Joseph Plumb Martin was the most influential soldier from the American Revolution that most of us know nothing about. His 1830 memoir - originally published as "Private Yankee Doodle" - is among the most referenced, 1st person accounts of the war. With the sole exception of Washington's papers, you would be hard pressed to name a more commonly cited source in either the academic or popular histories of the Revolutionary period, especially those of the past few decades. Martin has become the Patriot everyman, the subject of a PBS documentary, and his narrative is now available under different title in several print editions.
Martin's account appeals to readers and writers of Revolutionary history for a number of reasons that together contribute to its ubiquity in the literature. It is widely acclaimed as the most comprehensive account of the war by a common soldier. Its wry and accessible style is colorful and self aware, and therefore engages the general reader. It is full of anecdotes that brings the life of a teen-aged soldier in the ragged Continentals vividly to light, and is thus a major source for the impressions of soldier life depicted by period reenactors. There are even a few fortuitous 1st-hand accounts that seem to verify the stuff of legend, such as the woman who served a cannon at Monmouth.
All these are reason enough to explain the multitude of historians who draw from Martin's observations, but there is also the fact that it is widely available. One need not delve into the dusty archives of various rare book collections or have access to academic search engines when a quote of Martin's will serve. I own the Signet Classic edition, and I must agree that it is an engaging account, though not always for the reasons most cited. Neither is its mere existence as singular as its publishers would suggest, for there are other accounts by common soldiers, though you have to work a littler harder to find them.
There is, for example, the Military Journal of Jeremiah Greenman, published in an annotated edition as Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Like Martin, Greenman served for virtually the entire length of the conflict, and while Martin ended his military career with the rank of Sergeant, Greenman's last promotion was to regimental adjutant. One significant different is that Greenman's journal is a primary record kept during the conflict (though there are places that appear to have been revised at a later date). Martin, on the other hand, wrote his narrative in his old age, and while many historians assume he based his work on a diary, no such account survives. As a primary source, Greenman's is therefore closer to the events it describes, and remained unpublished until 1978. Martin wrote with veiled anonymity, but his narrative was published during his lifetime, and the author's agenda must therefore be taken into account when assessing its value as a primary source.
Perhaps other editions of Martin's narrative benefit from comprehensive annotations, but mine certainly lacks such historical context and in my opinion would have benefited from more of it. There are many obscure references that are left unexplained. Greenman's diary is published by an academic press and transcribed as literally and faithfully as possible while preserving legibility. The archaic prose and irregular spelling remains intact, which may result in a more challenging read for a general reader. To the historian, though, it is a valuable work that deserved more exposure than it has thus far received.
Martin's is undoubtedly a superior work of literature and is truly unique for its period. It is not really fair to compare the two texts along these lines, as they are entirely different kinds of writing and written many decades apart. Martin's narrative is actually much more akin to another work of a later war - Sam Watkins' memoir of his Confederate service "Company Aytch" - and fulfills much the same role as that frequently cited source does in Civil War history writing. Martin's prose appeals to me particularly for its memorable anecdotes, such as a cat streaking in flames from a burning building, or a drunken lark on the ice of the frozen Hudson. I am a bit more skeptical about his recollections of Molly Pitcher, which are often cited as evidence of her existence:
"One little incident happened, during the heat of the cannonade, which I was eye-witness to, and which I think would be unpardonable not to mention. A woman whose husband belonged to the Artillery, and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece the whole time; while in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat, - looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed, that it was lucky it did not pas a little higher, for in that case it might have carries away something else, and ended her and her occupation"
Historian and artist Don Troiani depicted Molly Pitcher with the tattered petticoat described by Martin. It is a wonderful description, and had it been included in a contemporary diary like Greenman's, rather than a memoir written more than half a century later, I should be blackguarded for not taking him at his word. As Molly Pitcher's story was then known (and the woman most frequently associated with her still living), one has to wonder whether Martin truly saw what he says he remembers. Many historians take Martin's statements at face value, but what memoir written in old age is free of embellishment?
I am glad that individuals like Joseph Plumb Martin and Jeremiah Greenman took the time to record their experiences, and so in addition to their hard service made valuable contributions to our understand of those times. I am grateful that their accounts were though worthy of preserving and subsequent publication. Each has its strengths and limitations, and each offers something different from the other. Each needs to be taken on its own terms as well, and if Martin should be read with a grain of salt and Greenman should be more widely read and referenced, that in no way diminishes their importance. Nor are they the only uncommon voices of common soldiers who left an historical record of their service in the Revolution. A quick search of Google Books reveals Elijah Fisher's Journal, the Memoir of William Burke, the Diary of David Howe and the Journal of Soloman Nash. It would be refreshing if some of their observations found their way intothe next round of Revolutionary War histories. Martin has seen hard service, and deserves a furlough.