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Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line

Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line

MUTINY OF THE PENNSYLVANIA LINE. 1-10 January 1781. Inactivity during winter quarters, plus accumulated grievances about food, clothing, quarters, pay, bounties, and terms of enlistment, finally led the Pennsylvania Continentals to mutiny on 1 January 1781. Many of these troops had enlisted "for three years or during the war"; they contended that the phrase "whichever comes first" was implied and that their contracts were now fulfilled. Almost nothing is known for certain about how this mutiny was organized—the mutineers kept no written records and none of them wrote of the event afterward. The names of only two leaders are known for sure: William Bowzar, secretary of the twelve-man Board of Sergeants that represented the mutineers, and Daniel Connell, who signed the Board's final communication. A man named Williams—probably John Williams—was president of the Board of Sergeants, but does not appear to have been the real leader or organizer of the revolt.


The ten disaffected infantry regiments and the artillery regiment of General Anthony Wayne's Pennsylvania Line were encamped near Morristown, New Jersey, where they occupied huts built during the previous winter at Jockey Hollow (also known as Mount Kemble). The total strength in officers and men was about 2,500. The mutiny started about 10 p.m. the evening of 1 January, when soldiers emerged from their huts under arms and with field equipment, captured the guns and ammunition, and assembled to march away. Initially, fewer than half the men participated, and probably not more than 1,500 eventually joined the march. During a confused hour before they left camp, the mutineers resisted the efforts and the eloquence of Wayne and about 100 officers to stop them. They did this with a remarkable lack of violence, offering with the simple argument that the officers could do nothing to settle their grievances—they intended to present these directly to Congress in Philadelphia.

Lieutenant Francis White and Captain Samuel Tolbert were shot (not fatally) while trying to keep their men from moving to the assembly area. Captain Adam Bettin was mortally wounded by a soldier who was chasing Lieutenant Colonel William Butler (of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment) and who mistook Bettin for Butler. One man was killed accidentally by a fellow mutineer who, unknown to the other, had replaced the regular guard on the captured magazine. These are the only identified casualties, although it is hard to believe that there were not others.

When Wayne rode onto the scene with several field officers he was unable to restore order, but according to one participant, Lieutenant Enos Reeves, the men stated "it was not their intention to hurt or disturb an officer of the Line, two or three individuals excepted." The majority of the troops were reluctant to join the mutiny. The Second Pennsylvania Regiment of Colonel Walter Stewart was forced at bayonet point to go along. Captain Thomas Campbell turned out part of the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment and attempted to recapture the artillery, but his men would not carry through with the attack. The Fifth (Colonel Francis Johnston) and Ninth (Colonel Richard Butler) Regiments occupied huts some distance from the others, and joined only after being threatened with the cannon. Other men hid as mutineers ran from hut to hut gathering supporters. At 11 p.m. the column marched away to camp at Vealtown (Bernardsville), New Jersey, four miles distant, to await stragglers before resuming their advance toward Philadelphia the next morning.

Wayne had long feared a mutiny, and had urged higher authority to do something about the legitimate grievances of his troops, but he was surprised by the events that had just taken place. Powerless to stop the marchers, and not a bit sure they did not intend to go over to the enemy—or that the British would not strike at this critical time—Wayne prepared to follow his men and try to restore order. He was accompanied by Colonels Walter Stewart and Richard Butler. Before the dawn of 2 January, however, Wayne wrote out "what he called an order but what was a request and a promise":

Agreeably [sic] to the proposition of a very large proportion of the worthy soldiery last evening, General Wayne hereby desires the noncommissioned officers and privates to appoint one man from each regiment, to represent their grievances to the General, who on the sacred honor of a gentleman and a soldier does hereby solemnly promise to exert every power to obtain immediate redress of those grievances; and he further plights that honor that no man shall receive the least injury on account of the part they have taken on the occasion.

The mutineers entered Princeton in the late afternoon or evening of 3 January, took control of this village of some 70 houses, and prepared to wait there until Congress responded to the appeals they had sent forward to Philadelphia. The Board of Sergeants established themselves in the ruins of Nassau Hall and the men pitched tents south of the College. The sergeants had sent back a delegation to confer with Wayne, who was following at a safe distance, but they would not halt their advance on Princeton to let him address the troops. The sergeants had also furnished Wayne with a personal guard, and when the general and his colonels took up quarters in a tavern near Nassau Hall on 3 January they had some doubts as to whether this guard was a mark of respect or indicated that they were hostages.


