In 1775 the American Revolution looked like the adventure of a lifetime to a boy of just 14. Joseph Plumb Martin stood in awe watchng as an Army recruiter tossed a coin on the head of a drum and a young man picked it up. That signaled his decision to join the militia.
By the time he reached 70, Martin would wonder whether the country simply wanted to forget his service.
Joseph Plumb 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 Martin’s sense that the country had forgotten its veterans cast a pall over his story.
Martin makes clear that because of his youth he didn’t fully understand the politics behind the Revolution when he first joined. He vaguely recalled the Stamp Act and its repeal.
Joseph Plumb Martin
As his grandfather had wealth and education, young Martin received schooling and learned to read and write. He joined the army to keep up with his contemporaries. He would share in the glory they would gain, and would earn as much as he could.
“I thought,” he wrote, “as I must go, I might as well endeavor to get as much for my skin as I could.”
Joseph Plumb Martin spent most of his army career as a private and corporal. Near the end he advanced to the rank of sergeant.
He fought in the battles of Brooklyn, White Plains and Monmouth and participated in the siege on Fort Mifflin. During the winter of 1777-78 he encamped with George Washington at Valley Forge and watched John Andre walk to the gallows. He and his corps dug the trenches for the Continental Army at Yorktown.
And he was proud of his record. Only after the war did he grow disenchanted with the soldier’s lot in life.
Most soldiers who served long enlistments during the Revolution found they had lost many of their best earning years. 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 married Lucy Clewley in 1794, and together they had five children. He helped found Prospect, Maine, where some thought they could obtain land for free. Martin may have actually believed this or perhaps he 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.
Joseph Plumb 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 face eviction.
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. The law, however, exempted a great many veterans, including African Americans. Slaves who enlisted to fight earned their freedom, so Congress concluded they’d gotten enough payment.
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 veterans’ plight. 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’.”
Joseph Plumb 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. Today it serves historians as a valuable glimpse of how solders lived during the Revolution.
Joseph Plumb Martin died at age 89.
This story about Joseph Plumb Martin was updated in 2021.