everything. And you are welcome. :)

  2. I have one version that I bought at a museum store, Elaine. It is a great and insightful journal. Poor kid! But that is neat that he kept those notes!

  3. This is so compelling. Hard to fathom how these gritty and determined men did it. Great post!


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