Sunday, May 29, 2022

ARP247 Siege of Charleston

It’s been a while since we've discussed the war in the south. We last left them in Episode 234 when a combined French and American Force attempted to recapture Savannah Georgia from the British Outpost there. The British managed to hold out and the French sailed for New England. Continental General Benjamin Lincoln was stuck with a relatively small Southern Army, with which he hoped to protect South Carolina and hopefully find a way to recapture Georgia for the Americans. 

Charlestown Defenses

Lincoln, of course, was well aware that the British had their eyes on Charleston South Carolina. They had already attempted a half-hearted attack on the city and almost succeeded in taking it. A big part of Lincoln's time was spent building and reinforcing the defenses in and around Charleston, which was seen as the key to holding the state of South Carolina. 

Sullivan's Island, Charleston Harbor
Lincoln had never wanted the southern command, and had already tried to resign several times. He faced the same frustrations that his predecessors in commanding the southern Continental Army had already faced. The southern governors refused to support the Continental Army, to provide them with the necessary supplies, or to give them command authority over the state militia. The southern colonies also categorically refused to raise much-needed recruits from the enslaved population, which in South Carolina made up A majority of the population. Not only that, many white South Carolinians could not afford to leave their farms for fear that their slaves escape to the British, or perhaps even rise up in rebellion on their own.

General Lincoln hoped that Washington would send more continental soldiers from the north.  He wrote to Washington that “We remain unsupported by troops, unsupplied wt. many essential articles, and uncovered wt. works—and what adds to the unhappiness, is the little prospect that our affairs will speedily be in a better channel.”  Washington, however, was watching his own northern army dwindle in the winter at Morristown, and receiving nothing but unfulfilled promises of new recruits.

Congress did approve some additional support for Charleston after the failed attack on Savannah.  It sent three frigates to help supplement harbor defenses, and a couple of thousand soldiers from Virginia and North Carolina.  But with the northern army strapped for men as well, many of the other states resented having to send assistance to South Carolina.  The state had consistently refused to provide soldiers to northern states in their times of distress, and refused to turn out its people in significant numbers for its own defense.  It was only the fact that the loss of South Carolina would also prevent any hope of retaking Georgia, would probably mean the loss of North Carolina, and would put Virginia at great risk, that convinced those states to the north that they needed to assist South Carolina, even if the people of that state did not seem willing to make make much sacrifice to defend themselves

Massachusetts delegate James Lovell, captured the sentiment of many in Congress, when he wrote: 

The State of Sth. Cara, have thought we neglected them, we know they neglected themselves. They will not draught to fill up their Battalions, they will not raise black Regiments, they will not put their militia when in Camp under continental Rules. However, [he noted with frustration]we must exert ourselves for them in every Way.

To add to Lincoln’s woes, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Charleston. Slave owners refused to allow their valuable property to work on defenses within the city for fear that they might catch the disease and die, thus depriving their masters of valuable property.  

Benjamin Lincoln

Lincoln corresponded with the Spanish governor in Cuba over the idea of raiding the British colonial capital at St Augustine in Florida, in hopes of forcing the British to focus on the defensive rather than new offensive goals. Those negotiations, however, came to nothing. This was, in part, because the Americans had no sufficient forces to send to St. Augustine, nor ships to send them on. The Spanish were also still under orders not to work directly with the Americans.  

Lincoln's hope of defending Charleston was that the size of the British Garrison at Savannah was nowhere near large enough to capture Charleston. The real fear for the Americans was that the British would send a larger force from elsewhere, either to reinforce the Garrison at Savannah, or to launch a larger attack against Charleston from another location.

British Plan of Attack

That fear was very well founded. As I discussed back in Episode 240, the British were very much considering a larger all out assault on South Carolina. Their success in capturing Savannah Georgia, and the hope that a much larger loyalist population in the southern colonies would turn out to support the crown if a British army established a presence, led them to think that they could have a chance of retaking the southern colonies with a relatively small force of regulars. 

