To the editor:
As this is being written, the anniversary of Patriot’s Day – April 19, 1775 – is rapidly approaching. The holiday has nothing to do with the football team of the same name, but considering how little some people know 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 want.
It was not always thus. There was a time when ceremonies and observances honored the ordinary citizens at Lexington and Concord who faced the professional fighting force of the most powerful nation on earth and fired “the shot heard ’round the world,” launching 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. “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 Nov. 21, 1760, in Becket, Mass. 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, 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.”
When his enlistment ended in December, Martin walked to his grandparents’ home in Milford, Conn., 52 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, N.J., 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 wood, if that can be called victuals. I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and ate them …”
Martin was also present at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781. Afterward, Martin settled in frontier Maine and married the 18-year-old daughter of a neighboring farmer in the same year the town in which they lived was incorporated as Prospect.
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 approved his request for a pension of $8 per month. That amount, combined with his earnings as town clerk, enabled him to survive. Joseph Plumb Martin died on May 2, 1850 in his 90th 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 those 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 those of our children, imparting to them a simple but powerful truth: as we look ahead, we must also look back.