The Hardships of a Continental soldier


From: Private Yankee Doodle, Being a Narrative of some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, by Joseph Plumb Martin, Eastern Acorn Press, pg. 283


Martin, who enlisted as a militiaman in 1776, and served that year in the defense of New York, enlisted the following year in the Connecticut Line for the duration of the war, and was finally discharged in late 1783. While obviously not a Jerseyman, his experiences are typical of a Continental soldier. The deprivations and sufferings here described are the same suffered by the New Jersey line.
Why did the Continental Congress and state governments allow these shortages of food, clothing and pay to happen? Remember that the colonies had been governed by England. No one in America had experience in creating or running a commissary or quartermaster's department. These bureaucratic functions had to be created from the ground up. When the various governments did find workable methodologies, they then found they had a serious, actually catastrophic shortage of money to pay both for the necessary material and its transport.
Both Congress and the states believed, probably wrongly, that corruption was the cause of most of the shortages and cost. Just before the Army entered Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-1778, they revised the Quartermaster's Corp, resulting in the resignation of the Quartermaster General and many of his subordinates. Much of the suffering there was because of lack of proper management of the supply departments.
By 1780, and the Morristown, New Jersey encampment, the Treasury was almost completely without funds. An extremely harsh winter making transport difficult exasperated the situation. After starving many days upon their return to Morristown from Elizabethtown, Martin's regiment almost mutinied that June, parading without orders under arms and refusing to disperse on command. Eventually after standing about arguing and complaining they did go back to quarters and their duty.
Martin also describes here some of the debate on soldiers pensions, created under President Monroe, who fought and was wounded at the battle of Trenton. At the close of the war, the soldiers were furloughed rather than discharged, because the government could not pay them- indeed, many never received any pay. Those that stayed to wait for certificates showing what was owed them usually had to sell them, dirt cheap, to speculators in order to get money to walk home, buy clothing, and make a start in civilian life.


Here Martin describes the lack of food, clothing and pay common to all Continental soldiers:


