He Fought With Washington At The Siege Of Yorktown—And Wrote About The Experience.
The voices of ordinary American soldiers who took part in the Revolutionary War are seldom heard today. One exception is Joseph Plumb Martin, born in 1760 in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut. Martin plunged into the war at age 15 in June 1776, serving in the Connecticut state militia and eventually the 8th Connecticut Regiment of General George Washington’s Continental Army.
Martin’s memoirs, first published in 1830, reveal the war through the eyes of an “average patriot” present virtually throughout the war at some of the momentous events during the struggle for American Independence.
Among the most significant of these was the September-October 1781 Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in which Martin, then a 20-year-old sergeant, took part, including one of the most famous actions of the battle. Serving in a unit of sappers, Martin helped dig a line of entrenchments, parallel to the British trenches, which paved the way for Washington’s troops to assault and capture the British strongpoint at Redoubt No. 10 as the French simultaneously attacked and captured Redoubt No. 9. Washington was desperate for this attack to succeed and to show the strength and martial skill of American troops at this stage in the Revolutionary War to prevent Britain from falsely claiming Yorktown was merely a “French victory.” Therefore, the the actions of Martin and his sapper unit were crucial.
The assault and seizure of the redoubts put overwhelming numbers of American and French siege artillery cannon within point-blank range to batter British forces into total submission, thereby compelling the British to reluctantly but inevitably surrender. Martin, present at the surrender, noted that the British appeared two hours late to the surrender ceremony and were visibly downcast—albeit seething at the French—when they finally appeared. Ungraciously, the British commander, Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, claiming illness, refused to attend the surrender and sent his deputy instead.
“The British did not make so good an appearance as the German forces; but there was certainly some allowance to be made in their favour; the English felt their honour wounded, the Germans did not greatly care whose hands they were in,” Martin noted. “The British paid the Americans, seemingly, but little attention as they passed them, but they eyed the French with considerable malice depicted in their countenances.” The British capitulation at Yorktown was the last major engagement of the war from October 1781 to the September 1783 Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolution.
In the following passage, excerpted from Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier , by Joseph Plumb Martin, taken from Chapter VII: “The Campaign of 1781,” Martin describes pivotal events at the siege that brought victory and independence.
The Soldier's Story Begins
We now began to make preparations for laying close siege to the enemy [the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, September-October 1781]. We had holed him and nothing remained but to dig him out. Accordingly, after taking every precaution to prevent his escape, settled our guards, provided fascines and gabions [troop movement obstacles], made platforms for the [artillery cannon] batteries, to be laid down when needed, brought on our battering pieces [cannon], ammunition, &c; on the fifth of October we began to put our plans into execution.
One third part of all the [American patriot and French allied] troops were put in requisition to be employed in opening the trenches. A third part of our Sappers [fortification assault specialists] and Miners [tunnelers] were ordered out this night to assist the Engineers in laying out the works. It was a very dark and rainy night. However, we repaired [moved] to the place and began by following the Engineers and laying laths of pine wood end to end upon the line marked out by the officers, for the trenches.
A Mysterious Stranger
We had not proceeded far in the business, before the Engineers ordered us to desist and remain where we were, and be sure not to straggle a foot from the spot while they were absent from us. In a few minutes after their departure, there came a man alone to us, having on a surtout [protective overcoat], as we conjectured, (it being exceedingly dark,) and enquired for the Engineers.
We now began to be a little jealous of our safety, being alone and without arms, and within forty rods [about 650 feet] of the British trenches. The stranger enquired what troops we were; talked familiarly with us a few minutes, when, being informed which way the officers had gone, he went off in the same direction, after strictly charging us, in case we should be taken prisoners, not to discover to the enemy what troops we were. We were obliged to him for his kind advice, but we considered ourselves as standing in no great need of it; for we knew as well as he did, that Sappers and Miners were allowed no quarters [no mercy], at least, are entitled to none, by the laws of warfare, and of course should take care, if taken, and the enemy did not find us out, not to betray our own secret.
