Sunday, July 9, 2023

ARP276 Mutiny in the Continental Army

This week we are going to take a look at one of the darkest hours of the American Revolution.  I’ve spoken before about the miserable neglect and living conditions of the soldiers throughout most of their enlistments, but especially during winter encampments.

Over the winter of 1780-81, most of the attention was going to Nathanael Greene’s efforts to recover control of the southern states.  Even Greene could not get the food and equipment he needed for his soldiers in the field.

Up north, the Continental Army remained in a stalemate.  General Washington could not get enough men together to make a credible attack on the British in New York.  He continued to beg Congress and the states for food, uniforms, and munitions so that his army could do more than slowly starve and rot away.  Many of the men had to share clothing in order to go outside, as their clothes had long worn out and fallen apart.  They did not receive enough food to survive, and many showed signs of long term malnutrition.

It was no surprise that men who had sacrificed years of suffering for the cause, felt like they were being ignored and their efforts unappreciated by a civilian population.  Washington had only 5000 or 6000 men under his command during the winter encampment.  To help spread out the logistical needs of his army, he kept about half of his army up around New Windsor, New York, just a few miles upriver from West Point.  Most of these forces were from New England.  The other half of the army camped in and around Morristown, New Jersey.  These were mostly soldiers from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey lines.  The senior officer at Morristown was General Anthony Wayne.

New Year’s day 1781 was treated as a holiday. General and Mrs. Washington received visitors at his temporary headquarters.   The officers organized parties for themselves.  The enlisted men were released from drill and most other regular duties.  They received a half pint of rum or other liquor to celebrate the new year.  


Many soldiers, however, were not in a celebratory mood.  The lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter was nothing new.  But the new year also brought a new point of contention.

Most of the army had signed up for long-term enlistments at Valley Forge over the winter of 1777-1778.  These enlistments were for three years or the duration of the war.  Most men interpreted that as meaning that they would serve for the duration, unless the war lasted more than three years, in which case their enlistment would be done at the end of those three years.  Congress, however, decided to interpret the enlistments as meaning they would serve for the duration of the war, no matter how long that was, and that if the war ended early, they could still be held in service for up to three years.

Cabins at Jockey Hollow
On top of that, many soldiers had not received their promised enlistment bonuses from when they had enlisted years earlier, nor the pay that they were supposed to receive, meager as it was.  At the same time, new enlistees were receiving $27 in silver as well as a promise of 200 acres of land when the war ended.  It was only through these generous benefits that Congress could attract any new men to enlist.  The men who had fought for years were not offered anything comparable. 

Many of those who had served for more than three years felt that they had done their part for the effort and were ready to go home.  Some of them were willing to continue fighting for the cause, but believed they had the right to reenlist and receive the same signing benefits that new enlistees were receiving.

The men had taken up these issues with their officers, who had passed the complaints up the chain of command.  As commander, Washington had received these complaints and repeatedly warned Congress and the states that leaders needed to offer something to these men who continued to sacrifice so much on behalf of their country.  Congress and the states offered almost nothing.  Instead, they continued to put off the issue, citing lack of resources.

The Pennsylvania Line 

Unlike the modern US Army, the Continental Army tended to keep its regiments grouped by state and locality.  The Pennsylvania Line consisted of recruits from Pennsylvania, which had provided 13 regiments to the army.  Over the years, these regiments had shrunk to the point where they were considered hollow, not enough men to constitute a real regiment. In 1780, officials decided to consolidate the line into just six regiments.  That consolidation was scheduled to take place on January 1, 1781.

On New Year’s day, the men of the Pennsylvania line gathered together to drink and discuss their problems.  Their officers were mostly off attending parties, leaving the men to themselves.  Since their officers had been unable to address their grievances for years, the soldiers decided they needed to take up the issue directly with government officials.  They would abandon their officers, march to Philadelphia, and take up their concerns directly with the Continental Congress and the Pennsylvania state government.

The men agreed to follow the authority of their sergeants who, in turn, formed their own chain of command under the leadership of a Board of Sergeants.  The goal was to maintain order and discipline during the march, without the leadership of any officers.

