A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier Book Review
Joseph Plumb Martin was just like every other sixteen-year-old boy. When the Revolutionary War overwhelmed his country in 1776, he, just like the other boys, joined the Rebel Infantry. But unlike the others, Martin recorded his trials and tribulations forty-seven years later in a memoir eventually titled A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin.
In true American style, this book contradicts the standards of the time and instead of worshipping the Revolutionary Army for its moral perfection and flawless character, provides an unflatteringly realistic view of its burdens and problems. Martin offers a staggeringly truthful picture of the Revolutionary War. Martin entered the war young, seeking to protect his country and experience adventures worth telling. He fought for patriotism’s sake and did so dutifully, from 1776 until the end of the war in 1783. He and his company participated in seven well known battles, including the Battles of Princeton and Ft.
Mifflin, and the Siege of Yorktown. Miraculously, throughout his six years of service, Martin avoided serious wounds and capture, and was only severely ill once, exhibiting stunning physical impunity for pre-medically competent times. His battles, both major and minor, were haunted by his “constant companion”: hunger punctuated by the almost unbearable cold. Throughout his narrative, Martin disproves the conception that war is primarily combative. He describes arduous marches and tedious waiting far more often than the battles themselves, downplaying bloodshed and highlighting day-to-day struggles.
As historians report, the Revolutionary Army was usually short on supplies, but their deprivation is often minimized in the wake of Battles like New York and Princeton. Martin brings their plight to light through his story of the Continental Congress’ overlooking the Army’s troubles in the winter of 1777. That year, Congress provided the Army with a shockingly sparse Thanksgiving dinner of a tablespoon of vinegar and a quarter cup of rice. Even beyond their malnutrition, Revolutionary soldiers were ill furnished with clothes. According to Martin, horror stories of the 1777-78 Valley Forge winter report only part of their deprivations—men not only marched with bloody, bare feet, but went without socks, coats, and sometimes even pants. In addition to his honesty regarding the war itself, Martin discloses frank facts about the soldiers fighting it.
Ever since the war ended, Revolutionary officers and footmen alike have been lauded for their chivalry, honesty, and near perfection. Unfortunately, according to Martin, these stories exaggerate, as is proven by his descriptions of officers’ unfair treatment of their soldiers, citizens’ disrespect for them, and their own questionable treatment of both parties. Civilians’ distrust of the soldiers was sadly well founded because, although American soldiers did not abuse the countryside like their enemies did, they often “scavenged,” or stole, from available farms. Martin himself admitted to leading numerous such parties. Resulting from their overbearing handling of their soldiers, officers occasionally received harsh treatment from their subordinates.
Martin tells of several younger soldiers’ packing a musket with black powder and setting it off near their elderly captain’s tent to terrify him. Overall, Martin’s memoir is a realistic book with an unusual point of view and uncommonly readable details. Nineteenth-century authors are notorious for lengthy descriptions of superfluous items like bacon strips or whale species, as exhibited in Dickens’ Adventures of Oliver Twist and Melville’s Moby Dick. Martin’s book, by contrast, uses language straightforward enough to make sense to the twenty-first-century reader. The only potential problem with his narrative is his repetitive storytelling; for much of the book he takes the reader in circles of starving, freezing, waiting, and marching.
In the end, however, even this fault adds to the tale as it gives a realistic picture of his trials and adventures. For anyone wishing to learn about the people fighting in the American Revolution, A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier is an excellent place to begin.