Gen. Henry Clinton

British General Henry Clinton had been planning for an invasion of Charleston for nearly two years.  General Clinton’s first foray in the war had been at the head of an invasion fleet in 1776 where he tried to take Charleston, and failed.  He was unable to land his army and the fleet was pounded by Fort Sullivan, later called Fort Moultrie, until they were forced to withdraw, then heading up to New York to participate in the invasion of New York under General Howe (see Episode 96).  Clinton was mortified by his inability to take Charleston in 1776.  He spent years obsessively writing about it and blaming others.  He feared for the longest time that it would end his military career. So capturing Charleston was a personal obsession, and one that he absolutely could not fail at a second time.

Clinton would lead the invasion force personally, bringing with him this top General, Charles Cornwallis, and all of the best soldiers he still commanded in America.  He had abandoned Newport, Rhode Island a few months earlier to consolidate his forces.  He would leave a relatively small force in New York City, under the command of Hessian General Wilhelm von Knyphausen.  

Invasion Fleet

Clinton had left New York on December 26, 1779 with more than 8000 soldiers.  These included several regiments of mounted cavalry, and a large contingent of artillery.  A fleet of 90 ships carried his force southward, accompanied by another fourteen naval warships, six of which were large ships of the line, all commanded by Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, the new naval commander in America and with crews totaling another nearly 5000 sailors.  Leaving little to chance, Clinton was bringing an overwhelming force to take the city.

Marriot Arbuthnot

The voyage south was not an easy one.  On December 27, the first full day at sea, a storm struck the fleet and battered the ships for four days. A couple of days later, the winds began blowing to the northeast, and grew stronger, as the day wore on, not only was the wind blowing the fleet in the wrong directions, the winds toppled masts and inflicted other damage.  Rain, hail, and snow pelted the ships as soldiers and sailors endured brutal cold and seasickness brought on by the stormy ocean.  

Many of the horses suffered broken legs from being thrown about and had to be tossed overboard.  My thoughts go out to the soldiers assigned to carry the 700 pound horse corpse up to the deck, while the ship was rocking violently, then through the pelting snow and hail to throw the horse overboard while avoiding plunging into the sea themselves, then repeat that many more times -- the joys of army life, I guess.

After several weeks of brutal storms, the fleet was scattered all over the Atlantic Ocean.  One ship full of Hessians ended up being blown all the way to England, where it put into port for repairs.

By the end of January, the fleet managed to gather about two-thirds of its ships off the coast of Florida, having well overshot their target in South Carolina.  There, ships got caught up in the gulf stream and got pulled further out to sea.  Finally on February 1, after more than a month at sea, the fleet spotted the lighthouse at Tybee Island and dropped anchor off the Georgia coast near Savannah.  There, the fleet reunited with another 18 ships that had been split off from the fleet during the storms.

At a council of war, held aboard ship, some officers recommended getting off the ships while they could and marching from Savannah to Charleston overland.  Clinton thought it best to sail up using inland waterways.  But the majority of officers strongly objected. Clinton ended up taking their advice to remain at sea.  With the weather improved. Clinton would try his luck on the water for a bit longer.  

He did drop off part of his force at Savannah.  Colonel Banstre Tarleton was tasked with taking his dismounted cavalry to find new horses, since all of his had died during the voyage.  Also leaving the fleet were 1400 infantry soldiers under Brigadier General James Paterson.  His mission was to march toward Augusta as a feint, in hopes that some of the Continentals or militia that might be defending Charleston could be drawn inland to northern Georgia to challenge the British offensive there.  Among Paterson’s brigade was Major Patrick Ferguson, who commanded a regiment of loyalists who had been recruited in the New York area.

After just over a week, on February 9, the fleet departed Savannah, heading north up the coast.  They reached Trench’s Island, known today as Hilton Head, that night.  Two days later, British forces landed on John’s Island just south of Charleston.  For those unfamiliar the southern approach to Charleston is a mess of islands, swamps and waterways, even more so in the 18th century than it is today.  Moving ships through this region was fraught with danger of being caught on a sandbar or otherwise getting hopelessly stuck.

Admiral Arbothnot gave responsibility for the landing to a young captain named George Keith Elphinstone.  Captain Elphinstone came from an old Scottish family. His father was a lord.  Two of his older brothers were British officers. Elphinstone followed the path of a third brother by joining the navy at the age of 15, in time to see combat in America near the end of the French and Indian War.  He spent his career sailing all over the world, including a trip to China for the East India Company.  Elphinstone knew the Carolina coast well and assured his superiors he could get the army ashore without difficulty.