That night, officers reported a skyrocket was fired as a signal for the men to turn out and prepare to march.  Lieutenant Francis White attempted to stop a group of soldiers. They shot him in the thigh and continued on their way.  Captain Samuel Tolbert took a more aggressive approach, using his sword to attack a non-compliant soldier.  The soldier Absalom Evans, responded by shooting Captain Tolbert.  Another officer, Captain Adam Bettin, attempted to stop a soldier and was shot in the gut.  There were other accounts like this with in juries listed on both sides. Captain Bettin, however, would be the only officer to die from his wound.

With the officers cowed, the soldiers seized their artillery and tried to encourage their more reluctant comrades to join them.  According to some later accounts, some men, or even entire regiments, were forced at bayonet point to join the march. Soon the Pennsylvania line was on the march toward Philadelphia.

General Anthony Wayne heard the gunfire and left his 36th birthday party to rush to the camp.  Along the way, he encountered some of the mutineers marching down the road. Wayne tried to appeal to the men, promising to raise their concerns himself.  But the men had heard such promises before and were unconvinced the general could do anything to relieve their condition.

Soon, one of the men fired a shot over Wayne’s head.  In response, Wayne opened his coat and said “If you mean to kill me, shoot me at once - here at my breast!”  A spokesman for the group responded that they had nothing against General Wayne, and wished him no harm, but that they were determined to bring their complaints directly to Philadelphia.  

By 2:00 AM, more than one thousand soldiers of the Pennsylvania line were in formation and marching away from camp.  Wayne returned to his headquarters to write to Washington about what had happened.  Washington received the letter the following day, and immediately wrote back to urge Wayne to stay with his troops and to urge them to stop and negotiate with him before reaching Philadelphia.  Washington also warned Wayne not to use force against the mutineers, for fear of driving them to the British in New York.

By the evening of January 3, Wayne caught up with the army, now 1500 strong, camped at Middlebrook, New Jersey.  Wayne got an agreement to meet with a group of the board of sergeants to discuss the situation, but the men rose the following morning and continued their march anyway.  By afternoon, the column reached Princeton and stopped again for the night.

Washington was not the only officer who thought the mutiny might help the British in this fight.  British commander General Henry Clinton received news of the mutiny about the same time as Washington.  Clinton, of course, had spies throughout New Jersey. They were able to bring him a report by January 3.  The following day, Clinton deployed several agents to catch up with the mutineers.  He promised all of them a full pardon and the protection of the British government, as well as promising to pay the men all of the back pay they were owed for their Continental service, with no obligation to serve in the British army.  Essentially was going to reduced the enemy forces by about one-fourth, for the cost of a few thousand dollars.

The same day Clinton deployed his agents, January 4, Wayne received a list of demands from the Board of Sergeants.  The primary demand was that the three year enlistments be honored and that no soldier be forced to serve beyond three years unless he reenlisted voluntarily.  The men also wanted their promised back bay and bounties, as well as clothing allowances.  Essentially, they were asking the government to keep the promises that it had already made.  The sergeants demanded that all of these demands be met in full within six days, or they would continue their march to Philadelphia.

Wayne agreed the demands were reasonable, but also knew that he personally had no authority to grant these demands.  Any agreement to these demands had to come from Congress or the Pennsylvania Assembly.  Wayne proposed a meeting of the sergeants with a representative of the Pennsylvania Council in Trenton.

As the army awaited a response from Philadelphia, the British agents reached Princeton.  Two New Jersey Tories, John Mason and James Ogden delivered the British offer to the Board of Sergeants.  The President of the Board of Sergeants, John Williams, immediately took the two men into custody and informed General Wayne.  The mutineers wanted no suggestion that they were betraying their country or the cause for which they had been fighting for so many years.  They merely wanted the government to fulfill the promises made to them when they enlisted.

Joseph Reed 

Back in Philadelphia, politicians took word of the approaching mutineers very seriously.  The President of Pennsylvania, Joseph Reed, agreed to ride out to Trenton and negotiate with the men directly.  

Reed is someone I’ve mentioned many times before.  He was a Philadelphia lawyer before the war.  When Washington first received his commission in 1775, Reed accompanied Washington to Boston and ended up serving as the General’s first aid-de-camp.   The two officers had a falling out when Washington accidentally read a letter from General Lee to Reed in late 1776, where it became clear that Reed supported Lee replacing Washington as commander-in-chief.

