The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny of 1781: Soldiers in Revolt over Contracts
By Charles Yordy, III, J.D.
U.S. Department of Education
On the evening of January 1st, 1781, the Continental troops of the Pennsylvania Line mutinied at Morristown, New Jersey. Their revolt exhibited trends of the larger War of Independence. The soldiers’ grievances were founded upon a violation of the literal enlistment contracts between themselves and the Pennsylvania government, a parallel to the rebels’ conflict with England over the perceived infringement upon their English rights. Interacting with the government through a board of sergeants, the Line demanded redress of privations that had become unbearable over the course of several years. For the following three weeks, Continental leaders including Major General Anthony Wayne commanding the Pennsylvanians, President Joseph Reed of Pennsylvania and Commander in Chief George Washington, were occupied in dealing with this incident. Foremost in their minds was the fear that the Line would defect to the British. However, through both their words and actions, the soldiers would prove their loyalty to the independence movement. This event challenges us to define patriotism and either dispel or qualify the mythology surrounding the proverbial loyalty of the Continental Army.
Origins of the Revolt
In the minds of most Americans, mythos surrounds the Revolutionary War. Practically all schoolchildren have heard of how Continental soldiers underwent unspeakable hardship for want of clothing and provisions, but persevered only to win the war against all odds. On this subject, the legend does justice to the facts.
As early as 1777, General Anthony Wayne, commanding the Pennsylvania Line, exhorted his superiors to address the lack of supply for his men. In a letter to Washington in December, 1777, he refers to the “Distressed and Naked Situation of your Troops.”(1) While the Pennsylvanians faced the cold of Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778, Washington constantly wrote the Continental Congress pleading for an amelioration of the army’s condition. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated 23 December, 1777 from Valley Forge:
I am now convinced beyond a doubt, that, unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things; starve, dissolve, or disperse in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can. …Since the month of July we have had no assistance from the quartermaster-general…(2)
Whatever shortages were created by a fledgling wartime economy were compounded by government corruption and ineptitude. In writing Congress, Washington accused the quartermaster-general of corruption and sought his removal. Anthony Wayne made similar accusations in letters to the Pennsylvania executive council. In January, 1778, Wayne wrote that, after buying cloth at his own expense, the government stalled his efforts to have uniforms produced.(3)
In December 1779, the Continental Congress resolved that states would directly supply their troops.(4)
The decision was intended to save money for an already tightfisted populace, who had little interest in paying taxes to maintain the army.(5)
Officers of the army had reservations about the new plan’s promise; when states failed to meet their quotas, these fears proved legitimate and mutinies followed.(6)
One hundred men from the Massachusetts Line marched out of West Point on January 1st, 1780, but were returned to their stations shortly thereafter. On May 25th, a mutiny occurred in the Connecticut Line. Soldiers had been going without their meat ration, only eating the rations which their officers gave up. The efforts of Colonel Return Jonathan Megis, and two Pennsylvania Colonels, Thomas Craig and Walter Stewart, quelled the revolt. Pennsylvania troops stood with the Colonels, although when the men found out what the Connecticut soldiers were doing, the Pennsylvanians wanted to join them.(7)
Private Joseph Martin, one of the Connecticut men, recalled that they gave up the mutiny but spent the night bantering about “starving in detail for an ungrateful people.”(8)
The Continental Army had 26,000 men in July 1779, but less than 15,000 by the following summer.(9) Some states vigorously sought to maintain enlistment by offering huge cash bounties to soldiers who reenlisted. Pennsylvania was conspicuously stingy in this endeavor.
To placate the army and the Pennsylvania troops in particular, Washington convinced the Continental Congress in 1779 to give serving soldiers a $100 bounty.(10)
Meanwhile, new soldiers were receiving a bounty of $200. In February of 1780, Connecticut and Rhode Island were offering $300 to new enlistees, and New Jersey was offering $1,000.(11)
By 1781, many soldiers in the Pennsylvania Line had served for three years, having received from the state only a $20 bounty at enlistment. Furthermore, the real value of the soldiers’ bounty pay was depreciating significantly.(12)
The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny
On the evening of January 1st, 1781, soldiers of the 11th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line dined and drank at a noisy New Year’s celebration.(13) Many men were enlisted “for three years or the duration of the war” and considered their enlistments over, although the officers reasoned that the “duration of the war” encompassed any length of time. It is not clear when they decided to mutiny, or if such a deliberate decision was actually made. Likely, the collective grievances of the men were enough to give them over to a snowballing disorder.
