Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier (1777)
George Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge.
The cannonade continued without interruption on the side of the British throughout the day. Our men were cut up like corn stalks. As soon as it was dark we began to make preparations for evacuating the fort and endeavoring to escape to the Jersey shore. When the firing had in some measure subsided and I could look about me, I found the fort exhibited a picture of desolation. The surviving part of the garrison were now drawn off and such of the stores as could conveniently be taken away were carried to the Jersey shore.
Thomas Paine in one of his political essays, speaking of the siege and defense of [Fort Mifflin] says, “they had nothing but their bravery and good conduct to cover them.” He spoke the truth. But there has been but little notice taken of it; the reason of which is, there was no Washington, Putnam, or Wayne there. Had there been, the affair would have been extolled to the skies. No, it was only a few officers and soldiers who accomplished it in a remote quarter of the army. Such circumstances and such troops generally get but little notice taken of them, do what they will. Great men get great praise, little men, nothing. But it always was so and always will be.
We arrived early in the morning at a pretty village called Milltown. I was as near starved with hunger as ever I wish to be. I strolled into a large yard but I found nothing there to satisfy my hunger. But there was a barrel standing behind the door with some salt in it. Salt was as valuable as gold with the soldiers. I filled my pocket with it and went out. In the yard and about it geese, turkeys, ducks, and barndoor fowls. I 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, seasoned it with some of my salt, and stalked into the first house that fell in my way. Invited myself into the kitchen, took down the gridiron and put my fowl to cooking upon the coals. The women of the house were all the time going and coming to and from the room. They looked at me but said nothing. They asked me no questions and I told them no lies. 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 refreshed.
The troops marched again before day. I had sadly sprained my ankle the day before and it was much swelled. I hobbled on as well as I could. The rain and traveling of the troops and baggage had converted the road into perfect mortar and it was extremely difficult for me to make headway. We again turned into a wood for the night. The leaves and ground were as wet as water could make them. We were forced by our old master, Necessity, to lay down and sleep if we could with three others of our constant companions, Fatigue, Hunger and Cold.
Next morning we joined the grand army near Philadelphia. We were obliged to put us up huts by laying up poles and covering them with leaves; a capital shelter from winter storms. Here we continued to fast. Indeed we kept a continual lent as faithfully as ever any of the most rigorous of the Roman Catholics did. But there was this exception, we had no fish or eggs or any other substitute for our commons. Ours was a real fast and depend upon it, we were sufficiently mortified.
About this time the whole British army left the city, came out and encamped, or rather lay, on Chesnut-hill in our immediate neighborhood. We hourly expected an attack from them. We were kept constantly on the alert and wished nothing more than to have them engage us, for we were sure of giving them a drubbing, being in excellent fighting trim as we were starved and as cross and ill-natured as curs. The British however, thought better of the matter and after several days maneuvering on the hill, very civilly walked off into Philadelphia again.
While we lay here there was a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress. And as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful if not for being well off, at least that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it. We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the fields and forests afforded us. But we must now have what Congress said, a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living. Our country, ever mindful of its 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? I will tell you: it gave each and every man half a gill [a quarter cup] of rice and a table spoon full of vinegar!! After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to hear a sermon delivered upon the happy occasion.
The army was now not only starved but naked. The greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I procured a small piece of raw cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasins which kept my feet (while they lasted) from the frozen ground, although the hard edges so galled my [ankles] while on a march that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterwards. But the only alternative I had, was to endure this inconvenience or to go barefoot as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough frozen ground. But hunger, nakedness, and sore shins were not the only difficulties we had at that time to encounter. We had hard duty to perform and little or no strength to perform it with.
[Next,] we marched for the Valley Forge in order to take up our winter quarters. We were now in a truly forlorn condition. No clothing, no provisions, and as disheartened as need be. There was no remedy, no alternative but this or dispersion. But dispersion, I believe, was not thought of. At least I did not think of it. We had engaged in the defense of our injured country and were willing, nay, we were determined to persevere as long as such hardships were not altogether intolerable. But we were now absolutely in danger of perishing and that too in the midst of a plentiful country. We then had but little and often nothing to eat for days together.
Had there fallen deep snows (and it was the time of year to expect them) or even heavy and long rain-storms, the whole army must inevitably have perished. Or had the enemy, strong and well provided as he then was, thought fit to pursue us, our poor emaciated carcasses must have “strewed the plain.” But a kind and holy Providence took more notice and better care of us than did the country in whose service we were wearing away our lives by piecemeal. We arrived at the Valley Forge in the evening. It was dark, there was no water to be found, and I was perishing with thirst. I felt at that instant as if I would have taken victuals or drink from the best friend I had on earth by force.
I lay here two nights and one day [before being ordered] on a foraging expedition, which was nothing more nor less than to procure provisions from the inhabitants for the men in the army and forage for the poor perishing cattle belonging to it, at the point of the bayonet. The next day after our arrival at Milltown, our quarters for the winter, we were put into a small house in which was only one room, in the center of the village. We were immediately furnished with rations of good and wholesome beef and flour, built us up some births to sleep in and filled them with straw, and felt as happy as any other pigs that were no better off than ourselves.
Source: Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier (1830) https://billofrightsinstitute.org/e-lessons/the-adventures-of-a-revolutionary-soldier-1777