The Mutiny of the Pennsylvania and Jersey Line

January, 1781


In 1780, the British were inactive in New York City, the American government was over streached finacially, and the army was again under staffed, poorly fed, and seldom paid. Washington dispersed the Army in cantonments around New York, from Morristown to Connecticut. This allowed supplies to travel less, reduced the strain on local areas, and allowed the Army to protect against the raids the British forces made.

In December of 1780, the 6 regiments of the Pennsylvania Line was quartered at Jockey Hollow south of Morristown. According to their commander, General Anthony Wayne, writing to Pennsylvania President Reed, on December 16th:
we are reduced to dry bread and beef for our food, and to cold water for our drink. Neither officers or soldiers have received a single drop of spirituous liquors from the public magazines since the10th of October last, except one gill per man some time in November, this, together with the old worn out coats and tattered linen overalls, and what was once a poor substitute for a blanket (now divided among three soldiers), is but very wretched living and shelter against the winter's piercing cold, drifting snows and chilling sleets.
Our soldiery are not devoid of reasoning faculties, nor are they callous to the first feelings of nature, they have now served their country with fidelity for near five years, poorly clothed, badly fed and worse paid; of the last article, trifling as it is, they have not seen a paper dollar in the way of pay for near twelve months.

Shortly after this, Pennsylvania sent out recruiting parties to the camp to re-enlist men. They were offering 25 dollars in silver for recruits- while the currant soldiers could not get paid. In addition, they were told that anyone who had enlisted for "three years or the duration" would have to serve the longer of the terms, while it was obvious that it should mean the shorter of the two. (Congress would not want to pay and maintain men after the war.)
The New Jersey Brigade, under General William "Scotch Willie" Maxwell, were stationed in East Jersey along the coast near Elizabethtown. They were beset by many of the same problems.
On January 1st, 1781, the Pennsylvania Line mutinied. The following account is taken from "The Spirit of Seventy-Six", edited by Henry Steele Commanger and Richard B. Morris, page 769-770.