The captain managed to guide the fleet into the outer harbor and offload the army unopposed by any rebel forces.  The quick debarkation was critical since another storm was approaching.  Fortunately for the British they managed to get the men ashore before the storm hit that evening.

The Landing

Generals Clinton and Cornwallis personally landed with the troops, and set about making the approach to Charleston.  Clinton had left a portion of his army in Savannah, so he only had about 6000 soldiers with him by this time.  The British army under General Prevost had occupied this area a few months earlier, but had abandoned it just prior to the Siege of Savannah.  This time, they were back, and in greater numbers.

Johann Ewald
One of the best accounts that we have of the British approach on Charleston comes from Captain Johann Ewald, a Hessian commander whose detailed journal paints an eloquent picture of the British attack.  Ewald’s jaegers marched with a larger division commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster.  The column marched out on February 14, struggling through the swampy terrain in an attempt to reach Stono Ferry. 

At one point, the column stumbled out of the woods to come face to face with what they thought was an ambush.  The column saw a fortified village just on the other side of a river, with armed patriot soldiers.  Ewald noted that the Americans could have cut the column to pieces since they were already within rifle range, were not formed in a line of battle, and had no way of charging the enemy due to the river.

Fortunately for the British it was not an ambush. The patriots defending the area were just as surprised at the presence of the enemy as the British were. Colonel Webster ordered the column to about face and marched out of rifle range while the stunned defenders simply sat and observed, with no one firing.

Ewald then returned to the enemy with one other officer, waiving a white handkerchief.  He approached the enemy, saying that he recognized them as part of Pulaski’s legion and asked about a man he knew who was a member of the legion.  In fact, it was a ruse.  Ewald wanted to get a better look at the defenses and to see if the enemy had boats that might be captured in order to carry the British up river.  The two officers conversed with the enemy and were permitted to return. An American officer even politely warned them to be careful as the swamps they were marching through had alligators as large as sixteen feet.

That night, the Americans retreated.  The British were able to march to Stono on James Island unopposed.  In their new position, General Clinton’s forces were directly across the river from Charleston.

The British forces moved slowly but deliberately.  Although they had begun their landing in early February, they moved cautiously through the swamps and tributaries below Charleston.  General Clinton spent days building up fortifications at Stono Ferry in preparation for his next move forward.  Sending out patrols to gain intelligence or to seize slaves or livestock was fraught with danger.  British patrols fell under ambush.

By March 1, Britain had secured all of James Island, but still was not ready to begin the siege.  Admiral Arbuthnot failed to bring his ships over the sandbar into Charleston Harbor, fearing that his fleet would be subject to attack and unable to escape at low tide.  

On March 10, Lord Cornwallis began crossing his army onto the mainland, fearing an American attack at any time.  The attack never came.  The British Navy managed to send some supply ships up Stono Creek to provide the advancing army with much needed food and supplies.

The British put captured slaves to work as laborers, building fortifications opposite those of the enemy in Charleston.  British engineers then mounted artillery to shell any American ships that attempted to use the waterway between the British and the Americans, and to shell the American fortifications directly.

Rather than attacking the Americans in Charleston directly, the British moved northward to the west of Charleston, with an eye towards surrounding the city. On March 22, General Alexander Leslie led a force of mostly Hessian Jaegers toward two nearby plantations, Middleton Place and Drayton Hall.  There, the British came under American artillery fire. Rather than charge the lines, Leslie had Hessian Captain Ewald take a group of about 50 Jaegers further upriver, cross through a difficult swamp, and attack the American line from the rear.  The Americans withdrew in good order, resulting in the Hessians having only a minor firefight with the American rearguard.

The British continued to move forward.  They met with a few rifle shots now and then, but the soldiers seemed more concerned with the alligators, snakes, and relentless mosquitoes than any human enemies.  The bulk of the Continental Army and militia remained inside Charleston awaiting the inevitable attack, rather than confronting the British out in the swamps.