Soldiers turned out of their shelters, parading and shooting their weapons. Mutineers began dragging away artillery. When the Ninth and Fifth regiments refused to move, the artillery was fired over their heads and they were pressed into the affair.(14) During this, the officers tried to send the men back to their encampments. Captain Adam Bitting, commander of Company D, 4th Pennsylvania Regiment was shot and killed by a mutineer. Wayne begged the men to return, fearing both his army’s potential loss as well as the gain for the British if the Pennsylvanians defected.
The soldiers were vehement in their intentions: “They declared it was not their intention [to defect], and that they would hang any man who would attempt it.”(15)
By January 2nd, virtually the entire Pennsylvania Line, minus its officers, was marching to Princeton. Wayne pursued them and asked for a sergeant from each regiment to represent the soldiers’ grievances, which they briefly did on January 3rd.(16)
At this time, General Washington was replying to a letter Wayne sent describing the mutiny. He feared the men might be enticed to defect, or that they might even “wreak their vengeance” upon Philadelphia, but if negotiations began, they might have a reasonable settlement. He planned to leave his camp at New Windsor and deal with the affair, but changed his mind on January 4th, thinking the issue would be decided before he could arrive anyway.(17)
On January 4th, the soldiers entered Princeton and delivered their official propositions to Wayne. These asked for immediate discharges for men enlisted in 1776 and 1777 at $20 bounty, and discharges at the end of three years’ service for those enlisted since 1777 at $120 bounty. Also, they asked for pay and clothing for those who remained enlisted, and that there be no punishment for mutiny after the issue was settled.(18)
Wayne had already agreed that a peaceful resolution would bring a general pardon, and offered discharges to those “entitled.” On behalf of the men, Sergeant William Bouzar replied that he did not think Wayne intended to release all the entitled men.(19) Wayne then offered to assemble a committee of officials from Pennsylvania at Trenton. Apparently, Wayne was afraid the soldiers were too close to British influence from New York and still feared that they would turn to the enemy.
Early that morning he received intelligence that the British were jubilant over the mutiny and were planning to intervene.(20)
However, the board of sergeants, which spoke for the mutineers, replied that they would not march to Trenton and would meet delegates with authority at Princeton.(21)
On January 5th, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania received a letter from Wayne dated January 2nd. They decided to dispatch President Joseph Reed immediately to New Jersey to handle the situation and send a committee of Congress the following day.(22) Also on the 5th, Washington sent a circular letter to Congress and the Governors of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. He apprised them of the mutiny and pleaded for financial and material support for the Continental Army:
The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently [sic] the want of provisions, are beyond description. The circumstances will now point out much more forcibly what ought to be done, than any thing that can possibly be said by me on the subject.(23)
Reed reached Maidenhead, New Jersey on January 6th where he met couriers from the Princeton encampment, who mentioned the regrets of the board of sergeants that the affair had come this far.(24)
That night, Reed returned to Trenton where he met with the Committee of Congress. There, the consensus was that they could not use force to end the mutiny. New Jersey’s citizens and soldiers sympathized with the Pennsylvanians, as did the Pennsylvania militia.(25) The committee also thought a quick negotiation might be the only way to keep the men from defecting to the British. Therefore, the plan was for Reed to conduct negotiations the next day and for the committee to remain in Trenton.
On January 7th, the soldiers caught a British spy and his guide who were sent to entice the Pennsylvanians to defect.(26) That same day, President Reed arrived and met with the board of sergeants. At first, both he and Wayne feared that the soldiers might treat him badly if he entered Princeton. On the contrary, upon his arrival he found the entire line lined up for inspection.
The soldiers planned a cannon salute, but Reed and Wayne prevented them, convinced that it would unnecessarily alarm the locals.(27)
When the meeting began, the first issue discussed was the capture of the two British agents. Wayne desperately wanted them executed, which would show the Pennsylvanians’ loyalty to their cause, but the sergeants preferred a compromise. The board of sergeants would retain custody of them until they further discussed the issue. Finally, negotiations for terms began – only one proposal remained: that the 1776 and 1777 “twenty dollar men” be given their pay and clothing and be discharged.(28) The sergeants insisted that officers had tricked and punished soldiers to extend enlistments and Reed concluded that the issue was legitimate.