Lieutenant Enos Reeves of the Pennsylvania Line
Mount Kemble, N. J., January 2, 1781
Yesterday being the last time we (the officers of the regiment) expected to be together, as the arrangement was to take place this day, we had an elegant regimental dinner and entertainment, at which all the field and other officers were present, with a few from the German regiment, who had arrived with the men of their regiment that belong to the Penna. Line. We spent the day very pleasantly and the evening till about ten o'clock as cheerfully as we could wish, when we were disturbed by the huzzas of the soldiers upon the Right Division, answered by those on the Left.
I went on the Parade and found numbers in small groups whispering and busily running up and down the line, In a short time a gun was fired upon the right and answered by one on the right of the Second Brigade, and a skyrocket thrown from the center of the first, which was accompanied by a general huzza throughout the line, and the soldiers running out with their arms, accoutrements and knapsacks.
I immediately found it was a mutiny, and that the guns and skyrocket were the signals. The officers in general exerted themselves to keep the men quiet, and keep them from turning out. We each applied himself to his own company, endeavored to keep them in their huts and lay by their arms, which they would do while we were present, but the moment we left one hut to go to another, they would be out again. Their excuse was they thought it was an alarm and the enemy coming on.
Next they began to move in crowds to the Parade, going up to the right, which was the place appointed for their rendezvous. Lieut. White of our regiment, in endeavoring to stop one of those crowds, was shot through the thigh, and Capt. Samual Tolbert in opposing another party was shot through the body, of which he is very ill. They continued huzzaing and firing in a riotous manner, so that it soon became dangerous for an officer to oppose them by force. We then left them to go their own way.
Hearing a confused noise to the right, between the line of huts and Mrs. Wicks, curiosity led me that way, and it being dark in the orchard I mixed among the crowd and found they had broken open the magazine and were preparing to take off the cannon.
In taking possession of the cannon they forced the sentinel from his post and placed one of their own men. One of the mutineers coming officiously up top force him away, (thinking him to be one of our sentinels) received a ball through the head and died instantly.
A dispute arose among the mutineers about firing the alarms with the cannon, and continued for a considerable time- one party aledging that it would arouse the timid soldiery, the other objected because it would alarm the inhabitants. For a while I expected the dispute would be decided by the bayonet, but the gunner in the meantime slipped up to the piece and put a match to it, which ended the affair. Every discharge of the cannon was accompanied by a confused huzza and a general discharge of musketry.
About this time Gen. Wayne and several field officers (mounted) arrived. Gen. Wayne and Col. Richard Butler spoke to them for a considerable time, but it had no effect. Their answer was, they had been wronged and were determined to see themselves righted. He replied that he would right them as far as in his power. They rejoined, it was out of his power; their business was not with the officers, but with Congress and the Governor and the Council of the State; 'twas they had wronged and they must right. With that, several platoons fired over the General's head. The General called out, " If you mean to kill me, shoot me at once- here is my breast!" opening his coat. They replied that it was not their intention to hurt or disturb an officer of Line (two or three individuals excepted), that they had nothing against their officers, and they would oppose any person that would attempt anything of the kind.
A part of the Fourth Regiment was paraded and led on by Capt. Campbell, to recapture the cannon; they were ordered to charge and rush on. They charged but would not advance, then dispersed and left the officer alone. Soon after a soldier form the mob made a charge upon Lieut. Col. William Butler, who was obliged to retreat between the huts to save his life. He went around one hut and the soldier around another to head him, met Capt. Bettin who was coming down the alley, who seeing a man coming towards him a a charge, charged his espontoon to oppose him, when the fellow fired his piece and shot the captain through the body and he died two hours later.
About twelve o'clock they sent parties to relieve or seize the old camp guard, and posted sentinels all round the camp. At one o'clock they moved off towardsthe left of the line with the cannon and when they reached the centre they fired a shot. As they came down the line, they turned soldiers out of every hut, and those who would not go with them were obliged to hide till they were gone. They continued hzzaing and a disorderly firing till they went off, about two o'clock, with drums and fifes playing, under command of the sergeants, in regular platoons, with a front and rear guard.
General Wayne met them as they were marching off and endeavored to persuade them back, but to no purpose; he then inquired which way they were going, and they replied either to Trenton or Philadelphia. He begged them not to attempt to go to the enemy. They declared it was not their intention, and that they would hang any man who would attempt it, and for that, if the enemy should come out in consequence of this revolt, they would turn back and fight them. "If that is your sentiments", said the General, "I'll not leave you, and if you wont allow me to march in your front, I'll follow in your rear."
This day Col. Stewart and Richard Butler joined General Wayne in hopes they could turn them when they grew cooler, being much agitated with liquor when they went off, it being New Years Day, they had drawn half a pint per man. The men have continued going off in small parties all day. About one o'clock one hundred head of cattle came in from the eastward, which they drove off to their main body, which lay in a wood near Vealtown, leaving a few behind for the use of the officers.
When we came to draw provisions and State stores this day, we found that near half of the men of our regiment had remained.
The men went off very civily last night to what might have been expected from such a mob. They did not attempt to plunder our officers' huts or insult them in the least, except those who were obstinate in opposing them. They did not attempt to take with them any part of the State stores, which appears to me a little extraordinary, for men when they get but little want more.
The militia are called out- they are too assemble at Chatham- in order to oppose the enemy if they come out, or the mutineers if they attempt going to them.
Reeves, "Extracts", Penn. Mag. Of Hist. And Biog. XXI, 72, 75

The Mutineers marched south to Vealtown during the night, and then went on to Princeton. Others who had not immediately joined them, followed the next day. They marched in regiment fashion, under strict discipline, without disturbing the inhabitants, which was considered highly remarkable. At Princeton they were approached by two British agents, who offered them back pay in hard cash if they would desert to the enemy. These two men were arrested as spies, and turned over to be tried as spies. (They were later convicted by a trial of officers and hanged.)
Pennsylvania President Reed met them in Princeton, where he was received with respect. A board of sergeants made their demands known to him, and he made some proposals to assurage them, and passed on some communications from Congress. They agreed to march to Trenton (away from the British), where the negotiations continued.
A Commission was appointed to review the disputed enlistment's, and it granted immediate discharges to those who professed their enlistment's were up, a process Washington was later to object to strongly, as he said the army should have been given time to bring forward the enlistment papers for each man first.
The soldiers also were promised payment of part of their back pay, and a supply of various articles badly needed. Many of those who received discharges, re-enlisted to receive the bounty after a short furlough, with in 20 days.

A few weeks later, part of the New Jersey Line stationed at Pompton also mutinied. Washington could not let mutiny become a standard for the army and decided to take harsh measures to stop it.

The mutineers marched to Ringwood, on the route to Trenton, when Washington had them surrounded by New England troops, and the militia, and forced them to surrender. One ringleader from each regiment was tried for Mutiny, and two were executed immediately by a firing squad made up of the convicted mutineers.
There would be no more coddling of mutineers by Washington. The situation was too explosive. While he had the deepest sympathy for the soldiers, and worked hard to get better food, clothing, and comfort for the men, discipline had to be kept.

What is amazing about the Revolution is not that some of its soldiers mutinied. It is that, under horrible conditions of little food, while poorly dressed with little or no pay and no way to get relief, and with the phrases of liberty and freedom ringing in their ears, not mutiny was pretty rare. The common soldier was evidently a political person who understood and believed in his cause.



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