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Ordinary Patriots

Ordinary Patriots

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Published by Hal Shurtleff

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Published by: Hal Shurtleff on Jun 24, 2012
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12/21/2012

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by Becky Akers 
G
eorge Washington, Nathan Hale,Thomas Paine, Sam Adams, Pat-rick Henry: heroes whose nameswill live as long as liberty does. Yet be-hind the Founding Fathers and their im-mortal writings, speeches, and deeds standhundreds of thousands of ordinary patriotswho struggled as sacrificially as their fa-mous contemporaries — and sometimesmore. For example, Thomas Jefferson andBen Franklin never bore arms on any bat-tlefield. But the thousands of farmers whodid and who survived their wounds paidfor their courage the rest of their lives: theprimitive state of 18th-century medicinecondemned them to chronic pain, andmaimed manual laborers often slippedinto poverty.Nor did the public honors and recogni-tion that hailed Jefferson or Franklin soft-en such suffering. In some ways, those un-known hordes were even more dedicated tofreedom than the Big Names. John Adamssacrificed for the Patriots’ cause, yes, buthe also reaped rewards in return. He spentyears away from his family, though al-ways by choice. And he spent those yearsin the exciting, sophisticated, rarefied airof Philadelphia or at the French and Brit-ish courts.Compare his autonomy and fame, themansions housing him and the state din-ners at which he regularly feasted, with theshopkeeper-turned-soldier in the militia orthe Continental Army whose days passedin chilblained, hungry misery. Often, thesemen enjoyed few options when it came toenlisting: if they hoped to defend theirhomes and families from the British Armymarching through their community, theygrabbed a musket and joined their neigh-bors on the line. Once the danger passed,Continental soldiers couldn’t leave as well:they must serve out terms running fromseveral years to “the duration” lest theybe whipped or even hanged for deserting.Wounds, disease, and capture menacedthem all the while. By contrast, congress-men like Adams could and did leave theirseats in Philadelphia mid-session. And thegravest danger Adams usually faced dur-ing his time overseas came from the Euro-pean ladies who flirted with the shockedNew Englander.
 Who Were They?
Who were some of the ordinary patriotssacrificing their lives, futures, and sacredhonor to liberty? One was Joseph PlumbMartin, born in Connecticut to a preacherand his wife. Joseph was only 14 yearsold when the shooting began in 1775, butthat didn’t stop him from enlisting — per-haps because, as he put it, he had “col-lected pretty correct ideas of the contest”and was “as warm a patriot as the best of them.” Nor were his scant years unusual:many Continental soldiers and officerswere in their mid-to-late teens. Boyseven younger occasionally infiltrated the
33 
PAst ANd PersPective
HistorY
 
HistorY
call 1-800-727-trUE o subsibe oday! 
American history highlightsthe greatness of America’sFounding Fathers, but anew nation could not havebeen formed except forthe tremendous sacrificeof thousands of everydayAmericans.
Ordinary 
Patriots,
Extraordinary 
Sacrifices
 