In a short time the Engineers returned and the aforementioned stranger with them; they discoursed together sometime, when, by the officers often calling him, “Your Excellency,” we discovered it was Gen. [George] Washington [commander of the 8,000-strong Continental and militia American soldiers at Yorktown].
Had we dared, we might have cautioned him for exposing himself so carelessly to danger at such a time, and doubtless he would have taken it in good part if we had. But nothing ill happened to either him or ourselves.
Washington Digs In
It coming on to rain hard, we were ordered back to our tents, and nothing more was done that night. The next night, which was the sixth of October, the same men were ordered to the lines that had been there the night before. We this night completed laying out the works.
The troops of the line [regular infantrymen] were there ready with entrenching tools and began to entrench, after General Washington had struck a few blows with a pickaxe, a mere ceremony, that it might be said “Gen. Washington with his own hands first broke ground at the siege of Yorktown.”
The ground was sandy and soft, and the men employed that night “eat no idle bread,” [are always active; waste no time] (and I question if they eat any other,) so that by daylight they had covered themselves from danger from the enemy’s shot, who, it appeared, never mistrusted that we were so near them the whole night; their attention being directed to another quarter. There was upon the right of their works a marsh; our people had sent to the western side of this marsh a detachment to make a number of fires, by which, and our men often passing before the fires, the British were led to imagine that we were about some secret mischief there, and consequently directed their whole fire to that quarter, while we were entrenching literally under their noses.
A British Bulldog
As soon as it was day they perceived their mistake, and began to fire where they ought to have done sooner. They brought out a fieldpiece or two, without [outside] their trenches and discharged several shots at the men who were at work erecting a bomb-battery; but their shot had no effect and they soon gave it over. They had a large bull-dog, and every time they fired he would follow their shots across our trenches. Our officers wished to catch him and oblige him to carry a message from them into the town to his masters, but he looked too formidable for any of us to encounter.
I do not remember, exactly, the number of days we were employed before we got our batteries in readiness to open upon the enemy, but think it was not more than two or three. The French, who were upon our left, had completed their batteries a few hours before us, but were not allowed to discharge their pieces till the American batteries were ready. Our commanding battery was on the near bank of the river and contained ten heavy guns; the next was a bomb- battery of three large mortars; and so on through the whole line; the whole number, American and French, was, ninety-two cannon, mortars and howitzers. Our flagstaff was in the ten-gun battery, upon the right of the whole. I
was in the trenches the day that the batteries were to be opened; all were upon the tiptoe of expectation and impatience to see the signal given to open the whole line of batteries, which was to be the hoisting of the American flag in the ten-gun battery.
The Star-Spangled Banner
About noon the much wished for signal went up. I confess I felt a secret pride swell my heart when I saw the “star spangled banner” waving majestically in the very faces of our implacable adversaries; it appeared like an omen of success to our enterprize, and so it proved in reality.
A simultaneous discharge of all the guns in the line followed; the French troops accompanying it with “Huzza for the Americans!” It was said that the first shell sent from our batteries, entered an elegant house, formerly owned or occupied by the Secretary of State under the British government, and burst directly over a table surrounded by a large party of British officers at dinner, killing and wounding a number of them; —this was a warm [dangerous] day to the British.
The siege was carried on warmly for several days, when most of the guns in the enemy’s works were silenced [knocked out]. We now began our second parallel [a subsequent trench line, dug closer to and aligned along the enemy position], about halfway between our works and theirs. There were two strong redoubts [anchoring forts] held by the British, on their left. It was necessary for us to possess those redoubts, before we could complete our trenches. One afternoon I, with the rest of our corps that had been on duty in the trenches the night but one before, were ordered to the lines. I mistrusted [suspected] something extraordinary, serious or comical, was going forward, but what, I could easily not conjecture.