Although the Americans had built up impressive defenses at Ashley Ferry on the Ashley River, the British managed to sail a small fleet of flatboats right past them at night, without a shot fired.  British light infantry and Hessian Jaegers continued moving around the perimeter of Charleston, capturing key plantations and occasionally skirmishing with American riflemen.

The Boston
By April 1, the British were within 800 yards of the main American lines at Charleston.  The British Navy still had not entered the harbor. The American naval commander, Commodore Abraham Whipple, however, decided his small fleet of frigates: the Providence, Boston, Queen of France, and Ranger and a few smaller sloops would be no match for the British men of war.  The entire fleet had only 112 guns, fewer than two British ships of the line.  Commodore Whipple opted to scuttle most of his ships inside the harbor, creating barriers for the British fleet, and moved his canons to the land defenses around Charleston.

The suicide of the American fleet was enough to convince British Admiral Arbuthnot to enter the harbor.  On April 8, the British fleet sailed past Fort Moultrie, taking only minor damage from the fort’s canons.

It had been more than three months since the British had left New York to begin the campaign. It had taken fifty days to move the British the last thirty miles to get into position. They had yet to fight a major battle. General Clinton moved slowly and cautiously to get his men into a position where they could batter the American defenses relentlessly and compel a surrender.  

By Mid-April, Clinton was ready to begin this new phase of the siege.  Given the superiority of British armaments, the Americans would be forced to retreat, surrender, or die.  In any of those scenarios, General Clinton would finally take Charleston, erasing what he saw as the greatest blemish on his military record.

Next week: the fall of Charleston.

- - -

Next Episode 248 Charleston Falls 

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Further Reading


Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Lincoln, Benjamin Original papers relating to the siege of Charleston, 1780,  Charleston, S.C., Press of Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co. 1898.

Peck, John Mason Lives of Daniel Boone and Benjamin Lincoln, Boston : C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1847. 

Smith, Paul Hubert, Gephart, Ronald M. Letters of delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Vol 14, Washington: Library of Congress, 1987. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999. 

Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The southern conflict that turned the tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (or borrow on

Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998  (borrow on

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies, McFarland & Company, 2000.

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952 (borrow on 

Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964 (borrow on 

Wilson, David K. The Southern Strategy: Britain’s Conquest of South Carolina and Georgia 1775-1780, Univ. of S.C. Press, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

ARP246 Mutiny of the Connecticut Line

For the last few weeks we’ve been looking at events in other parts of the world.  We last left the Continental Army back in Episode 242, where they were enduring the most brutal winter of the war while camped at Morristown, New Jersey.  They were still finding opportunities to attack the British in New York City.

As spring finally came in 1780, the focus on trying to survive the winter could turn to a new focus on how to begin the new fighting season.

Lafayette Returns

One of the bright spots for General Washington was the return of the Marquis de Lafayette.  Recall that Lafayette had returned to France more than a year earlier, in early 1779.  The young general had spent his time in Europe trying to encourage the king to provide more support for the Continental Army, and also trying to encourage a French invasion of England.

Lafayette Returns, 1780.
After the invasion of England fell apart, the French ministry agreed to send an army to America.  Lafayette lobbied hard to lead that army.  The Minister of War, however, did not think the twenty-one year old officer was ready.  Although Lafayette was a major general in the Continental Army, he had left France three years earlier as a captain, who was not even on active duty.  

His success in America had permitted him to purchase a colonelcy in the King’s Dragoons, at a cost of 80,000 livres.  This also put him back on the active list of the French Army.  Even so, his youth and inexperience was not sufficient for France to entrust him with the command of a 6000 man army.

Instead, that honor went to General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, better known as the comte de Rochambeau.  I’ll get into more details about Rochambeau in a future episode, but the man had been a general in the French Army since before Lafayette was born.  

Rather than making Lafayette an aide to Rochambeau, the ministry directed Lafayette to return to the Continental Army.  There, he could be of service by helping to coordinate actions between the Continental and French armies.  Lafayette was a bit disappointed over not receiving command of the French Army, although even he must have seen that as a reach.  Instead, he requested that it be made public that he had requested to return to America to rejoin the Continentals.  It would seem more honorable if it was his idea.

