Not all primary sources are created equal. We venerate the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius for providing us with a contemporary history of Imperial Rome. But does it tell us more about the lives of ordinary Romans than examining the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii? Similarly, the executive documents of Congress or the letters of George Washington are best understood if we have a background to set them against. Diaries written by private soldiers during the Revolution carry us closer to the war than any other type of document. For these scribblings were not composed with posterity in mind. Routinely generated, without a concern for history’s judgment, their strength lies in their mundanity. Though seemingly trivial when produced, over time, they have become a precious account of “every day” Revolutionary America that rivals the most significant official proclamations.
For some participants, the conflict was the defining stage of their lives. Several young soldiers penned accounts showing that what began as an adventure quickly degenerated into an ordeal. Even though not published until five decades after Yorktown, the diaries of Joseph Plumb Martin record his contemporary experiences and bring to life the burdens of the common soldier. Martin never condescended to interpret the war outside his own immediate involvement, and though his reflections are insightful there is no strategic analysis or political pontification. Glorious battle scenes are entirely absent, with the British portrayed as a distant animus rather than despised enemies. Martin’s true nemesis was not dressed in scarlet. Starvation was his deadliest foe. This is a narrative, first and foremost, of excruciating physical hardship with personal triumphs as likely to involve clandestine theft as heroic feats of arms. It is this mix of honesty and personal resilience that draws the reader back.
It does not take long for the word “hunger” to first crop up. From then on, it peppers the book, usually alongside familiar bedfellow’s “fatigue” and “cold.” Martin delighted in pilfering more than his fair share of “sea-bread” made of “peas-meal, nearly hard enough for musket flints.” He proudly recounted stealing “as many of the biscuits as I possibly could [which] I stowed away in my knapsack.” Similar tales of “liberation” follow. Hogs, pumpkins, orchard apples, even a beehive, were all fair game. Though British and Hessian troops are disparaged in most histories of the Revolution for looting, Martin’s diaries illustrate this was routine practice among soldiery on both sides. He admitted, “Our duty was hard, but generally not altogether unpleasant;—I had to travel far and near, . . . at all times to run the risk of abuse, if not of injury, from the inhabitants, when plundering them of their property, for I could not, while in the very act of taking their cattle, hay, corn, and grain from them against their wills, consider it a whit better than plundering.” It is evident the citizens became resigned to such abuse. Stationed opposite a wine cellar, Joseph and his fellows “smelt out” some “pipes of Madeira.” Removing the iron grating from a window, they treated themselves to this “delicious draught.” When the owner of the wine discovered the theft he phlegmatically decided to “sell” what survived at a cheap rate, rather than risk further pillage.
Though plundering was commonplace, occasionally, Martin came across Patriotic inhabitants who voluntarily assuaged his hunger. Tasked with tracking a deserter, he said, “We received that day, two or three rations of fresh pork and hard bread. We had no cause to call this pork ‘carrion’ or ‘hog meat,’ for, on the contrary, it was so fat and being entirely fresh, we could not eat it at all. The first night of our expedition, we boiled our meat; and I asked the landlady for a little sauce, she told me to go to the garden and take as much cabbage as I pleased, and that, boiled with the meat, was all we would eat.” Later in the quest “the man of the house came into the room and put some bread to the fire to toast; he next produced some cider, as good and as rich as wine, then giving us each a large slice of his toasted bread, he told us to eat it and drink the cider,— observing that he had done so for a number of years and found it the best simulator imaginable.” The narrative turns into a mouth-watering version of “MasterChef” as from the distance of five decades, Joseph recalled the food served up. “We . . . had a genuine New-Jersey breakfast, consisting of buckwheat slapjacks, flowing with butter and honey, and a capital dish of chocolate.” Even when receiving aid from Patriots, however, opportunism was never far from his mind. “The lady of the house provided me a rarity, hominy, and milk; the Lieutenant urged me to stay in the house, but I pretended that our clothing might be in danger unless I attended to it; . . . It was not the clothing I had so much at heart, . . . but the thought of the luscious watermelons. Accordingly, when all was still, I went and took as many as I thought necessary, stowed them into the wagon, and then lay down under it.”
Though much of the narrative is light-hearted in tone, Martin did not spare the Army’s officers or venal speculators. Their attitude toward the men’s discomfort appalled him. He claimed they “abandoned their men and Americans sold dear the pathetic scraps of food on which their suffering soldiers had to rely.” This disconnection between the two classes of Continental soldiery is best illustrated by a throwaway anecdote. “While standing in the field, after the action,” Martin recounted, “one of the men near the Lieut. Colonel, complained of being hungry; the Colonel, putting his hand into his coat pocket, took out a piece of an ear of Indian corn, burnt as black as coal, ‘Here,’ said he to the man complaining, ‘eat this and be a soldier.’” His patriotism was sorely tried by such disdain.