We arrived at the trenches a little before sunset; I saw several officers fixing bayonets on long staves. I then concluded we were about to make a general assault upon the enemy’s works; but before dark I was informed of the whole plan, which was to storm the redoubts, the one by the Americans [Redoubt
10] and the other by the French [Redoubt #9]. The Sappers and Miners were
furnished with axes, and were to proceed in front and cut passages for the troops through the abatis [wooden obstacles], which are composed of the tops of trees, the small branches cut off with a slanting stroke which rendered them as sharp as spikes. These trees are then laid at a small distance from the trench or ditch, pointing outwards, and the butts fastened to the ground in such a manner that they cannot be removed by those on the outside of them; —it is almost impossible to get through them. Through these we were to cut a passage before we or the other assailants could enter.
"Rush On Boys"
At dark the detachment was formed and advanced beyond the trenches, and lay down on the ground to await the signal for advancing to the attack, which was to be three shells from a certain battery near where we were lying. All the batteries in our line were silent, and we lay anxiously waiting for the signal. The two brilliant planets, Jupiter and Venus, were in close contact with the western hemisphere, (the same direction that the signal was to be made in,) when I happened to cast my eyes to that quarter, which was often, and I caught a glance of them, I was ready to spring on my feet, thinking that they were the signal for starting.
Our watchword was “Rochambeau,” [Marshal de France, Jean-Baptiste, Comte de Rochambeau, 1725-1807] the commander of the [8,000-strong] French forces’ name, a good watchword, for being pronounced Ro-sham-bow, it sounded, when pronounced quick, like rush-on-boys. We had not lain here long before the expected signal was given, for us and the French, who were to storm the other redoubt, by the three shells with their fiery trains mounting the air in quick succession. The word up, up was then reiterated through the detachment. We immediately moved silently on toward the redoubt we were to attack, with unloaded muskets [to prevent musket-firing from alerting the enemy defenders, although bayonets were fixed].
Just as we arrived at the abatis, the enemy discovered us and directly opened a sharp fire upon us. We were now at a place where many of our large shells had burst in the ground, making holes sufficient to bury an ox in; the men having their eyes fixed upon what was transacting before them, were every now and then falling into these holes. I thought the British were killing us off at a great rate. At length one of the holes happening to pick me up, I found out the mystery of the huge slaughter. As soon as the firing began, our people began to cry, “the fort’s our own!” and it was “rush on boys.”
The Sappers and Miners soon cleared a passage for the Infantry, who entered it rapidly. Our Miners were ordered not to enter the fort, but there was no stopping them. “We will go,” said they; “then go to the d—l [devil—considered a curse word in that era],” said the commanding officer of our corps, “if you will.”
I could not pass at the entrance we had made, it was so crowded; I therefore forced a passage at a place where I saw our shot had cut away some of the abatis; several others entered at the same place. While passing, a man at my side received a ball in his head and fell under my feet, crying out bitterly.
"By The Light Of the Enemy's Musketry"
While crossing the trench, the enemy threw hand grenades, (small shells) into it; they were so thick that I at first thought them cartridge papers on fire; but was soon undeceived by their cracking. As I mounted the breastwork, I met an old associate hitching himself down into the trench; I knew him by the light of the enemy’s musketry, it was so vivid.
The fort was taken, and all was quiet in a very short time. Immediately after the firing ceased, I went out to see what had become of my wounded friend and the other that fell in the passage—they were both dead. In the heat of the action I saw a British soldier jump over the walls of the fort next the river and go down the bank, which was almost perpendicular, and twenty or thirty feet high; when he came to the beach he made off for the town, and if he did not make good use of his legs I never saw a man that did.
All that were in the action of storming the redoubt were exempted from further duty that night; we laid down upon the ground and rested the remainder of the night as well as a constant discharge of grape and canister shot would permit us to do; while those who were on duty for the day completed the second parallel by including the captured redoubts within it. We returned to camp early in the morning, all safe and sound, except one of our Lieutenants, who had received a slight wound on top of the shoulder by a musket shot. Seven or eight men belonging to the Infantry were killed, and a number wounded.