Lafayette once again put on his Continental uniform.  Unlike his last departure for America, when he had to sneak out of the country against the wishes of the King, this time he visited Versailles and received the King’s best wishes with his mission. The King even gave him a personal note to deliver to General Washington, informing Washington that the French army that would arrive soon on American shores. 

The last time he left, his wife Adrienne was pregnant with her first child.  By the time of his second departure, he stuck around long enough to see the birth of his second child, who he named George Washington de Lafayette.

Lafayette departed months ahead of the French Army with only a few companions aboard the French frigate The Hermione.  The voyage got off to a bad start when strong headwinds broke the mainmast and the ship had to return to port for repairs, with three English cutters chasing her.  

About a week later, with the repairs effected and the ocean free of any visible enemy vessels, the Hermione departed once again.  This time, the voyage enjoyed fair winds, a smooth ocean, and did not come into contact with any British ships.  Only one crew member died of fever, so a pretty good trip by the standards of the day.  Six weeks later, at the end of April, Lafayette arrived in Boston.

Again, his reception was very different from his first arrival in America.  Three years earlier, he had been shunned and ignored by most Americans, including members of Congress, as an unwanted adventurer.  Upon his return, he was the toast of Boston. Congressman Samuel Adams and Governor John Hancock held banquets in his honor. The city celebrated his arrival with fireworks and parades.  Even the Congress in Philadelphia passed a resolution celebrating his return. 

After several days in Boston, Lafayette departed on May 2, insisting on getting to General Washington without further delay.  Much of the city gathered to celebrate the French hero, and to escort him out of the city.

It took Lafayette more than a week to travel from Boston to the Continental Camp at Morristown, New Jersey.  Despite clamorous Americans, poor roads, and roving bands of Loyalists looking to intercept him, he managed to make the 250 mile ride in about a week, arriving May 10.  Washington was overjoyed with Lafayette’s return.  

Lafayette brought Washington the good news that an army of 6000 French soldiers and six ships on the line were following behind him.  The King of France had ordered the French army to serve as auxiliaries, under General Washington’s command. 

The Continental Army’s leaders spent the next few days making plans on how to use the new reinforcements.  The Americans were not sure exactly where the French fleet would arrive, and had to send officers to all the major ports in order to ensure a proper welcome.  They also had the difficult task of trying to find the necessary food and supplies to feed and house the French soldiers.

Washington, of course, wanted to attack New York City.  He had been eager to return there ever since the British pushed him out in 1776.  Now, with the bulk of the British army down in Charleston, and with the addition of the French Army and Navy, the chances of recapturing the city had never been better.  

At the same time, the Americans hoped to have some element of surprise. The British would be well aware that a French Army was headed to America, but could only guess at their first target.  In order to throw them off the obvious target of New York, the Continentals let it be known that the French Army would be used to take Quebec.  This was never a real goal.  It was only used as disinformation for the enemy.

Logistical Struggles

Despite Lafayette’s good news the Continentals had some very severe struggles to contend with.  Congress had promised France that the Continental Army would have 25,000 soldiers available for a spring campaign.  Of the 12,000 or so soldiers that went into winter quarters in Morristown, deaths and desertions had taken the toll.  The Army had only about 8000 by spring.  Of those, only between 5000 and 6000 were fit for duty.

The men were in miserable condition.  They had been on an estimated one-eighth food rations over the winter, often going days at a time with nothing at all to eat.  General Washington had ordered a punishment of a minimum of 100 lashes for anyone who left camp looking for food.  The lack of adequate clothing led many men to freeze to death.  Soldiers did not even receive the paper money they were promised, even though the money was pretty much worthless anyway.  It was an absolutely miserable experience.  

Even though the majority of soldiers stuck it out, few new recruits were eager to join an army that treated its soldiers so poorly.  Recruiting for the spring campaign proved almost impossible.  Even states that attempted to draft recruits were coming up short.

Congress had sent a commission to Morristown to curtail the “waste, fraud, and abuse” that must have been the cause of the army’s problems, but found it could do nothing.  The committee had tried to meet with Nathanael Greene, the Army’s Quartermaster General.  Greene had taken on the job of Quartermaster two years earlier at Valley Forge.  He did not want the job and only took it at the pleading of George Washington, who needed someone loyal and capable to take over during the height of the Conway Cabal. Greene did his duty, but continually complained that he wanted to be a line officer and to return to a field command. 