ranks, too. Yet, like Joseph,their youth never preventedtheir understanding, lovingand fighting for liberty.Joseph signed on for asix months’ stint “to takea priming before I took upon me the whole coat of paint for a soldier.” Once hedonned the coat, however,it fit him like a glove: heserved with the Continen-tal Army through the endof the war. Though he wasa lowly private for much of that time, he saw many of the Revolution’s most fa-mous episodes. He starvedat Valley Forge, shiveredunder the snows of Morris-town, fought at MonmouthCourthouse, and glimpsedBritish Major John Andre“before his execution” forespionage, though Joseph“was on duty that day and could not at-tend; otherwise, I should.Joseph was as engaging a writer as hewas “warm” a patriot. Fifty years later, hepublished a witty and incisive memoir thatchronicled the drudgery and danger, pri-vations and pain the average Continentalendured. He tells of the cold, hunger, rag-gedness, and fear thousands of Americansbore so that we might live free.For example, Joseph and the army“proceeded into New Jersey for winterquarters” in December 1779. There theywould battle one of the coldest wintersof the 18th century, whose climate wasalready harsher than ours thanks to theLittle Ice Age of the mid-1500s to mid-1800s. “The snow had fallen nearly a footdeep,” Joseph recalled. “Now I requestthe reader to consider what must havebeen our situation at this time, naked, fa-tigued and starved, forced to march manya weary mile in winter, through cold andsnow, to seek a situation in some (to us,unknown) wood to build us habitationsto starve and suffer in.… I know how Ifelt at the time and I know how I yet feelat the recollection of it; but there was noremedy, we must go through it, and wedid go through it, and I am yet alive....Sometimes we could procure an armful of buckwheat straw to lie upon, which wasdeemed a luxury. Provisions, as usual,took up but a small part of our time,though much of our thoughts.”Springtime improved only the tem-perature, not the accommo-dations. Joseph recalls onenight when his company“turned into a new ploughedfield, and I laid down be-tween two furrows and sleptas sweet as though I had laidupon a bed of down.”Boys in their teens arealways ravenous, let alonethose marching miles perday (indeed, the soldiersdefined “easy marches” as“str[iking] our tents at threeo’clock in the morning, march[ing] tenmiles and then encamp[ing], which wouldbe about one or two o’clock in the after-noon. Every third day we rested all day”).No wonder food and its lack obsessedthem. Joseph describes a Thanksgivingat Valley Forge, one “ordered by Con-gress.... We had nothing to eat for two orthree days previous, except what the treesof the fields and forests afforded us. Butwe must now have what congress said, asumptuous Thanksgiving to close the yearof high living.... Well, to add somethingextraordinary to our present stock of pro-visions, our country, ever mindful of itssuffering army, opened her sympathizingheart so wide … as to give us …
half 
agill of rice [about two tablespoons] and a
tablespoonful
of vinegar!!” After devour-ing this “extraordinary superabundant do-nation,” the still-famished soldiers “wereordered out to … hear a sermon.” Josephwas so hungry he couldn’t concentrate onthe message.The day after fighting at Monmouth,New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, Joseph andhis fellows “received a gill of rum, butnothing to eat” — an imbalance that fre-quently beset Continental troops (and onethey bore with better grace than the reverse.We might think empty soldiers would pro-test the lack of food rather than rum. But
But once those meager, unappetizingrations ran out, the march degeneratedinto a survivalist’s nightmare. The noiseand stench of so many humans scaredaway game, and though the troopsoccasionally stumbled across lakes withfish, the rivers along which the pathmeandered were usually whitewater.
wnter of 1777:
Although the Continental Army’s suffering at Valley Forge is legendary, other winters were evenharsher. The soldiers endured more snow and less food at Morristown, New Jersey, in 1779-1780.
THE NEW AMERICAN July 6, 2009 
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a paltry or missing rum ration sometimesprovoked riots). Fortunately, “Providence”lent a hand when the quartermaster didn’t:Joseph was one of the oarsmen ferryinghis brigade across the Hudson some dayslater when a “large sturgeon (a fish inwhich this river abounds) seven or eightfeet in length … sprang directly into theboat.” Joseph’s share when “boiled in saltand water” came to “perhaps a pound anda half, for I well remember that I was ashungry as a vulture and as empty as ablown bladder.”
 An Army Marches on Its Stomach
Severe hunger was a constant for mostContinental soldiers. In 1775, Americansfondly hoped Canadians would join theirrevolt since those northern neighbors suf-fered the same abuses from George III’sadministration as the lower 13 colonies— and a few more besides. Canada alsooffered a wealth of resources and morevolunteers for the Continental Army. Andso Colonel Benedict Arnold marched with1,100 men from Boston to Quebec, one of Canada’s only two sizeable settlements.He would liberate Quebec from the Red-coats patrolling it while inviting its resi-dents to fight with the Americans.Royally commissioned maps drasticallyand deliberately understated the distanceto Quebec to thwart anyone travellingthere without the British government’spermission. Compounding the misinfor-mation was a series of accidents that de-stroyed the provisions Arnold carted alongfor his troops. Food that should have seenthem safely to their destination lasted foronly the first weeks of what turned intotwo months on the road — or path: Arnoldwas following an ancient and exceedinglyrugged route through Maine’s wilderness.As if that weren’t challenge enough, win-ter was descending.Arnold fed his army dried peas andbeef, salt pork, salted fish, and “biscuit”(i.e., hard, dry bread somewhat like verythick crackers). But once those meager,unappetizing rations ran out, the marchdegenerated into a survivalist’s nightmare.The noise and stench of so many humansscared away game, and though the troopsoccasionally stumbled across lakes withfish, the rivers along which the path me-andered were usually whitewater.Dr. Isaac Senter, 22, was the column’ssurgeon. As did a few dozen of the sol-diers, he kept a journal. He noted thatsome of the troops marching at the headof the column were soon “almost desti-tute of any eatable whatever, except a few
candles
[dipped from animal fat], whichwere used for supper, and breakfast nextmorning, by boiling them in water gruel,&c.” Incredibly, the menu would worsen:“In company was a poor dog,” Senter re-lated, “[that] now became a prey for thesustenance of the assassinators. This pooranimal was instantly devoured, withoutleaving any vestige of the sacrifice. Nordid the shaving soap, pomatum, and eventhe lip salve [these cosmetics consistedmostly of lard and other edible fats],leather of their shoes, cartridge boxes, etc,share any better fate.”Eventually, even the candles and car-tridge boxes were gone. Some troops eyedthe animal skins that had lain “for severaldays in the bottom of their boats, intendedfor to make them shoes or moccasins.”They burned the hair off these hides,boiled them, and drank the “juice or liq-uid.” “No one can imagine,” one starvingsoldier sighed, “who has not experiencedit, the sweetness of a roasted shot-pouch tothe famished appetite.”These men, marching miles up hill anddown with heavy loads, rowing and pol-ing boats on rivers that were too shallowwhen they weren’t perilously rapid, were
35 www.theNewAmeian.om 
Benedct Arnold:
So many men died of exposure and starvation during the march to Quebec
that their bones supposedly marked the way home for the American retreat from Canada thefollowing spring.

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