Reed stopped serving as Washington's aide-de-camp, but never formally resigned his commission, but he left active duty and went into politics.  He served in the Continental Congress for a time before being elected President of Pennsylvania.  Reed was considered a radical patriot.  He was Benedict Arnold’s main nemesis when Arnold served as military commander of Philadelphia, and Reed was the man primarily responsible for Arnold’s court martial.

When Reed arrived in Princeton on Sunday, January 7, he was surprised not to find an unruly mob of mutineers, but an organized military camp, where the army met him with a ceremonial formation and salutes, with the sergeants acting as regimental officers.  The men presented their demands for discharges, back pay, and compensation for the depreciation of pay that was to be given years earlier.

Reed balked at the idea of a blanket discharge for all the soldiers.  He countered that some men had already re-enlisted or extended their enlistments voluntarily.  He did agree, however, that those men who had served at least three years without agreeing to additional time, should be discharged.  He also demanded that the loyalist agents who had come with General Clinton’s offer be turned over for trial.

The mutineers turned over the agents, who were tried and hanged the following day.  Reed’s demand that each enlistment be reviewed individually bought him a few weeks.  The army needed time to get all the enlistment records and check through them.  In the end, more than 1300 soldiers were discharged, more than half of the Pennsylvania line. The remainder were redeployed to Pennsylvania where they could engage in recruitment for a possible spring offensive. By the end of January, the Pennsylvania Line mutiny was over.

The New Jersey Line

Pennsylvania, however, was not the only line that felt frustrated by its treatment.  One important concern Washington had over negotiating with the mutineers was that it would only encourage more mutinies.  On that point, he was not wrong.

The New Jersey Line was in winter quarters at Pompton, New Jersey.  The soldiers there had many of the same complaints, and quickly became aware of the Pennsylvania mutiny.  They decided to march from their camp at Pompton to meet with New Jersey Commissioners at Chatham a few miles to the south.   This began on January 20th, while the Pennsylvania mutiny was still being resolved. This group was much smaller than the Pennsylvania mutiny, only a few hundred men.

The mutineers met with the New Jersey Commissioners at Chatham on January 23.  The commissioners offered the men a pardon and updated the men on resolving their grievances. The men demanded discharges for those whose enlistments were complete.  On this point, the Commissioners refused to grant any relief, and demanded that the soldiers return to camp.  The mutineers then marched back to their camp at Pompton.

For Washington, however, this second mutiny confirmed his fears that the army might fall apart unless he made an example of them.  Washington received news of the New Jersey mutiny on January 21.  

Robert Howe

He ordered General Heath to assemble a force of five or six hundred New England Continentals to quash this mutiny.  Once Heath had assembled the force, Washington showed up at West Point and gave command of the brigade to General Robert Howe.  

Recall that Howe was from North Carolina.  He has once commanded the southern army but was sent north after engaging in a duel with the Vice President of South Carolina, Christopher Gadsden.

Washington’s orders to Howe called for him to put down this mutiny in a way that would serve as an example to others.  He was not to negotiate with the mutineers at all, but to demand unconditional submission.  If he succeeded in compelling their submission, Washington ordered Howe to try and hang several of the ringleaders immediately.

Despite the fact that the New Jersey line had already marched back to their camp and were back where they were supposed to be, General Howe marched his men on a night march and surrounded the camp.  By January 25, Howe had most of his men in place, but sought to get an update on the situation.  Officers reported that the men had returned to barracks, but were still demanding their discharges, refusing to obey most orders, and even threatened to run through one officer with a bayonet.

Before dawn on the 26th, after surrounding the camp with infantry and artillery, Howe ordered the mutineers to turn out and assemble without arms.

The men complied.  Howe then ordered the officers of the New Jersey line to identify those they believed to be the leaders of the mutiny.  The officers identified fifteen men who were brought forward.  Next, Howe had the New Jersey officers identify three of those men for immediate court martial.  Those three men were brought forward, tried and convicted. 

Howe then ordered the other twelve leading mutineers to be given firearms and ordered them to execute their three comrades.  When the men understandably balked at executing their friends, Howe informed them that any man who failed to participate in the execution would be added to the list of men being executed.

