Myth, Reality, and Joseph Plumb Martin

Sandy Point Cemetery
Stockton Springs, ME

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 the suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was, reader?—Guess.—You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you: it gave each and every man half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!! After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting, and hear a sermon delivered upon the happy occasion.

Joseph Plumb Martin, Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier

Joseph Plumb Martin was not a war hero. Though he was present at some of the most crucial moments of the American Revolution – the flight from New York, the perilous battles through New Jersey, a harsh winter at Valley Forge, and finally the surrender of British forces after the siege of Yorktown – he himself was never crucial to the outcomes.  He did well enough for himself to make Sergeant, but in some ways that is more of a testament to the fact that he never deserted, as did so many of his compatriots. He doesn’t seem, at first glance, like someone we should remember.  So why do we?
Joseph Plumb Martin lived to the age of 90, and into the final decade before the Civil War.  He was buried in a small, peaceful cemetery overlooking Maine’s picturesque Penobscot Bay.  His stone reads, simply, Joseph P. Martin: A Soldier of the Revolution.
He joined the war against the wishes of his family at the age of 15, in part from teenage excitement of leaving home and seeing the world.  He knew nothing of war; only that he felt the pull of a patriotism that he couldn’t fully define. “I thought I was as warm a patriot as the best of them,” he wrote, and he “felt more anxious than ever, if possible, to be called a defender of my country.” And so he signed up for a six-month enlistment, and found himself in New York in the middle of the worst loss of the war for George Washington’s army.
His description of the battle challenges the popular depiction of the war.  As it is told, the Patriots were men of strong moral character, driven to freedom against a tyrannical King, forging themselves into a fearsome fighting force from humble beginnings. While much of that is true in the broadest strokes, it is the stuff of historical myth-making: the need we have to explain, synthesize, thematize and make into narrative.  Like many good myths, they get challenged not by the biggest ideas but the smallest.  Martin, for example, writes of American soldiers who loot and steal from Manhattan stores because, they figure, the British will do it when they take the city anyway.  He lampoons and criticizes his officers (including, at times, Washington himself).  The quote that opens this post shows a singular obsession with food that runs throughout the work, a demonstration of the hunger that was the constant companion of the rank and file. Rarely do we see exultations in his work; there are few references to the overarching ideas of the war.  Instead, his focus is on the day to day experience, something that by necessity will lack the flowery prose of history in favor of the casual detail.
Of course, none of this is to say that Martin’s work – which has had several titles given to it over the years – is a perfect source.  It was written in hindsight; most of what he says was recorded long after the war, in the mid-1800s, from his retirement in the small community of Prospect, Maine (now close to modern day Stockton Springs, a coastal town about halfway up Maine’s rocky coast).  It has clear bias as well: a distinct opposition to The Man is evident throughout, and at least in part this can be connected to his ongoing protests over the failure to pay out many soldier’s pensions.  It perhaps can also be traced to a land dispute Martin had with his neighbor, the famed Revolutionary War General and Secretary of War Henry Knox (buried a little further down the coast in Bath).  Martin used his remembrances here to show the struggles of day to day life as juxtaposed with the more comfortable experiences of the officers.

For me, the Revolutionary War has always been our country’s most impenetrable conflict.  Part of the reason for that is that it feels the most antiquated and divorced from modern reality; part of that is the mythmaking and hagiography that so often surrounds it.  I’ve always felt less able to penetrate the story and get to the meat with the Revolution.  What I love about Martin’s work is that it gives us that human connection.  Martin isn’t a Founding Father.  He’s not a statue or larger than life figure. He has a wry cynicism to him that feels very modern, and a working-class sentiment that undercuts some of the two-dimensionality of the conflict.  His grave, in  a small coastal graveyard in an out of the way town, is a reminder of that: beautiful, but easy to miss.

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