During Thursday, 4 January, Wayne and the colonels negotiated with the Board, and later in the day Wayne sent word to the state authorities—the Council of Pennsylvania—that somebody should come and consult with the mutineers. Congress and the Pennsylvania Council, both sitting in what is now Independence Hall, had learned on 3 January of the alarming developments at Morristown. That afternoon Congress appointed a committee to deal with the Pennsylvania Council on the mutiny. When the Council received Wayne's letter on Friday, it met with the committee of Congress and decided to send Joseph Reed, President of the Pennsylvania Council and therefore of the state, and General James Potter, a militia officer and Council member. The three original members of the Congressional committee—General John Sullivan, the Reverend John Witherspoon, and John Mathews—were now augmented by Samuel John Atlee and Theodorick Bland. Reed and Potter left Philadelphia late Friday afternoon with an escort of twenty light horsemen from the famous city troop, and entered Trenton by noon the next day (6 January). Sullivan's committee (less Mathews, who stayed in Philadelphia) reached Trenton after dark on 6 January and stayed there during the negotiations. Captain Samuel Morris, with the rest of his Philadelphia Light Horse, accompanied them.

Meanwhile, the Board of Sergeants had had a number of visitors in Princeton on 4 January. Major General Arthur St. Clair, senior officer of the Pennsylvania Line; the Marquis de Lafayette; and Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens were in Philadelphia on 3 January when the newly created Congressional committee decided that some officers should go see what could be done about the mutiny. These three were received by the Board of Sergeants and talked to Wayne, but the Board then told them to leave—the sergeants preferred to continue their negotiations through Wayne, Butler, and Stewart. On this same day, Colonel Thomas Craig approached with eighty armed officers from Morristown and sent word to Wayne of his coming. The officers were not allowed to enter Princeton, and they sat out the subsequent negotiations at Pennington, nine miles away. Some members of the New Jersey legislature also showed up on 4 January from Trenton, but they were not allowed to enter Princeton.

General George Washington, the commander in chief, got his first news of the mutiny about noon on 3 January. Located at New Windsor with the main portion of the army, he was too far away to exert much influence on subsequent events, and as it turned out, Wayne on his own initiative was following almost precisely the course Washington advocated. Washington's letter of 3 January, received by Wayne on 7 January, recommended that Wayne stay with his troubled men, that he not attempt force, and that he try to have the mutineers move south of the Delaware River. Washington disagreed with Wayne's proposal that Congress leave Philadelphia in order to avoid the mutineers, but this point turned out to be academic once Congress decided to stay. Washington had made preparations to ride south, but changed his mind at 7 a.m. on 4 January when he realized he could not arrive in time and that he had the more important task of keeping the mutiny from spreading through the rest of the army. The sympathy of the troops was with the mutineers, particularly since the latter had shown such good discipline in pressing their demands and displayed no disposition to deal with the enemy. Nonetheless, civil and military authorities went ahead with plans to surround Princeton with militia and regulars.

British headquarters in New York City had learned of the mutiny before Washington, and Sir Henry Clinton promptly sought a means of exploiting the situation. He alerted troops for a possible march into New Jersey and started looking for emissaries to offer the mutineers pardon, payment of the money owed them by Congress, and the privilege of declining military service if they would come over to the British.


Many agencies were concerned with the mutiny, but Joseph Reed promptly assumed the key role. Although General Potter stayed by Reed's side, Potter contributed nothing but an occasional signature. The Congressional committee (Sullivan, Witherspoon, and Mathews) may be regarded as a rubber stamp that waited in Trenton to approve Reed's solution. Washington was virtually out of the picture. St. Clair sat at Morristown, in command of the troops who had not joined the mutiny, and muttered about using force. So, probably, did the eighty officers who had left the government's bed and board to live at their own expense at Pennington.