Sergeant David Gilmore was forced to his knees.  On Howe’s order his comrades fired six shots at his head and six at his heart, killing the man instantly.  Sergeant John Tuttle was next forced to kneel in the snow and suffered the same fate.  Sergeant George Grant was then forced to kneel, but at the last moment, with guns pointed at him, the court martial issued a pardon and spared his life.  Sergeant Grant, and his would-be executioners broke down and sobbed openly.

The New Jersey Line returned to duty, and the mutinies, at least for 1781, came to an end.  Washington continued to write letters to Congress and the states, pleading that they provide more food and supplies to prevent anything like this from happening again.


One might ask why the mutinies of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey lines were treated so differently.  Most of the Pennsylvania Line was either discharged or permitted to return to camp without punishment while two leaders of the New Jersey line were rather summarily executed, and no real bargaining of any sort took place.

Many experts have argued that the main reason for the different treatment was that the Continental Army decided it had to take a firm hand after the second mutiny in order to prevent more regiments from doing the same.  That certainly is true, but officers also expressed similar concerns when they gave the Pennsylvania mutineers a light touch. 

I think there are several factors that account for the change.  One is that the first mutiny caught the commanders off-guard.  They needed time to assemble enough troops to put a stop to the mutiny.  This could take time that they did not have.  Thus, persuasion and negotiation was all they could do.  Given the size of the first mutiny, over 1500 men, it would have been difficult for Washington to confront them with an overwhelming force, especially without completely abandoning their defenses against a British attack from New York.  Also, the mutineers’ decision to turn over the British agents, assured the leadership that these men were still loyal to the cause.

By contrast, the New Jersey mutiny was much smaller, only about 300 men.  This, along with the fact that Washington had been calling in troops by the time this mutiny happened, allowed him to present an overwhelming force to crush this mutiny in a way that would discourage others.  Washington needed to establish that the army was not a democracy and that disobedience to the chain of command would not be tolerated, regardless of the reasons.  His response seemed to have the intended effect, and the rest of the winter remained quiet.

Next Week, we return south as Colonel Banastre Tarleton attacks the Continental Army at the Battle of the Cowpens.

- - -

Next Episode 277 Cowpens

Previous Episode 275 The War Goes Dutch

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Further Reading


Continental Army Mutinies At Jockey Hollow and Pompton

Yordy, Charles S. The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny, its Origins and Patriotism

Schellhammer, Michael “Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line” Journal of the American Revolution, January 14, 2014

Schellhammer, Michael “Mutiny of the New Jersey Line” Journal of the American Revolution, March 19, 2014

St. Rock, Joseph "Breaking Points: Mutiny in the Continental Army" Univ. of Conn. Honors Thesis, 2008.

Maurer Maurer. “Military Justice Under General Washington.” Military Affairs, vol. 28, no. 1, 1964, pp. 8–16. JSTOR,

“To George Washington from Anthony Wayne, 2 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Anthony Wayne, 3 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Anthony Wayne, 3 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to John Hancock, 5 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from William Heath, 6 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 6 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to William Heath, 7 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Arthur St. Clair, 8 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Anthony Wayne, 8 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Anthony Wayne, 8 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from John Sullivan, 10 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Anthony Wayne, 11 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Arthur St. Clair, 12 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Anthony Wayne, 12 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 15 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Israel Shreve, 20 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Israel Shreve, 21 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

To George Washington from Anthony Wayne, 21 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Meshech Weare, 22 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Robert Howe, 22 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Frederick Frelinghuysen, 23 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Robert Howe, 25 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Commissioners for Redressing the Grievances of the New Jersey Line, 27 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 30 January 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Shreve, John “Personal Narrative of the Services of Lieut. John Shreve of the New Jersey Line of the Continental ArmyThe Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, Vol 3, 1879 (pp 564-579) (Google Books). 

Bolton, Charles K. The Private Soldier Under Washington, Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1902. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Carp, E. Wayne, To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775-1783, Univ. of NC Press, 1984 (borrow on

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

Nagy, John A. Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution, Westholme Publishing, 2007. 

Tonsetic, Robert L. 1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2011 (borrow on 

Van Doren, Carl Mutiny In January, The Viking Press, 1943. (borrow on 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. This episode was full of ads, 2 at the beginning and multiple times throughout, including right in the middle of a sentence. I know how you feel about ads, and that you were upset when you found out before that someone was profiting off your work.