Nathanael Greene

When the Congressional Committee came to Morristown, the Quartermaster department was a primary focus.  The Committee seemed to think that the problem feeding the army was not that farmers were doing everything possible to avoid accepting worthless paper Continental dollars at face value for their food, but rather that the Quartermaster Corps had too many men on the payroll and that they were probably corrupt.  The department was spending over $400,000 per month and had hired more than 3000 men to supply the army with its necessities.  Congress believed they could find some fat to cut there.

Although Congress had cleared Greene of any impropriety in several investigations, delegates figured that some of his underlings were up to no good.  General Greene refused even to meet with the committee at Morristown unless they were willing to address the larger problems that existed.  He was not going to participate in pointless attempts to look for corruption within his department if the committee was unwilling to look at the actual problem of farmers wanting real compensation for the food they provided.

A few months later, based on the Committee’s investigation Congress ended up reforming the Quartermaster Corps, and cutting the jobs of most of the purchasing agents.  This caused Greene to fire off a resignation letter, comparing the Congress to officials in London.  Although Greene only intended to resign as quartermaster General, and return to duty as a Continental line officer, Congress found his letter so disrespectful, that they considered removing him from the army entirely.  It was only the efforts of General Washington that Congress was dissuaded from this course of action.

Meanwhile the soldiers continued to die from cold, hunger, and disease under terrible conditions.  Even in the spring, when it got warmer, the deaths continued.  In April, before Lafayette’s arrival, French Minister Luzerne and the unofficial Spanish Minister Don Juan de Miralles, came to Morristown to consult with Washington and to see conditions for themselves.

General Von Steuben tried to put together a military parade in their honor, but had trouble assembling even four regiments who were decently uniformed and who had enough men capable of marching, to turn out for the review.

Spanish minister Miralles came down with pneumonia.  After ten days of care, he died at Morristown.  After his burial in a lavish ceremony, the army posted a guard over his grave to prevent desperate soldiers from digging it up and trying to steal the clothing from the corpse.

Connecticut Mutiny

If there was one thing that General Washington, Quartermaster Greene, and the congressional committee agreed on, it was that the army was in a truly desperate situation.  Nearly everyone aware of the situation expressed surprise at the fact that the soldiers had put up with so much for so long, and had not already mutinied.  The committee reported to Congress that the situation could mean the loss of the cause:

Their starving condition, Their want of pay, & the variety of hardships they have ben driven to sustain, has soured their tempers, & produced a spirit of discontent which begins to display itself under a complexion of the most alarming hue. If this spirit should fully establish itself, it must be productive of some violent convultion, infinitely to our prejudice at home, & abroad, as it would evince a want of means, or a want of wisdom to apply them. Either of which must bring our cause into discredit & draw in its train, consequences of a nature too serious to be contemplated without the deepest anxiety.

The suffering and deprivation was universal throughout the army.  The soldiers’ frustration finally exploded on the evening of May 25.  A detachment from a Connecticut regiment spent the morning digging graves for eleven fellow soldiers who were scheduled to be executed the following day.  The duty had put the men in a foul mood.  That evening, they began wandering across the parade grounds, talking back at officers and refusing any orders.  

A frustrated officer called one of the men a “mutinous dog.” The man shouted to his fellow soldiers, “who will parade with me?”  The two Connecticut regiments fell in, shouldered arms, and marched out of camp, presumably headed for home, or perhaps to another part of the line to gather more mutineers.  They ignored the screams of officers to halt or turn back.  

The officers grabbed one of the men who they thought had given a command, and tried to make an example of him. They were forced to back off when several of the man’s comrades pointed their bayonets at the officers.  The officers attempted a mix of threats and enticements of food to get the soldiers to stand down, but they refused.  Lieutenant Colonel John Sumner appeared and ordered the men to shoulder arms. The men stood silently and ignored the order as Colonel Sumner launched into a stream of invectives.  Frustrated, he simply walked off the field.  The brigade commander Return Jonathan Meigs, who I’ve mentioned before led several daring raids against the British, attempted to get the mutineers to stand down.  Although he was a popular commander in the Connecticut line, he threatened to force the issue.  One account says that a soldier struck him.  Another account says a soldier leveled a musket at him and threatened to kill him.

