The Great Scarecrow of War: Thoughts From Joseph Plumb Martin

July 4, 2017  
Categories: Learnin'

Any number of OIF/OEF war bloggers and memoir writers have written about the misery and tedium of their service, the desolate mind-numbing hours of boredom, fatigue, and discomfort punctuated by short bursts of adrenaline, fear, and often exhilaration (or sometimes all three at once). These sentiments are expressed in writing from Vietnam, Korea, and WWII. From the Pacific Theater, circa 1943-1944, Ernie Pyle wrote of men “…just toiling from day to day in a world full of insecurity, discomfort, homesickness, and a dulled sense of danger.” Joseph Plumb Martin wrote something similar long before Pyle.

In fact, you can go much further back than that, though. Grunts have been falling asleep while walking for a long time, including back when they wore metal armor and killed each other with sharp objects. 

Give the following a careful read. It’s a black powder era look at Grunt Life

“There were other hardships to grapple with — how many times have I had to lie down like a dumb animal in the field, and hear ‘the pelting of the endless 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 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 while walking the road, and not been sensible of it till I a have jostled against some one in the same situation; and when permitted to stop and have the superlative happiness to roll myself in my blankets 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 of 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 have 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 the other calamities I have mentioned added to it.”

This was written by Sgt. Joseph Plumb Martin, an infantryman, separated from the army — the Continental Army — in 1783, 7 years after swearing his first oath. He joined the Connecticut State Troops at the age of 15, taking part in the British Long Island Campaign. At the age of 16 he reenlisted in the Continental Army, signing up for the duration of the Revolutionary War. He served first with the 17th Continental (8th Connecticut) Regiment. He later attained the rank of corporal in the Light Infantry, and attained the rank of Sergeant in the Corps of Sappers and Miners. You can read his account of his seven years service in his memoir, A Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier.


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  1. joe

    How did he learn to write so well without massive, expensive public education? Is there some way we could duplicate this with our typical semi-illiterate young people?

    • schurmann

      Because in the 1770s, the public in the colonies was quite literate, at rates far exceeding those of today. (I’m guessing joe knows this already, in framing his reply to take a jab at public education – which it deserves).

      The first public high school (Boston Latin School) was founded in the 1630s, close in time to the founding of Harvard, but by the 1770s most males were educated in the home, sometimes by itinerant tutors. Females received less education as a group, but many received excellent basic educations the same way boys did. Quality of girls’ education became an issue in family-to-family marriage negotiations.

      Newspapers, books, and pamphlets were widely published and hungrily read. The stereotype of the ignorant, unlettered backwoods yokel with a subteen common-law wife is false: gives the lie to the modern conceit that the nation did not truly “progress” until government-mandated schooling appeared (first in Massachusetts, in 1849).

      Verification of details can be found in numerous printed references. One eminently readable one is _Rise and fight again_ by Charles Bracelen Flood. Another is _The American Revolution_ by Thomas Fleming_, published as a companion volume to a miniseries on the American War of Independence, which debuted the History Channel in the 1990s.


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