Politicians are portrayed in a similarly jaundiced light. He recalled having to undertake a “celebration” of thanksgiving ordered by Continental Congress. This was not greeted with the expected universal joy. “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.” Martins sarcasm continued, “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 . . . it gave each and every man half a gill of rice, and a tablespoon 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.”
Cooking what little food they possessed took a disproportionate amount of time and effort. One day two of his messmates returned with a stolen goose. “The next difficulty was how to pluck it; we were in a chamber and had nothing to contain the feathers. However, we concluded, at last, to pick her over the fire and let that take care of the feathers.” Finding this was easier said than done they left behind a chimney full of charred feathers before “We dressed her and then divided her amongst us; if I remember rightly, I got one wing.” Cooking official rations was no easier. “We drew a day’s ration of beef and flour . . . and that, at the best, half bone. And how was it cooked?—Why, as it usually was when we had no cooking utensils with us,—that is, the flour was laid upon a flat rock and mixed up with cold water, then daubed upon a flat stone and scorched on one side, while the beef was broiling on a stick in the fire.” This became the common method of cookery on the march. “Broiling . . . beef on small sticks, in Indian style, round blazing fires, made of dry chestnut rails.” Unfortunately, this primitive method was not without drawbacks. “The meat . . . was as black as coal on the outside, and as raw on the inside as if it had not been near the fire.”
Though he took part in some of the war’s deadliest engagements at Monmouth, Brooklyn, and Yorktown, Martin’s battles with the British were not as painful as the embarrassment he suffered at the lesser known battle of the Ox Liver. Martin recalled, “I strolled off to where some butchers were killing cattle . . . and by some means procured an old ox’s liver; I then went home and soon had a quantity of it in my kettle; the more I seethed it, the harder it grew, but I soon filled my empty stomach with it.” The inevitable result was not long arriving. “I had not slept long before I awoke, feeling much like Jonathan when he had the dry bellyache . . . I worried it out till morning, when, as soon as I thought I could call upon the doctors . . . I applied to one for relief; he gave me a large dose of tartar-emetic . . . I waited some time for it, but growing impatient, I wandered off into the fields and bushes when it took full hold of my gizzard; I then sat down upon a log . . . and discharged the hard junks of liver like grapeshot from a fieldpiece.”
All the time on campaign, Martin carried with him the squad’s most precious possession: a cast-iron kettle. This go-to implement was used for broiling whatever morsel they happened along. However, even this was eventually thrown aside in despair. On a night march from Valentine’s Hill to White Plains, Martin “told my messmates that I could not carry our kettle any further.” Eyeing the heavy cast iron wearily, “They said they would not carry it any further; of what use was it? They had nothing to cook and did not want anything to cook with . . . I sat it down in the road, and one of the others gave it a shove with his foot, and it rolled down against the fence, and that was the last I ever saw of it. When we got through the night’s march, we found our mess was not the only one that was rid of their iron bondage.”
Martin fed on what was at hand and delighted in nature’s bounty. “We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us.” This ability to forage from nature was vital. “I was hungry, tired and sleepy;—about noon we halted an hour or two, and I went a little way into the fields, where I found a black walnut tree with plenty of nuts under it; these nuts are very nutritious, and I cracked and ate of them till I was satisfied.” What is compelling from a modern viewpoint is the way men depended on woodcraft skills now all but lost. On several occasions this proficiency saved them. Martin remembered, “I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark.” Though this seems desperate, the inner, or cambium layer, of bark is nutritious, packing around 500 to 600 calories to the pound, and containing large amounts of starches, sugar, and fibre. Such foraging skills were repeatedly called upon. “I lay here two nights and one day and had not a morsel of anything to eat all the time, save half of a small pumpkin, which I cooked by placing it upon a rock, the skin side uppermost, and making a fire upon it; by the time it was heated through I devoured it with as keen an appetite as I should a pie.”
In contrast to “Mother Nature” the diary vilifies Continental army rations. “We marched a short distance when we halted to refresh ourselves. Whether we had any other victuals besides the hard bread I do not remember, but I remember my gnawing at them; they were hard enough to break the teeth of a rat.” The meat ration received special condemnation. “We stayed at the Quartermaster-General’s quarters . . . during which time a beef creature was butchered for us; I well remember what fine stuff it was, it was quite transparent, I thought at the time what an excellent lantern it would make. I was, notwithstanding, very glad to get some of it, bad as it looked.” Foodstuffs regarded as commonplace today were of vital importance to these men. Martin recalled his exhilaration at finding a barrel of salt as “Salt was as valuable as gold with the soldiers.”