Mutiny at Morristown
Other officers attempted to assemble a Pennsylvania regiment to prevent the Connecticut soldiers from leaving.  However, after the men learned the purpose of the mission, the officers heard mutterings that perhaps they should join with their comrades from Connecticut.  In the end, the officer sent the Pennsylvania soldiers back to their quarters, lest they decide to join the mutiny rather than put it down.

Later, one of the Pennsylvania officers Colonel Walter Stewart approached the mutinous soldiers.  Rather than bark orders at them, he simply asked the men what their issues were and why they had not gone to their officers.  The men laughed at him.  Stewart continued though, pointing out that the officers were suffering as much as the men, that they were hungry too.  He went on to say that their conduct this day was only going to injury their own characters: “You Connecticut troops have won immortal honor to yourselves this winter past, by our perseverance, patience and bravery, and now you are shaking it off at your heels.”

This appeal to their honor had some impact on the soldiers.  They had cooled off enough that they agreed to return to camp.  No one was ever prosecuted over the incident, and according to one of the soldiers, Private Joseph Plumb Martin, whose narrative we have most to thank for a description of this incident, he noted that for the next few weeks, they had no cause to complain for the amount of food that the regiment received.  Washington also commuted the sentences of ten of the eleven men who had been condemned to die the following day.

George Washington used the incident to appeal once again to Congress for more support for the army, saying that the mutiny had “given me infinitely more concern than any thing that has ever happened.”  He also wrote to Pennsylvania President Joseph Reed saying that if Pennsylvania did not provide everything the army needed, it could undertake nothing.  

Washington knew that French reinforcements were expected any day to meet up with an army of 25,000 Continental soldiers, well disciplined, and with the resources necessary to begin the campaign that would hopefully end the war.  That spring, on the eve of the arrival of the French army, Washington would have been lucky to be able to field 10,000 soldiers in the northern department, and even those he could not feed, clothe, and arm properly.

In his letter to President Reed, Washington asserted that

In modern Wars the longest purse must chiefly determine the event—I fear that of the enemy will be found to be so—though the Government is deeply in debt & of course poor, the nation is rich and their riches afford a fund wch will not be easily exhausted. 

In other words, it was not battlefield victories which would win.  It was the willingness of the people to continue paying the costs of war longer than the other side was willing to tolerate.  To Washington, and most others, it appeared that the government was reaching its limit. People were unwilling to supply the soldiers, ammunition, food, clothing and other supplies necessary to continue the war.  

Washington hoped that a final push in 1780 might be enough to break the will of the British to continue pouring money into the war.  America’s greatest chance would come with the arrival of the French, but only if the Continental Army could field a force as large and well supplied as it had in previous years.  That was looking increasingly unlikely.  Absent a great victory, Washington’s unspoken fear seemed to be that the American people would grow weary of the sacrifice, and return to colonial status in order to end the ongoing conflict.  Once again, Washington could only vent his frustration that he would not have the resources he needed to deliver a crushing blow at the right time.

Next week, we head to Charleston, where the British will deliver a crushing blow of their own against the Continental Army’s southern department.

- - -

Next Episode 247 Siege of Charleston 

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Further Reading


“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 3 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, 26 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“Proclamation of Pardon, 26 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 26 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 27–28 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to the Board of War, 27 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Joseph Reed, 28 May 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Schenawolf, Harry “Hatter to Hero: American Revolution Colonel Jonathan Meigs’ Incredible Story” Revolutionary War Journal,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Greene, George Washington The Life of Nathanael Greene, Vol. 2, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press 1871. 

Lossing, Benson J. The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler, Vol. 2, New York: Sheldon & Co. 1873. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Clary, David A. Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution, Bantam Books, 2007. 

Cunningham, John T. The Uncertain Revolution: Washington and the Continental Army at Morristown, Down the Shore Publishing, 2007. 

Unger, Harlow Giles Lafayette, Wiley, 2002. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.