When those who engaged to serve during the war enlisted, they were promised a hundred acres of land, each, which was to be in their or the adjoining states. When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon. Congress did, indeed, appropriate lands under the denomination of "Soldier's Lands", in Ohio state, or some state, or a future state, but no care was taken that the soldiers should get them. No agents were appointed to see that the poor fellows ever got possession of their lands; no one ever took the least care about it, except a pack of speculators, who were driving about the country like so many evil spirits, endeavoring to pluck the last feather from the soldiers. The soldiers were ignorant of the ways and means to obtain their bounty lands, and there was no one appointed to inform them. The truth was, none cared for them; the county was served, and faithfully served, and that was all that was deemed necessary. It was, soldiers, look to yourselves; we want no more of you. I hope I shall one day find land enough to lay my bones in. If I chance to die in a civilized country, none will deny me that. A dead body never begs a grave;---thanks for that.
They were likewise promised the following articles of clothing per year. One uniform coat, a woolen and a linen waistcoat, four shirts, four pair of shoes, four pair of stockings, a pair of woolen and a pair of linen overalls, a hat or a leather cap, a stock for the neck, a hunting shirt, a pair of shoe buckles, and a blanket. Ample clothing says the reader; and ample clothing says I. 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 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. 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 the sheer anxiety for them. And if I stepped into a house to warm me, when passing, wet to the skin and almost dead with cold, hunger, and fatigue, what scornful looks and hard words have I experienced.
Almost every one has heard of the soldiers of the Revolution being tracked by the blood of their feet on the frozen ground. This is literally true, and the thousandth part of their sufferings has not, nor ever will be told. That the country was young and poor, at that time, I am willing to allow, but young people are generally modest, especially females. Now, I think the country (although of the feminine gender, for we say "she" and "her" of it) showed but little modesty at the time alluded to, for she appeared to think her soldiers had no private parts. For on our march from the Valley Forge, through the Jerseys, and at the boasted Battle of Monmouth, a fourth part of the troops had not a scrap of anything but their ragged shirt flaps to cover their nakedness, and were obliged to remain so long after. I had picked up a few articles of light clothing during the past winter, while among the Pennsylvanian farmers, or I should have been in the same predicament. "Rub and go" was always the Revolutionary soldier's motto.
As to provision of victuals, I have said a great deal already, but ten times as much might be said and not get to the end of the chapter. When we engaged in the service we promised the following articles for a ration: one pound of good and wholesome fresh or salt beef, or three quarters of a pound of good salt pork, a pound of good flour, soft or hard bread, a quart of salt to every hundred pounds of fresh beef, a quart of vinegar to a hundred rations, a gill of run, brandy, or whiskey per day, some little soap and candles, I have forgot how much, for I had so little of these two articles that I never knew the quantity. And as to the article of vinegar, I do not recollect of ever having any except a spoonful at the famous rice and vinegar Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, in the year 1777. But we never received what was allowed us. 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 anything at all.
If we had got our full allowance regularly, what was it? A bare pound of fresh beef and a bare pound of bread or flour. The beef, when it had gone through all its divisions and subdivisions, would not be much over three quarters of a pound, and that nearly or quite half bones. The beef that we got in the army was, generally, not many degrees above carrion; it was much like the old Negro's rabbit, it had not much fat upon it and very little lean. When we drew flour, which was much of the time we were in the field or on marches, it was of small value, being eaten half-cooked, besides a deal of it being unavoidably wasted in the cookery.
When in the field, and often while in winter quarters, our usual mode of drawing our provisions, when we did draw any, was as follows:---a return being made out for all the officers and men, for seven days, we drew four days of meat and the whole seven days of flour. At the expiration of the four days, the other three days allowance of beef. Now, dear reader, pray consider a moment, how were five men in a mess, five hearty, hungry young men, to subsist four days on twenty pounds of fresh beef (and I might say twelve or fifteen pounds) without any vegetables or any other kind of sauce to eke it out. In the hottest season of the year it was the same. Though there was not much danger of our provisions putrefying, we had none on hand long enough for that, if it did, we obliged to eat it, or go without anything. When General Washington told Congress, "the soldiers eat every kind of horse fodder but hay" he might have gone a little farther and told them that they eat considerable hog's fodder and not a trifle of dog's---when they could get it to eat.
We were, also, promised six dollars and two thirds a month, to be paid us monthly, and how did we fare in this particular? Why, as we did in every other. I received the dollars and two thirds, till ( if I remember rightly) the month of August, 1777, when paying ceased. And what was six dollars and sixty seven cents of this "Continental currency," as it was called, worth? It was scarcely enough to procure a man a dinner. Government was ashamed to tantalize the soldiers any longer with such trash, and wisely gave it up of its own credit. I received one month's pay in specie while on the march to Virginia, in the year 1781, and except that, I never received and pay worth the name while I belonged to the army. Had I been paid as I was promised be at my engaging in the service, I needed not to have suffered as I did, nor would I have done it; there was enough in the country and money would have procured it if I had had it. It is provoking to think of it. The country was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements to a punctilio, but equally careless in performing he contracts with me, and why so? One reason was because she had all the power in her own hands and I had none. Such things ought not to be.
The poor soldiers had hardships enough to endure without having to starve; the least that could be done was to give them something to eat. "The laborer is worthy of his meat" at least, and he ought to have it for his interest, if nothing more. How many times have I had to lie down like a dumb animal in the field, and bear "the pelting of the pitiless storm", cruel enough in warm weather, but how much more so in the heart of winter. Could I have had the benefit of a little fire, it would have been deemed a luxury. But, when snow or rain would fall so heavy that it was impossible to keep a spark of fire alive, to have to weather out a long, wet, cold, tedious night in the depth of winter, with scarcely clothes enough to keep one from freezing instantly, how discouraging it must be, I leave to my reader to judge.
