Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Joseph Plumb Martin

On Sunday, that being the Third Sunday of Advent in the third year of the liturgical cycle (a "C" year), Roman Catholic congregations heard verses read from the third chapter of St. Luke, including
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Joseph Plumb Martin, in his memoir of service in the Revolutionary War, wrote of hearing part of the passage during bad times in 1777:
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 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. We accordingly went, for we could not help it. 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 any one 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 appropos; however, he heard it as soon as the service was over, it was shouted from a hundred tongues
The message evidently goes over better with soldiers who do receive wages. And I doubt the chaplain dressed in camel hair and lived on locusts and wild honey.

The Continental soldiers were not above some sharp practice when foraging, but seem to have lacked the heart for extortion:
I do not remember that during the time I was employed in this business, which was from christmas to the latter part of April, ever to have met with the least resistance from the inhabitants, take what we would from their barns, mills, corncribs, or stalls; but when we came to their stables, then look out for the women; take what horse you would, it was one or the other's "pony" and they had no other to ride to church; and when we had got possession of a horse we were sure to have half a dozen or more women pressing upon us, until by some means or other, if possible, they would slip the bridle from the horse's head, and then we might catch him again if we could. They would take no more notice of a charged bayonet than a blind horse would of a cocked pistol; it would answer no purpose to threaten to kill them with the bayonet or musket, they knew as well as we did that we would not put our threats in execution, and when they had thus liberated a horse (which happened but seldom) they would laugh at us and ask us why we did not do as we threatened, kill them, and then they would generally ask us into their houses and treat us with as much kindness as though nothing had happened.
Martin served in some pitched battles, from Brooklyn Heights through Monmouth to Yorktown. Mostly, though, what one notices in his memoirs is the hard service and the lack of provisions, sound clothing, shelter, and pay. In his concluding chapter, he wrote,
But what did we ever realize of all this ample store:—why, perhaps a coat, (we generally did get that,) and one or two shirts, the same of shoes and stockings, and, indeed, the same may be said of every other article of clothing—a few dribbled out in a regiment, two or three times in a year, never getting a whole suit at a time, and all of the poorest quality; and blankets of thin baize, thin enough to have straws shot through without discommoding the threads. How often have I had to lie whole stormy cold nights in a wood, on a field, or a bleak hill, with such blankets and other clothing like them, with nothing but the canopy of the heavens to cover me, me, all this too in the heart of winter, when a New-England farmer, if his cattle had been in my situation, would not have slept a wink from sheer anxiety for them.
Oftentimes have I gone one, two, three, and even four days without a morsel, unless the fields or forests might chance to afford enough to prevent absolute starvation. Often, when I have picked the last grain from the bones of my scanty morsel, have I eat the very bones, as much of them as possibly could be eaten, and then have had to perform some hard and fatiguing duty, when my stomach has been as craving as it was before I had eaten any thing at all.
...reader, believe me, for I tell a solemn truth, that I have felt more anxiety, undergone more fatigue and hardships, suffered more every way, in performing one of those tedious marches, than ever I did in fighting the hottest battle was ever engaged in, with the anticipation of all the other calamities I have mentioned added to it.
For all that, Martin lived to be 90.  His memoir, The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, written when he was about 70, is available in a number of inexpensive paperback editions, and can be read online at Wikisource.

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