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 …
agill of rice [about two tablespoons] and a
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.
wnter 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
PAst ANd PersPective