STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — The stone that marks Joseph Plumb Martin’s grave in the Sandy Point Cemetery just 20 feet from cars racing by on busy U.S. Route 1 simply reads, “A Soldier of the Revolution.” The American flag and brass medallion denote the grave as that of a veteran, but by his own account, Martin died a disillusioned veteran.
Martin never became famous, but his seven years fighting the British as a lowly foot soldier and his struggles to carve out a life in Maine after the war — butting heads with a former commander of the Army — provide peerless insight into the era of the nation’s birth and the challenges Mainers faced as part of Massachusetts.
Phil Mead, a history and literature lecturer at Harvard University, has studied Martin’s life extensively and written about him. But Mead says the best information about Martin is available in his own words. In 1830 at age 70, living in Stockton Springs in Waldo County, then part of the town of Prospect, Martin wrote a memoir of his war years, “A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier.”
A Hallowell publisher printed the book, originally as an anonymous account of the war, but Mead said locals knew who had written it.
The accounts of battles, travels and hardship proved surprisingly accurate when compared to other records, Mead said, given that Martin wrote nearly 50 years later. Beginning in the 20th century, the book began to be embraced by historians as a primary source document.
“I think his memoir is without a doubt the most elaborate, detailed memoir of a Continental regular soldier in the Revolutionary War,” Mead said. “More than that, it’s a statement of principles about democracy.”
Those principles are articulated at the end of the memoir, when Martin revealed how the government of the fledgling democracy treated him and other veterans.
“I’ve been fascinated by Martin since I first read his memoir when I was 10 years old,” Mead said. As a historian, Mead wrote a chapter in the book “ Revolutionary Founders” about Martin.
Born in Becket, Mass., in 1760, his father was a minister, whose work took the family to Ashford, Conn. The father did not get along with people, which led to him leaving churches, Mead said. He also could not get along with his children, it seemed to Mead, because Martin left home as a teen to live in Massachusetts with his maternal grandfather, Joseph Plumb, whom he remembered fondly as a warm and supportive man.
When Martin, just 15, heard of the British firing on the nascent patriots, he was moved to join a Connecticut group of colonial troops. A year later he became part of the Continental Army. He fought in dozens of battles, some famous, some that escaped the popular lore of the day because, as Martin wryly noted in his memoir, Gen. George Washington was not at those conflicts.
But Martin did stay with Washington during the infamous winter at Valley Forge, and describes eating shoe leather and scavenging for nuts. The army’s provisions were woefully inadequate, he wrote.
“After the war, he followed rumors of free land in Maine,” Mead said. Many war veterans “walked straight to Maine,” expecting their reward.
The Waldo Patent, land given to Samuel Waldo, a general who fought for the British during the French and Indian Wars, “was up for grabs,” Mead said, given that the British no longer controlled it. Martin settled on 100 acres in Stockton Springs in 1784, cleared the land and began farming.
But when General Henry Knox, who served with Washington, secured legal control of the Waldo Patent as payment for his service, Martin and other war veterans were in trouble. Martin and his fellow vets were treated as squatters, Mead said.
“One of their former commanders sort of betrays them by buying the land out from under them,” Mead said. Some vets formed a guerrilla group known as the White Indians, and attacked surveyors working for Knox.
“We don’t know for sure if Martin was a ‘White Indian’ or not,” Mead said, but clearly his and their plights were the same. Since Maine was part of Massachusetts then, that state formed a commission to appraise the land and people like Martin had to pay the difference between the unimproved and improved values.
For Martin, it was $100, “a significant amount of money,” Mead said.
Martin had married a woman from Cape Jellison, a part of Stockton, Lucy Clewley. They had a daughter and a mentally disabled son. He could not pay, and a letter has been found in which he pleads with Knox for more time to pay.
In 1811, records show Martin living on 56 acres. In 1818, he applied for a veteran’s pension, and reported owning no real estate.
“His memoir reflects some of his disappointment” in how he was treated, Mead said.
Martin served as Prospect’s town clerk for 28 years, a selectman for a time in that town, a representative to the Massachusetts General Court and a captain in the Maine militia.
“He says in the final lines of the memoir that the U.S. made soldiers fulfill their contracts but was negligent in fulfilling its promises to them,” Mead said. He writes, “They had all the power and we had none — such things ought not to be.”
“In a republic, people have to be watchful that power doesn’t become too concentrated,” Mead said was Martin’s conclusion.
“Martin obviously was a very smart, intellectually inquisitive man,” Mead said. He established a church in Stockton Springs, composed a hymn that is still sung by the congregation, read extensively, and, as an amateur naturalist, painted birds and flowers. He also was an antiquarian, preserving some artifacts that are still in Maine historical collections. He died in Stockton at age 90.
Mead believes Martin relied on a diary to write the memoir. He also hopes that some of Martin’s paintings have survived, and encourages anyone with information about them to contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.