When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
January 1, 1781 Revolt of Pennsylvania Line
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.
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 John Mason, an emissary from General Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in New York City, arrived in Princeton. He was accompanied by James Ogden, 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 bounties 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.
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