As this is being written, Patriots’ Day 2016 has been recently observed. The holiday has nothing to do with the football team of the same name, but considering how little some people learn about its origin, it might as well, and would not be out of place in our spectator sports culture. For others, it is just another three-day weekend or an excuse for yet another sale to buy even more things that they probably don’t need and are not really sure they actually want.
It was not always thus. There was a time when ceremonies and observances honored the ordinary citizens at Lexington and Concord who, on April 19, 1775, faced the professional fighting force of the most powerful nation on earth and fired “the shot heard ‘round the world” and launched the revolution that would make us an independent nation. Now that tradition, like so many, has largely slipped away, barely mentioned by the media intent on Current Events, as if every event occurred in a vacuum and there were no past. For instance, does anyone remember the opening lines from Longfellow’s famous poem:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Is this memorial still taught in schools and recited to children or are the rhymes and cadences and flowing language a thing of the past?
It seems particularly ironic that we forget to honor the farmers and tradespeople and ordinary citizens our country mustered on that fateful day in 1775, and forget as well that politial dissent is as much a part of the American fabric as dissent was during the Revolution when popular support was anything but unanimous. “History is the memory of a nation,” wrote John F. Kennedy, but if we forget what others have given for our liberty, the resulting amnesia does a disservice to all, ourselves included. Consider, for the instance, one of our country’s early patriots, Joseph Plumb Martin – not a famous man or a textbook hero, just an ordinary citizen fighting in an extraordinary cause.
Martin was born on November 21, 1760, in Becket, Massachusetts. When the war came in 1775, Martin was at first too young for military service, and then a little unconvinced about a long enlistment. But in June 1776, when short-term state troops were being enlisted, he decided to serve for a limited period, or as he put it, “to take a priming before I took upon me the whole coat of paint for a soldier”. Thus on the 6th of July, at the age of 15, he enlisted for six months as a private in a regiment of Connecticut state troops, and participated in the battles of Brooklyn, Harlem Heights, and White Plains, all in New York. When his enlistment ended in December, Martin walked (that’s right – walked) to his grandparents’ home in Milford, Connecticut, fifty-two miles away. In April of the next year, 1777, he enlisted in the regular Continental Army, and began a tour of service that did not end until the war was over, six years later, in 1783. Among other experiences, he endured the century’s coldest winter, at Morristown, New Jersey, deprived not only of warm clothing but of food as well. As he later wrote:
“We were absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for over four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wooed, if that can be called victuals. I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and ate them . . .
He was also a witness to the Battle of Stony Point, fought in New York’s Hudson Highlands in July, 1779, an engagement that proved to be the high point of General Anthony Wayne’s military career and signaled the end of the British attempt to control the Hudson River. Martin was also present at surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, but was not discharged from service until the war officially ended in 1783. Martin settled in frontier Maine, at the mouth of the Penobscot River, near the headland of Cape Jellison. In May 1794, he married the 18-year-old daughter of a neighboring farmer, and the same year, the town in which they lived was incorporated as Prospect. From 1799 to 1818, Martin served intermittently as selectman and justice of the peace.
Martin was not a rich man or even a prosperous one, though he could read and write, exceptional skills for ordinary people at the time. By 1818, he needed the assistance of the government whose cause he had supported, and he applied for a pension based on his Revolutionary War service. To be eligible for payment, Martin, now aged 59, had to attest to his war experience as well as his financial need. He appeared in court at Belfast and declared:
“I have no real nor personal estate, nor any income whatever, my necessary bedding and wearing apparel excepted, except two cows, six sheep, one pig. I am a laborer, but by reason of age and infirmity I am unable to work. My wife is sickly and rheumatic. I have five children: Joseph, aged 19, an idiot from birth; Thomas and Nathan, 15, twins; James Sullivan, 8; Susan, 6. Without my pension I am unable to support myself and my family.”
The court determined that his property was worth a total of $52.00, and approved his request for a pension. He received $8.00 per month. That amount, combined with his earnings as town clerk for the next quarter century, enabled him to survive. His literacy also enabled him to write his memoirs entitled, “A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, interspersed with Anecdotes of Incidents that Occurred within his own Observation.” This unique account of the life of a common soldier during the war for independence was originally published at Hallowell, Maine, in 1830, and is still in print under the title “Private Yankee Doodle.” Joseph Plumb Martin died on May 2, 1850 in his ninetieth year, and was buried in Sandy Point cemetery, not far from his first homestead in Prospect. The monument on his grave was added later by grateful townspeople, but it bears an epitaph that he himself would have approved: A Soldier of the Revolution.
So on days set aside for remembrance, let us do just that – remember. In so doing, we honor not only forebears like Joseph Plumb Martin, a common man who served as a common soldier and whose struggles and hardships, like that of so many others, are often forgotten. By remembering them, we also honor ourselves by creating a legacy of perspective and reflection for our own lives and that of our children, imparting to them a simple but powerful truth: as we look ahead, we must also look back.