Reed did not go straight to Princeton where, for all he knew, Wayne and the colonels were prisoners and his own safety would be uncertain; he undertook a line of action designed to remind the anonymous sergeants of his personal dignity and their lack of status. Reed started a correspondence with Wayne, but wrote with the expectation that these letters would be read by the sergeants. When he received a letter from Sergeant Bowzar assuring him safe conduct—for several days the Board was not convinced that President Reed had really been sent to deal with them—Reed played dumb and, in a letter to Wayne wrote: "I have received a letter from Mr. Bowzar, who signs as secretary but does not say to whom." Reed very well knew "to whom" Bowzar was secretary, but he wanted to avoid even tacit recognition of the Board and to stress that Wayne was still their lawful commander.

Reed and Potter had ridden on to Maidenhead (now Lawrenceville, four miles south-west of Princeton) on Saturday evening and they now proposed that Wayne meet them there. After the sergeants were made to understand that Reed's reluctance to enter Princeton was due to their inhospitality toward St. Clair, Wayne sent word he would meet Reed at Maidenhead Sunday morning. Reed returned to Trenton, where the Committee (which arrived that evening) gave him final guidance.

A significant development took place during the night. Clinton's emissaries—John Mason and a guide named James Ogden—got into Princeton and presented the enemy's proposals to Sergeant Williams. The latter promptly slapped them under guard and delivered them to Wayne at 4 a.m. Reed was riding to Maidenhead Sunday morning when he met the prisoners being escorted to Trenton. Any suspicion that the mutineers were flirting with the enemy was now dispelled. Taking the prisoners with him, Reed rode on to Maidenhead, met Wayne, and accepted the latter's recommendation that they proceed to Princeton. Meanwhile, Just as Wayne, Reed, and their parties were leaving Maidenhead, a message came from the Board of Sergeants asking that the captive emissaries be returned to their custody. Apparently the mutineers had figured, on second thought, that they would be in a better bargaining position if they held these two men.

The mutineers were formed along the post road to honor Reed's arrival at about 3 p.m. In this unreal situation Reed took the salutes of sergeants, who stood before their men in the positions normally occupied by officers, and he returned the salutes ("though much against my inclination"). The artillery was drawn up to fire a salute, but Reed or Wayne managed to stop this rendering of honors, on the ground that it might alarm the countryside.


The first order of business in Princeton on that Sunday afternoon was what to do with Mason and Ogden. Van Doren writes that "Reed and the officers were plainly much afraid that the British would land and the mutineers either join them, or refuse to fight, or try to drive some bargain before they fought" (p. 127). Most of the sergeants favored Wayne's proposal that the men be promptly executed as spies, but Williams, who was a British deserter, and another sergeant of the same antecedence blocked this solution. Williams had the novel idea of sending the men back to Clinton "with a taunting message." Reed objected to this pointless suggestion and proposed a compromise that was adopted: the sergeants would hold the prisoners subject to Reed's call, and their disposition would be decided later. Meanwhile there was fresh intelligence of an enemy move from Staten Island into New Jersey, and there was now no time to waste in settling the mutiny.

A good deal of preliminary work had already been done between Wayne and the sergeants. The Committee of Congress had instructed Reed to honor Wayne's promise of total amnesty, and they agreed that the men should not be considered traitors unless they were considering deserting to the enemy or refused to compromise on terms for settling the mutiny. It had also been decided in Trenton that men who had enlisted for three years or for the war should be discharged if they had served three years and had not re-enlisted. Men who had voluntarily enlisted or re-enlisted for the war were not, however, to be released.

At the Sunday night conference in Princeton, the sergeants advanced a single proposal that embodied the wishes of the men who had the longest service and who represented the strongest of several factions in their camp. This proposal was:

That all and every such men as was enlisted in the years 1776 and 1777 and received the bounty of twenty dollars, shall be without any delay discharged and all the arrears of pay and clothing to be paid unto them immediately when discharged; with respect to the depreciation of pay the State to give them sufficient certificates and security for such sums as they shall become due.