After the negotiations, Reed sent his proposal to the sergeants. This could be considered a “final” proposal based on his letter of the 8th, which refers to using force if the soldiers refuse.(29)
The proposal offered to discharge all soldiers who had been retained beyond their enlistments or coerced into reenlistment.(30)
For the large number whose enlistment papers were unavailable, Reed allowed men simply to give an oath to their time served. The officers of the Line, encamped nine miles west of Princeton at Pennington, felt circumvented, their authority gone, perhaps for good.(31)
On January 8th, the sergeants agreed to Reed’s proposal and relented to march to Trenton. Supplies and clothing from Pennsylvania would meet them there. The men spent the 9th marching to Trenton, where they encamped. On the 10th, Reed told the board of sergeants that before his proposal could be carried out, they must provide him with the two captured British agents.(32)
Although this issue was the last bargaining chip for the mutineers, the agents were provided, thus keeping to their promise of the 4th, “in six days for to complete and settle every such demand.”(33) The agents were later hanged.
Discharge proceedings began on January 12th, with a group of commissioners handling the details. Without most of the paperwork, oaths were primarily used to determine who was eligible for discharge. On the 13th, distribution of clothing and pay began from what could be gathered by President Reed’s orders.(34)
By January 29th, the Pennsylvania Line was diminished from about 2,400 men to 1,150 men.(35) It was a substantial loss in manpower for the army, but was probably the best possible resolution to the crisis. As rosters were updated, officers returned and led their units out of Trenton.
At the end of January, the New Jersey Line mutinied. This time, with the Connecticut Line available, Washington crushed the incident with force and punished its leaders, even executing a few. The “deal” cut for the Pennsylvania troops would not extend to the whole army, but encouraged states in the future to meet the barest necessities for its soldiers. Furthermore, the remaining Pennsylvanians would continue to fight.
The terms “patriotism” and “patriot” are so frequently utilized as rhetoric that they are almost meaningless. Yet so fundamental are they to the issues discussed here, if for no other reason than the frequent association of patriotism and the War for Independence, that it behooves us to claim some workable definition.
A crude but effective way to define soldiers is to define what they are fighting for. Theoretically, the Continentals were a wage earning regular army like the British.(36) Enlistment was like any labor contract; the army could utilize a soldier’s life in exchange for pay and provisions. The British army lived up to this ideal much better than the Continental army, which rarely met its contractual obligations throughout the war. Here is where one might delineate the nature of patriotism: the Continental soldiers endured profound hardship, lacking what the government owed them (indeed, what they needed to survive), yet remained under arms until their privations had gone beyond all endurance. Until that point, at least to some degree, the men clearly fought for an ideology and a perceived nation that did not yet exist.
The question in the mutiny is this: by revolting against the revolutionary government, did the soldiers betray that ideology? Did they temporarily cease to be “patriots” by our definition? Obviously, the answer would be as subjective as the original definition of patriotism. However, one can make a logical and convincing argument that these men remained patriotic even through the mutiny.
The Pennsylvania Line mutiny was the most lengthy and successful insurrection by Continental soldiers. However, it is far from the only such incident. According to Neimeyer, “By mid-war, mutiny, actual or merely threatened, quickly became commonplace in the Continental Army.” (146) 1779 and 1780 saw audacious popular action by soldiers, involving larger and better-organized protests than earlier in the war. During these incidents, other Continental troops put down the revolts. Even then, mutineers never wished to abandon their cause. They merely wanted what the government owed them, and even when denied this, the soldiers stayed on.(37)
According to Royster, these men could have “risked less and gained more” in virtually any other endeavor besides soldiering for the rebellion.(38)
These men might have spoken and written little about their ideas of patriotism, but they nevertheless fought for more than just pay.(39)
Why did the Pennsylvania Line mutiny succeed? The Continental Army was depleted in 1781, as well as widely disaffected. When the Pennsylvanians showed solidarity in their mutiny, the government had little choice except negotiation. The Pennsylvania Line mutiny involved far more soldiers than previous mutinies, another reason it was so precarious for the government. If the soldiers were only self-interested, they could have demanded more from the government and risked wrecking the Continental Army, or could have defected to the British. Instead, the men only demanded what was owed them. With justice on their side, in their own minds and the minds of the officials they dealt with, the soldiers succeeded. These same reasonable men contributed to the crucial victory at Yorktown only a few months later – if the mutiny had been more damaging, that legendary triumph might never have happened.
Originally published by Pennsylvania State University, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.