In 1775 the American Revolution looked like the adventure of a lifetime to a boy of just 14. Joseph Plumb Martin was awed as he watched an Army recruiter toss a coin on the head of a drum and a young man picked it up -- signaling his decision to join the militia. By the time he was 70, Martin would wonder whether the country simply wanted to forget his service.
Martin wrote his Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier in 1830. It contained a stirring account of his years in the army from 1776 to 1783 -- seven years of daring battles and hardship from New England to Virginia. But hanging over the story was Martin's sense that the country had forgotten its veterans.
Martin makes clear that he was too young to fully understand the politics behind the revolution when he first joined a militia. He vaguely recalled the Stamp Act and its repeal. Martin was born in Western Massachusetts to a minister and his wife. He was raised by his grandparents in Milford, Conn.
As his grandfather was well-to-do and educated, Martin received schooling and was taught to read and write. Joining the army, to Martin, was a matter of keeping up with his contemporaries, to share in the glory they would gain, and to earn as much as they could.
"I thought," he wrote, "as I must go, I might as well endeavor to get as much for my skin as I could."
Martin spent most of his army career as a private and corporal, advancing to the rank of sergeant near the end. And he was proud of his record. It was after the war that he became disenchanted with the soldier's lot in life.
Most soldiers who served long enlistments during the Revolution found that they had lost many of their best earning years in the army. And while there were promises of land grants in exchange for serving, many of the inducements offered to soldiers turned out to be more rumor than fact.
After he left the Army, Martin moved to Prospect, Maine where it was rumored the land was free for the taking. It’s unclear whether Martin actually believed this or just thought no one would ever bother to pursue the matter. But pursue it they did.
Revolutionary war hero Henry Knox transplanted himself to Maine following the war and asserted, accurately, that he owned the land on which Martin and others had established farms.
Martin and his fellow settlers tried persuasion, threats and lawsuits to gain control of their land in Maine, but in the end Knox prevailed. They would pay rent or be evicted.
Frustrated veterans sought some sort of pension for decades, and in 1818 Congress and President James Monroe awarded some veterans a pension of $96 a year -- though it exempted a great many veterans, including African Americans. Slaves who enlisted to fight were granted their freedom, so Congress concluded that was payment enough.
In 1830, at the age of 70, Martin published a memoir of his army life. He told the compelling story of his time as a soldier and hinted at his frustration over the plight of the veterans. Perhaps, he concluded, America simply wanted to forget the war.
“President Monroe was the first of all our presidents, except president Washington, who ever uttered a syllable in the old soldiers' favor . . . many of the poor men who had spent their youthful, and consequently, their best days in the hard service of their country have been enabled to eke out the fag end of their lives a little too high for the groveling hand of envy or the long arm of poverty to reach.
“Many murmur now at the apparent good fortune of the poor soldiers . . . The only wish I would bestow upon such hard-hearted wretches is, that they might be compelled to go through just such sufferings and privations as that army did, and then if they did not sing a different tune, I should miss my guess.
“But if the old Revolutionary Pensioners are really an eyesore, a grief of mind, to any man, or set of men, (and I know they are), let me tell them that if they will exercise a little patience, a few years longer will put all of them beyond the power of troubling them; for they will soon be ‘where the wicked cease from troubling,’ and ‘the weary are at rest.’"
Martin may have been right. His memoir did not sell well and fell out of print only to be revived more than 100 years later and today it serves historians as a valuable glimpse of how solders lived during the Revolution. Martin died at age 89.