It is fatiguing, almost beyond belief, to those that never experienced it, to be obliged to march twenty-four or forty-eight hours (as very many times I have had to) and often more, night and day without rest or sleep, wishing and hoping that some wood or village I could see ahead might prove a short resting place, when, alas, I came to it, almost tired off my legs, it proved no resting place for me. How often have I envied the very swine their happiness, when I have heard them quarreling in their warm dry sties, when I was wet to the skin and wished in vain for that indulgence. And even in dry warm weather, I have often been so beat out with long and tedious marching that I have fallen asleep and not been sensible of it till I have jostled against someone in the same situation; and when permitted to stop and have the superlative happiness to roll myself in my blanket and drop down on the ground in the bushes, briars, thorns, or thistles, and get an hour or two's sleep, O! how exhilarating.
Fighting the enemy is the great scarecrow to people unacquainted with the duties of an army. To see the fire and smoke, to hear the din of cannon and musketry and the whistling of shot, they cannot bear the sight or hearing this. They would like the service in an army tolerably well but for the fighting part of it. I never was killed in the army; I never was wounded but once, I never was a prisoner with the enemy; but I have seen many that have undergone all these and I have many times run the risk of all of them myself. But, 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 I was ever engaged in, with the anticipation of all other calamities I have mentioned added to it.
It has been said by some that ought to have been better employed that the Revolutionary army was needless, that the militia were competent for all that the crisis required. That there was then and now is in the militia as brave and as good men as were ever in any army since the creation, I ham ready and willing to allow, but there are many among them, too, I hope the citizen soldiers will be ready to allow, who are not so good as regulars, and I affirm that the militia would not have answered so well as standing troops, for the following reason, among many others. They would not have endured the sufferings the army did; they would have considered themselves (as in reality they were and are) free citizens, not bound by any cords that were not of their own manufacturing, and when the hardships of fatigue, starvation, cold and nakedness, which I have just mentioned, begun to seize upon them in such awful array as they did on us, they would have instantly quitted the service in disgust, and who would blame them? I am sure I could hardly find it in my heart to do it.
That the militia did good and great service in that war, as well as in the last, on particular occasions, I well know, for I have fought by their side, but still I insist that they would not have answered the end so well as regular soldiers, unless they were very different people from what I believe and know them to be, as well as I wish to know. Upon every exigency they would have been to be collected, and what would the enemy have been doing in the meantime? The regulars were there and there obliged to be; we could not go away when we pleased without exposing ourselves to military punishment, and we had trouble enough to undergo without that.
It was likewise said at that time that the army was idle, did nothing but lunge about from one station to another, eating the country's bread and wear her clothing without rendering her anyessential sevice ( and I wonder they did not add, spending the country's money too, it would have been quite as consistent as the other charges). You ought to drive on, said they, you are competent for the business; rid the country at once of her invaders. Poor, simple souls! It was very easy for them to build castles in the air, but they had not felt the difficulty of making them stand there. It was easier, with them, taking whole armies in a warm room and by a god fire, than enduring the hardships of one cold winters night upon a bleak hill without clothing or victuals.
If the Revolutionary army was really such a useless appendage to the cause, such a nuisance as it was then and has since been said to be, why was it not broken up at once; why were we not sent off home and obliged to maintain ourselves? Surely it would have been as well for us soldiers and, according to the reckoning of these wiseacres, it would have been much better for the country to have done it than for us to have been eating so much provisions wearing out so much clothing when our services were worse than useless. We could have make as good militia men as though we had never seen an army at all. We should incase we had been discharged from the army, have saved the country a world of expense, as they said; and I say we should have saved ourselves a world of trouble in having our constitutions broken down and our joints dislocated by trotting after Bellona's car.
But the poor old decrepit soldiers, after all that has been said to discourage them, have found friends in the community, and I trust there are many, very many, that are sensible of the usefulness of that suffering army, although perhaps, all their voices have not been so load in its praise as the voice of slander has been against it. President Monroe was the first of all our Presidents, except President Washington, who ever uttered a syllable in the " old soldiers" favor. President Washington urged the country to do something for them and not to forget their hard services, but President Monroe told them how to act. He had been a soldier himself in the darkest period of the war, that point of it that emphatically " tried men's souls," was wounded, and knew what soldiers suffered. His good intentions being seconded by some Revolutionary officers then in Congress, brought about a system by which, aided by our present worthy Vice-President [John C. Calhoun], then the Secretary at War, Heaven bless him, 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. Many I have myself seen, vile enough to say that they never deserved such favor from the country. The only wish I would bestow upon such hardhearted 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 I really hope these people will not go beside themselves. Those men whom they wish to die on a dunghill, men, who, if they had not ventured their lives in battle and faced poverty, disease, and death for their country to gain and maintain that Independence and Liberty, in the sunny beams of which, they, like reptiles, are basking, they would, many or the most of them, be this minute in as much need of help and succor as ever the most indigent soldier was before he experienced his county's beneficence.
The soldiers consider it cruel to be thus vilified, and it is cruel as the grave to any man, when he knows his own rectitude of conduct, to have his hard services not only debased and underrated, but scandalized and vilified. But the Revolutionary soldiers are not the only people that endure obloquy; others, as meritorious and perhaps more deserving than they, are forced to submit to ungenerous treatment.
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 very 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 weary are at rest."


Martin's account, written in his old age, is the most complete account of the life of a Revolutionary soldier. It was written from memory, but is remarkable for having few errors. It is a standard, and anyone reading about the live and times of the soldiers of the Revolution should read it.




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