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The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny began January 1, 1781, and ended with negotiated settlement on January 8, 1781. The negotiated terms were concluded by January 29, 1781. The mutiny was the most successful and consequential insurrection by Continental Army soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. Although the mutineers demanded a change in their conditions, they refused to defect to the British despite enticement by British Army General Sir Henry Clinton. When negotiations with the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania promised satisfactory resolution, many of the soldiers returned to arms for the Continental Army and participated in future campaigns. This mutiny inspired a similar insurrection by the New Jersey Line, but instead of a favorable negotiated settlement, several New Jersey soldiers were executed for treason to bring their units back to order.[1]

Mutiny of the Pennsylvania line

Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line


During the winter of 1780–1781, the Continental Army was dispersed into smaller components to ease the strain of supply. The Pennsylvania Line, comprising about 2,400 men, was encamped at Jockey Hollow, New Jersey, near Morristown. Conditions for the army were deplorable, as reported in letters by both General George Washington, commander of the entire Continental Army, and General Anthony Wayne, commander of the Pennsylvania Line. In previous years, both Washington and Wayne had cited corruption and a lack of concern on the part of state governments and the Continental Congress in fostering the poor conditions.

Pennsylvania troops had particular cause for discontent, as Pennsylvania was one of the stingiest states in paying its soldiers — many of the Pennsylvania Line had served for three years in exchange for only their initial $20 bounty. Other states' troops were receiving enlistment bounties valued in hundreds of dollars (New Jersey recruits received a $1,000 bounty), and even new Pennsylvania recruits received large bounties while serving soldiers neither received regular pay nor reenlistment money.

By January 1, 1781, the soldiers' dissatisfaction reached a boiling point. Many "three year men" reckoned that their enlistment terms, "for three years or the duration of the war", had ended with the coming of the new year. However, desperate to maintain the army's manpower, the Line's officers reckoned the enlistment terms to mean that soldiers were bound to serve for the duration of the war if it lasted more than three years. The Pennsylvania government would later admit that the widely accepted reckoning used by the soldiers was the correct one.


On January 1, 1781, the Pennsylvania Line held a raucous New Year's Day celebration. That evening, soldiers from several regiments armed themselves and prepared to depart the camp without permission. Officers led the remaining orderly regiments to quell the uprising, but after a few warning shots from the mutineers, the rest of the regiments fell into line with them. Captain Adam Bitting, commander of Company D, 4th Pennsylvania Regiment, was fatally shot by a mutineer who was trying to kill a lieutenant colonel. Otherwise, the uprising was relatively bloodless.

General Wayne tried to convince the soldiers to return to order peacefully, but while the soldiers promised not to defect to the British, they would not be satisfied until Pennsylvania redressed their grievances. Wayne followed his troops and dispatched letters to Washington and the Pennsylvania government. The Line set up a temporary headquarters in the town of Princeton, New Jersey and selected a Board of Sergeants to speak for them, headed by Sergeant William Bouzar, who had previously served in the British Army.

Continental and British negotiations

On January 5, the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania learned of the mutiny and immediately dispatched Joseph Reed, the council's president, to resolve it. That same day, George Washington issued a circular letter to the Continental Congress and the governments of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, begging once again for material aid for the army, citing the soldiers' deplorable conditions that lend to the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line.

Reed spent the night of January 6 in Trenton where he met with delegates from the Continental Congress. Knowing the mutineers would have public sympathy on their side (including the Pennsylvania militia), the government had no choice but to negotiate. On January 7, Reed arrived in Princeton to meet the Board of Sergeants. Although General Anthony Wayne initially feared his men might not welcome Reed, on the contrary, Wayne and Reed were forced to dissuade the soldiers from honoring them with a cannon salute out of fear that it might alarm the locals.

Also on January 7, an emissary from General Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in New York City, arrived with a guide he had acquired in New Jersey. The agent brought a letter from Clinton offering the Pennsylvanians their back pay from British coffers if they gave up the rebel cause. Clinton had misjudged the nature of the Pennsylvanians' mutiny — the sentries seized both the agent and his guide. Although the mutineers refused to turn Clinton's emissaries over immediately to Wayne and Reed, they showed good faith by informing them of the British offer and their refusal to accept it.

Negotiations went quickly, as the soldiers distilled their grievances to one issue: that men enlisted in 1776 and 1777 for $20 bounty be discharged and then given the opportunity to reenlist for a new bounty if they wished. Reed heard testimony to the effect that officers had coerced soldiers to stay in the army or reenlist with unfavorable terms, even employing corporal punishment to that end. He found the testimony compelling and agreed to their terms, even allowing that the many soldiers whose enlistment papers were unavailable could simply swear an oath that they were "twenty dollar men" and be discharged.


Reed made arrangements in Trenton, where the Pennsylvanians marched to begin the discharge process on January 12. Approximately 1,250 infantrymen and 67 artillerymen were discharged. When the proceedings ended on January 29, only 1,150 out of 2,400 men remained in the Pennsylvania Line. However, many discharged men later reenlisted and the remaining regiments accepted their old officers.[2]

In the aftermath of the mutiny, the Pennsylvania Line underwent a reorganization. The 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th Pennsylvania Regiments were disbanded and their remaining soldiers reassigned to the senior units. The 1st Pennsylvania Regiment reorganized at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania under Colonel Daniel Brodhead IV. The 2nd also regrouped at Philadelphia under Colonel Walter Stewart. The 3rd was posted to Reading with Colonel Thomas Craig in command; the 4th under Colonel William Butler went to Carlisle; the 5th under Colonel Richard Butler went to York; and the 6th under Colonel Richard Humpton went to Lancaster. The rank and file, though not the sergeants and musicians, were all furloughed until 15 March. On that date the regiments reassembled at their respective towns. In May, Wayne led the 2nd, 5th, and 6th Pennsylvania south to join operations against the British in Virginia.[2]

In literature

One of Howard Fast's historical novels, The Proud and the Free (1950), tells this story from the enlisted man's point of view.[3] Additionally, Ann Rinaldi's historical fiction novel A Ride Into Morning includes the mutiny.


  1. Yordy III, Charles S. The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny, its Origins, and Patriotism. August 8, 2005.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Boatner (1994), 764-765
  3. Fast, Howard The Proud and the Free (1950) ISBN 0-7434-5842-7

Other sources

  • Boatner, Mark M. III (1994). Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-0578-1. 
  • Carp, E. Wayne (1984). "To Starve the Army at Pleasure". University of North Carolina Press. 
  • Martin, James Kirby; Lender, Mark Edward (1982). A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763–1789. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc.. ISBN 0-88295-812-7. 
  • Royster, Charles (1979). "A Revolutionary People at War". University of North Carolina Press. 

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