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This Day in History: Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line

On this day in 1781, a mutiny among General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s soldiers comes to an end. They’d turned over two British spies who were promptly tried (on the 10th) and hanged (on the 11th).

How’s that for swift justice?!

Of course, you might wonder why the American soldiers were mutinying in the first place.

Throughout the long American Revolution, the Continental Army faced constant problems obtaining food and supplies—to say nothing of the soldiers’ pay. Worse, some of the soldiers discovered that they were expected to serve longer than they had anticipated. Needless to say, these soldiers were getting frustrated. By the winter of 1780-81, the soldiers in Wayne’s Pennsylvania Line were on the verge of mutiny.

Wayne sought relief. He wrote the President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Joseph Reed: “[Our soldiery] have now served their country with fidelity for near five years, poorly clothed, badly fed, and worse paid . . . [but] they have not seen a paper dollar in the way of pay for near twelve months.”

Imagine not receiving wages that you’d earned—for an entire year.

Wayne was well-respected by his men, but even he could not hold off a mutiny forever. Violence erupted on the night of January 1. A “most general and unhappy” mutiny was at hand! The mutinying men seized artillery and whatever provisions they could find. One man was killed, and a few were injured.

Wayne rode into the midst of the furor. As a bullet whizzed by him, he reportedly yelled: “[I]f you mean to kill me, shoot me at once, here’s my breast.” The men didn’t want to hurt Wayne, of course, but they still had no intention of changing their plans: They were headed to Philadelphia. They intended to confront Congress.

Wayne wrote George Washington, warning him of the mutiny underway. Washington quickly wrote Congress, urging more support for the army. “[I]t is vain to think an Army can be kept together much longer,” he wrote, “under such a variety of sufferings, as ours has experienced—and that unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months pay to the Troops . . . [and] to cloath and feed them better . . . the worst that can befall us, may be expected.”

In the meantime, Wayne had set off in pursuit of his soldiers, soon followed by Joseph Reed. Both men hoped to bring about a settlement with the mutineers, whose ranks had by then grown to about 1,500 men. Fortunately, the mutinying soldiers soon won themselves a little bit of good will. The British had sent agents to the group, hoping to turn the mutineers to the British side.

The Pennsylvania soldiers might be unhappy, but they would have none of that. Instead, they captured the two British agents.

“The Pennsylvanians have given an unequivocal & decided Mark of attachment to our cause, & detestation of the Enemy’s conduct,” Washington soon reported, “by delivering up their Agents sent by Genl Clinon to treat with them . . . . These are favorable indications that the affair may yet be happily settled.”

A compromise was finally reached on January 8, and it contained many concessions for the Pennsylvania soldiers. Unfortunately, Congress would have trouble keeping some of these promises. As it would turn out, the mutiny was only temporarily over. More discontent would brew and, by the summer of 1783, another mutiny would even force Congress to move out of Philadelphia.

Sometimes it seems there’s no end to the hardships that our founding generation endured during the quest for freedom. Don’t you think?

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