Martin did not shy away from how famine afflicted the integrity of the men, himself included. He recognized “fatigue and thirst, joined with hunger, almost made me desperate. I felt at that instant as if I would have taken victuals or drink from the best friend I had on earth by force.” What personal violence there is in the narrative is more distressing for being confined among the men themselves. Inevitably, the cause of the agitation was food. “We took our cook with us, for he, as usual, had nothing to do at home. When we arrived at the place . . . we bought a beef harslet of the butchers and packed off our cook with it, that we might have it in readiness against our return to camp. The cook who had been a bank fisherman, and of course, loved to wet his whistle once in a while, set off for home.” Arriving back in greedy anticipation of their supper, “lo, we found Mr. Cook fast asleep in the tent, and not the least sign of cookery going on. With much ado, we waked him and inquired where our victuals were. ‘Where is the pluck you brought home?’ ‘I sold it,’ said he, ‘sold it! what did you sell it for?’ ‘I don’t know,’ was the reply. The sergeant shakes the cook from his stupor. ‘You have sold what we ordered you to provide for us and got drunk, and now we must go all night without anything to eat . . . . What, I say, did you get for it?’ ‘I will tell you,’ said he; ‘first, I got a little rum, and next, I got a little pepper, and—and—then I got a little more rum.’ Outraged, as he is, the sergeant at least thinks he can get drunk and demands, ‘where are the rum and pepper you got’—‘I drank the rum,’ said he, ‘there is the pepper.’ ‘Pox on you,’ said the sergeant, ‘I’ll pepper you.’” Martin completed the tale by saving the hung-over cook from a “basting.”
Hunger affected not only the men. “Starvation seemed to be entailed upon the army and every animal connected with it. The oxen, brought from New-England for draught, all died, and the southern horses fared no better; even the wild animals that had any concern with us, suffered. A poor little squirrel who had the ill-luck to get cut off from the woods and fixing himself on a tree standing alone and surrounded by several of the soldier’s huts, sat upon the tree till he starved to death and fell off the tree. He, however, got rid of his misery soon. He did not live to starve by piecemeal six or seven years.” It is a scant wonder the British received a string of emaciated deserters to their lines throughout the war.
Modern armies have efficient and sophisticated commissary departments and professional cooks. The Revolutionary army struggled with both concepts. Because of this, the troops often appeared to be reverting to the Neolithic. “We procured a day’s ration of southern salt pork . . . we kindled some fires in the road, and some broiled their meat; as for myself I ate mine raw.” Finding a yard filled with fowl Martin “obtained a piece of an ear of Indian corn, and seating myself on a pile of boards began throwing the corn to the fowls which soon drew a fine battalion of them about me, I might have taken as many as I pleased, but I took up one only, wrung off its head, dressed and washed it in the stream.” All culinary subtleties were disposed of. “The fourth day, just at dark, we obtained a half-pound of lean fresh beef and a gill of wheat for each man, whether we had any salt to season so delicious a morsel, I have forgotten, but I am sure we had no bread, but I will assure the reader that we had the best of sauce; that is, we had keen appetites. When the wheat was so swelled by boiling as to be beyond the danger of swelling in the stomach, it was deposited there without ceremony.” On another occasion, Martin recounted, “When my game was sufficiently broiled, I took it by the hind leg and made my exit from the house with as little ceremony as I had made my entrance. When I got into the street, I devoured it after a very short grace and felt as refreshed as the old Indian did when he had eaten his crow roasted in the ashes with the feathers and entrails.”
Men ate what they could whenever they could. Taste and preference had little to do with it. Nothing is too humble for a starving man. After going hungry for “two or three days,” Martin devoured “A sheep’s head which I begged off the butchers who were killing some for the ‘gentlemen officers.’”  Foods he hated were consumed as eagerly as those he loved. Buttermilk sounds delicious. It isn’t to everyone’s taste. It is the thin, tart liquid that remains once they churn cream to make butter. Martin confirmed, “I went into a house, hoping to get something to eat . . . . The woman of the house had just been churning; I asked her for a drink of buttermilk; she told me to drink as much as I pleased. I drank as much as I could swallow . . . I could never before relish buttermilk, but extreme hunger at this time gave it a new relish.” Like a Revolutionary Solomon, Martin concluded, “A full belly loatheth a honeycomb: but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.”
A desperate patriotism shines through in Martin’s narrative, with his service the more remarkable for its lack of mawkish self-pity. “At one time it snowed the greater part of four days successively, and there fell nearly as many feet deep of snow, and here was the keystone of the arch of Starvation. We were absolutely, literally starved—I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights.” The foul weather was not the worst of it. “So desperate were the men that several roasted and ate their own shoes” and “I was afterward informed by one of the officer’s waiters, that some of the officers killed and ate a favourite little dog that belonged to one of them.” To contemporary eyes, the resilience of these men seems remarkable. But to that virtue, America owes its Independence.