Selections from the Diary of Private Joseph Plumb Martin
Joseph Plumb Martin was born in western Massachusetts in 1760. His father was a pastor who often got in trouble for speaking his mind too freely. At the age of seven, Joseph was sent to live with his affluent grandfather. When the war started in 1775 Martin chafed to enlist but he was too young. Many of Martin's friends had enlisted and Martin was quite susceptible to their peer pressure.
In June of 1776, at the age of 15, Martin, though wary of a long enlistment, decided "to take a priming before I took upon me the whole coat of paint for a soldier." Thus, much to the chagrin of his grandparents, Martin enlisted in for six months as a private in the Connecticut state troops. After serving at the Battles of Brooklyn and White Plains on the side of the Patriots, the farm boy decided not to reenlist in December 1776. But a long winter at home proved too dull for the teenage veteran. He enlisted again in 1777, this time in Washington's Continental army, and served for the duration of the war, seeing action at a number of major battles.
At the age of 70, the venerated veteran then living in Maine published A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Danger and Suffering of a Revolutionary Soldier, Interspersed with Anecdotes of Incidents that Occurred Within His Own Observation. The book, which did not sell particularly well, fell into obscurity until rediscovered in the 1960s when it was republished with the title Private Yankee Doodle.
The following excerpts detail Martin's activity at Fort Mifflin.
Hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses
I was soon relieved from this guard, and with those who were able, of our two regiments, sent to reinforce those in the fort [Mifflin], which was then besieged by the British. Here I endured hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses. Let the reader only consider for a moment and he will still be satisfied if not sickened. In the cold month of November, without provisions, without clothing, not a scrap of either shoes or stockings to my feet or legs, and in this condition to endure a siege in such a place as that was appalling in the highest degree.
In confirmation of what I have here said, I will give the reader a short description of the pen that I was confined in. Confined I was, for it was next to impossible to have got away from it, if I had been so disposed. Well, the island, as it is called, is nothing more than a mud flat in the Delaware, lying upon the west side of the channel. It is diked around the fort, with sluices so constructed that the fort can be laid under water at pleasure, (at least, it was so when I was there, and I presume it has not grown much higher since. On the eastern side, next the main river, was a zigzag wall built of hewn stone, built, as I was informed, before the Revolution at the king's cost. At the southeastern part of the fortification (for fort it could not with propriety be called) was a battery of several long eighteen-pounders and one thirty-two pounder.
I have seen the enemy's shells
At the northwestern corner was another small battery with three twelve-pounders. There were also three blockhouses in different parts of the enclosure, but no cannon mounted upon them, or were they of any use whatever to us while I was there. On the western side, between the batteries, was a high embankment, within which was a tier of palisadoes. In front of the stone wall, for about half its length, was another embankment, with palisadoes on the inside of it, and a narrow ditch between them and the stone wall. On the western side of the fortification was a row barracks, extending from the northern part of the works to about half the length of the fort. On the northern end was another block of barracks which reached nearly across the fort from east to west. In front of these was a large square two story house, for the accommodation of the officers of the garrison. Neither this house nor the barracks were of much use at this time, for it was as much as a man's life was worth to enter them, the enemy often directing their shot at them in particular. In front of that barracks and other necessary places were parades and walks; the rest of the ground was soft mud. I have seen the enemy's shells fall upon it an sink so low that their report could not be heard when they burst, and I could only feel a tremulous motion of the earth at the time. At other time, when they burst near the surface of the proud, they would throw the mud fifty feet in the air.
The British had erected five batteries with six heavy guns in each and a bomb battery with three long mortars in it on the opposite side of the water, which separated the island from the main on the west, and which was but a short distance across. [Martin is referring to Carpenter's Island where the British employed six 24-pounders, an 8 in. Howitzer, and an 8 inch mortar included in the battery.] They had also a battery of six guns a little higher up the river, at a place called the Hospital Point. [usually referred to as Webb Point, it was near the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.] This is a short description of the place which I was destined, with a few others, to defend against whatever force, land or marine, the enemy might see fit to bring against it.
The first attempt the British made against the place after I entered it was by the Augusta a sixty-four-gun ship. While maneuvering one dark night she got on the cheaveau-de-frise which had been sunk in the channel of the river. As soon as she was discovered in the morning we plied her so well with hot shot, that she was soon in flames. Boats were sent from the shipping below to her assistance, but our shot proving too hot for them, they were obliged to leave her to her fate. In an hour or two she blew up with an explosion which seemed to shake the earth to its center, leaving a volume of smoke like a thundercloud, which, as the air was calm, remained an hour or two. A twenty-gun ship [the Merlin] which had come to the assistance of the Augusta in her distress shared her fate soon after.