This Week in Military History: December 29th – January 4th
January 1st: The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny
Dramatized drawing of the Pennsylvania Line Mutiny.
Whatever your stance on the current state of military pay, I think we can all agree that twenty bucks for three years of combat service is a pretty lousy deal. Even in eighteenth century dollars. So it’s no wonder that the men of the Continental Army’s Pennsylvania Line mutinied on the freezing cold New Year’s Day of 1781. And while mutinies in military forces have occurred since time immemorial, the Pennsylvania Line Mutiny is one of the few that actually succeeded.
Example of a soldier from one of the Pennsylvania Line regiments.
The trouble began in the winter of 1780-1781. In order to lessen potential supply difficulties, the Continental Army was divided into smaller contingents and spread out. One of these units consisted of about 2,400 Pennyslvanians encamped at a large estate called Jockey Hollow near Morristown, New Jersey. Also known as Wick Hall, the 1,300 acre estate was the property of the prosperous and patriotic Wick family who had allowed the entire Army to camp there the previous winter. Thus, there were already a large number of crudely constructed wooden bunkhouses for the Pennyslvanians to live in. So it wasn’t exactly the worst place to sit out the winter, which wasn’t even as brutal as the previous one.
Reconstructed bunkhouses at present day Jockey Hollow.
Still, the cold probably did nothing to help the already simmering disgruntlement of the Pennsylvanians. The issue at the heart of what would become the mutiny was pay: most of them had received nothing after the initial $20 their state gave them upon joining the Army. Moreover, many of them had enlisted under the terms that they would serve “three years or the duration of the war” and, having served for three years, believed those enlistments were over. They considered it a “whichever comes first” situation, though their officers maintained that it was the other way around.
Continental Army recruitment poster.
Things between the enlisted men and officers came to a head, as they so often do in the Army, after a wild drunken party. January 1st of 1781 started with a rowdy celebration in the camp that took a bad turn when many of the men whose three years gathered their weapons and prepared to head home. The officers assembled the rest of the men and tried to stop those planning to depart. But after some convincing (and a few warning shots) these soldiers joined the mutineers as well. There was little actual violence aside from a single fatal incident when several of the men attacked an officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Butler. Fortunately for Colonel Butler another officer, Captain Adam Bitting, leapt in to save him. Unfortunately, Bitting was shot and killed by the enlisted man after saving Butler.
Dramatic rendering off Bitting’s death defending Butler
Another incident of note during the mutiny became something of a minor folk legend. A few weeks earlier Henry Wick, the head of the Wick household, had passed away. His youngest daughter, Temperance, was left to take care of her sick mother and her old brother Henry who suffered from some form of mental illness. When her mother’s condition worsened, Temperance (called Tempe for short) rode out to leave a note asking the local doctor, who lived about a mile away to come by when he could. On the way home, three of the mutineers stopped her and attempted to commandeer her horse. She agreed, but when the soldier holding the bridle let go in order to help her down, she took off and sped home. Knowing the soldiers would come looking for the horse in their barn, Tempe allegedly hid the horse in one of the bedrooms of Wick Hall after covering the windows and laying down a mattress to muffle the sound of its hooves. The details are a matter of some historical debate, but whatever they were they worked. The mutineers never got Tempe’s horse.
Tempe, on the other hand, got a historical novel written about her. And kept her horse.
The commander of the Pennsylvania Line, legendary General Anthony “Mad Anthony” Wayne, implored the mutineers to return to duty. But they refused to until their state addressed their pay and contract issues. They set up a headquarters at Princeton and elected a board made up of noncommissioned officers headed by Sergeant William Bouzar to speak for them. The Pennsylvania government, knowing they had no choice but to negotiate, sent the President of their Supreme Executive Council (essentially the governor), Joseph Reed to talk to them. When arrived in Princeton on the 7th, General Wayne feared the mutineers might spurn Reed. But they were actually honored that their state sent such a high ranking individual to meet with them. They actually had to be persuaded not to fire a cannon salute in Reed’s honor. But he wasn’t the only one who wanted to talk to the mutineers.
When British commander-in-chief General Sir Henry Clinton heard about the large scale mutiny he sent his own messenger to entice the men to join the British cause. His messenger, John Mason, and a local guide, James Ogden, also arrived in Princeton on the 7th. Clinton assumed that, by giving the men their back pay, they would readily switch sides. He assumed wrong. The men remained steadfastly loyal to the patriot cause, they just wanted their pay. Mason and Ogden were seized and Reed was informed of their attempt to buy off the Pennsylvanians and the men’s refusal of the offer.
General Sir Henry Clinton.
Once talks began with Reed, things progressed swiftly. The Pennsylvania government agreed that the men were correct, the contracts were meant to end after three years. It was agreed that men who had enlisted for three year stints in 1776 and 1777 were to be discharged and allowed to reenlist for new bounties. The mutiny officially ended on the 8th and the process was completed by the 29th. More than half the Pennsylvania Line was discharged, although many reenlisted and joined units in the newly reorganized Line led by the officers they had recently mutinied against. The regiments of the Line continued to serve throughout the war, giving the whole affair a mostly happy ending. Except for Mason and Ogden, who were tried and hanged as spies.
Front page of the Pennsylvania Gazette featuring an article by Joseph Reed explaining the mutiny and its outcome.
The success of the mutiny enraged General Washington, who felt the state government had intervened in a military matter. Plus, he feared it would inspire other units to do the same. It did. On January 20th, some men of the New Jersey Line, inspired by the Pennsylvanians, mutinied over their own grievances about pay and supply. Washington reacted swiftly and harshly. On his order, the Continental Army rounded the New Jersey mutineers up and forced twelve of the soldiers to serve as the firing squad that executed two of their leaders. The Pennsylvanians probably felt like they’d really dodged a bullet. Literally.
Historic marker at the site of the Pompton Mutiny in present day Bloomingdale, New Jersey.