Reed could not agree to this proposal, because it would permit the release of men specifically precluded by the guidance he had received from the Committee of Congress. Although this proposal was undoubtedly phrased to release some men not honestly entitled to discharge, the sergeants proceeded to open the eyes of the President of Pennsylvania—and, to a lesser extent, those of their commanding officer of the Line—to certain sharp and dishonest practices that military officers had employed in enlisting them. In short, according to Van Doren, "the enlistment papers did not tell all the truth of what had happened" (p. 128).

The sergeants showed much difference of opinion among themselves. They were incapable of drafting a new set of compromise proposals, they had doubts about getting the men to accept such proposals if drafted, and Sergeant Williams was not the man to unify their demands. In order to have some basis for working out a solution. Reed undertook to write up a document which, Van Doren reports, "promised as much as he thought he could perform and as little as he thought the men would accept." (p. 130) After some minor alterations by Wayne, Reed's proposals were generally as follows: no man would be held beyond the time for which he freely and voluntarily enlisted; a commission would decide on disputed terms of enlistment; if enlistment papers were not promptly produced by official custodians, the soldier's oath on the matter would be accepted; and back pay, adjustment for depreciation, and clothing shortages would be taken care of as soon as possible.


On Monday, 8 January, the mutineers announced their general acceptance of Reed's proposals, and on the next morning they marched to Trenton for final negotiations. That evening, the Board of Sergeants had a long conference with the Committee of Congress. On the morning of 10 January Reed informed the sergeants that, since they had accepted his proposals and these would now go into effect, he would like the spies surrendered as evidence of the mutineers' willingness to abide by their agreement. The Board countered with a demand that the mutineers remain together under arms until final arrangements were completed. Reed refused to accept this condition and asked for a final answer within two hours. Within the time limit the Board agreed to give up the prisoners and to turn in their weapons. This communication came "Signed by the Board in the absence of the President, [by] Daniel Connell, Member." Van Doren comments that Williams and Bowzar may actually have been absent, or they may have been unwilling to sign this paper. John Mason and James Ogden, Clinton's emissaries, were convicted on 10 January of spying and were hanged the next morning. Mason was a hard character with a long record as a criminal Loyalist. Ogden is known in history only as Mason's guide.

Putting the settlement into effect involved resolving a number of knotty problems and took several weeks. On 29 January, however, Wayne wrote Washington that the task was completed. About 1,250 infantrymen and 67 artillerymen were discharged; nearly 1,150 remained. Enlistment papers had been gathered quickly and most of them clearly committed the men for the duration of the war, but the commissioners discharged men of the first five infantry regiments and most of the artillery by 21 January without waiting for the papers, and many men got away on false oaths. There was talk of bringing action against these perjured soldiers, but the State decided against this because it was finding it impossible to raise the money to fulfill its own part of the bargain. A high percentage of the discharged men subsequently re-enlisted, and all the Pennsylvania Line—mutineers and others—were furloughed until 15 March, with instructions to rendezvous at various places in accordance with a reorganization plan that originally had been scheduled for 1 January. This plan, which went into effect on 17 January, eliminated the Seventh through Eleventh Pennsylvania Regiments and deployed the others as follows: the First and Second were placed under Daniel Brodhead and Walter Stewart at Philadelphia; the Third, under Thomas Craig, at Reading; the Fourth, under William Butler, at Carlisle; the Fifth, under Richard Butler, at York; and the Sixth, under Richard Humpton, at Lancaster. Only recruiting sergeants and musicians were not given furloughs.

Other soldiers with the same grievances as the Pennsylvania Line had followed these developments with keen interest. The mutiny of the New Jersey Line, which took place between 20 and 25 January, was the most significant result. Wayne was preparing to lead the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Pennsylvania Regiments to join Lafayette when a small-scale mutiny flared up in York, Pennsylvania. As a result of this action, six men were convicted and four of them executed on 22 May.

SEE ALSO Mutiny of Gornell; Mutiny of the New Jersey Line; Pennsylvania, Mobilization in; Reed, Joseph; St. Clair, Arthur; Sullivan, John; Wayne, Anthony; Witherspoon, John.


Van Doren, Carl. Mutiny in January: the Story of a Crisis in the Continental Army, Now for the First Time Fully Told from Many Hitherto Unknown or Neglected Sources, both American and British. New York: Viking Press, 1943.

                        revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

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