Samuel Dewees Recounts the Suppression of Insubordination
in the Continental Army after the Mutinies of 1781


Class conflict inside the American Revolution came dramatically alive with mutinies in George Washington's army. In 1781, after enduring five years of war—casualties in the Revolution exceeded, in proportion to population, American casualties in World War II—more than a thousand soldiers in the Pennsylvania line at Morristown, New Jersey, mutinied. They had seen their officers paid handsomely, fed and clothed well, while the privates and sergeants were fed slop, marched in rags without shoes, paid in virtually worthless Continental currency, or not paid at all for months. They were abused, beaten, and whipped by their officers for the smallest breach of discipline. For many, their deepest grievance was that they wanted out of the war, claiming their terms of enlistment had expired and that they were being kept in the army by force. They knew that in the spring of 1780, eleven deserters of the Connecticut line in Morristown were sentenced to death but at the last minute all but one had received a reprieve. (The one who did not was hanged for forging discharge papers for a hundred men.) General Washington, facing nearly two thousand mutineers, a substantial part of his army, assembled at Princeton, New Jersey, decided to make concessions. Many of the rebels were allowed to leave the army, and Washington asked state governors for money to deal with the grievances of the soldiers. The Pennsylvania line quieted down. But when another mutiny broke out in the New Jersey line, involving only a few hundred, Washington ordered harsh measures. He saw the possibility of "this dangerous spirit" spreading. Two of "the most atrocious offenders" were court-martialed on the spot, sentenced to be shot, and their fellow mutineers, some of them weeping as they did so, carried out the executions. In his novel The Proud and the Free, Howard Fast tells the story of the mutinies, drawing from the classic historical account by Carl Van Doren, Mutiny in January. Fast dramatizes the class conflict inside the Revolutionary Army, as one of his characters, the mutinous soldier Jack Maloney, recalls the words of Thomas Paine and the promise of freedom and says that he is willing to die for that freedom, but "not for that craven Congress in Philadelphia, not for the fine Pennsylvania ladies in their silks and satins, not for the property of every dirty lord and fat patroon in New Jersey." Here is the narrative of this bloody event by Samuel Dewees1 , a soldier on the Pennsylvania line.

From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove

Whilst we lay at Lebanon, a circumstance transpired worthy of notice, and which I here record as a prelude to the horridly great tragical event, of which the individual now bearing a part was one of the number that was made to suffer the awful penalty annexed to their crimes, if crimes they may be said to have committed. A sergeant who was known by the appellation of Macaroney Jack, a very intelligent, active, neat and clever fellow, had committed some trivial offense. He had his wife with him in camp who always kept him very clean and neat in his appearance. She was washerwoman to a number of soldiers, myself among the number. She was a very well behaved and good conditioned woman.

The officers, for the purpose of making an impression upon him and to better his conduct, ordered him to be brought from the guard house; which done, he was tied up and the drummers ordered to give him a certain number of lashes upon his bare back. The intention of the officers was not to chastise him.

When he was tied up he looked around and addressed the soldiers, exclaiming at the same time, "Dear brother soldiers, won't you help me?" This in the eyes of the officers savored of mutiny and they called out, "Take him down, take him down!" The order was instantly obeyed and he was taken back to the guardhouse again and handcuffed. At this time there were two deserters confined with him.

On the next or second day after this we were ordered on to York, Pennsylvania, where upon our arrival we encamped upon the common below the town. Upon our arrival, our three prisoners were confined in York jail. In a few days after we arrived at York, a soldier of the name of Jack Smith, and another soldier whose name I do not now remember, were engaged in playing long bullets. Whilst thus engaged, some of the officers were walking along the road where they were throwing the bullets. The bullets passing near to the officers, they used very harsh language to Smith and his comrade, who immediately retorted by using the same kind of indecorous language. A file of men was immediately dispatched with orders to take Smith and his comrade under guard and march them off to York jail.

In three or four days after these arrests were made, a sergeant of the name of Lilly, who was also a very fine fellow and an excellent scholar, so much so, that much of the regimental writing fell to his lot to do, and for which he received a remuneration in some way; this sergeant, having become intoxicated, had quarreled with one or more of his messmates, and upon some of the officers coming around to enquire what the matter was, found him out of his tent. The officers scolded him and bade him to go into his quarters. Lilly, having been much in favor and knowing his own abilities and the services rendered, was (although intoxicated) very much wounded, and could not bear to be thus harshly dealt with, and used language of an unbecoming kind to his superior officers. The officers immediately ordered him to be taken to York jail.

On the next day in the morning we beat up the troop. After roll call we were ordered to beat up the troop again. The whole line was again formed, and I think the orders were for every soldier to appear in line with his knapsack on his back. I suppose that at this time there were parts of three regiments, in all 800 or 1000 men laying at York, the whole of which was commanded by Colonel Butler. The whole body (sentinels, invalids, etc., excepted) when formed were marched to the distance of about half a mile from the camp, and there made to stand under arms. Twenty men were then ordered out of the line and formed into marching order and all the musicians placed at their head. After remaining a short time in a marching posture, the order of forward was given. We were then marched direct to the jail door. The prisoners six in number were then brought out and their sentence (which was death) was read to them.

At this time it was thought that none in the Line save the officers knew for what the provost guard was detached. But it appeared afterwards that previous to the firing which was the means of launching four out of the six into eternity, the matter of rescuing them was whispered among the soldiers; but they did not concert measures in time to prevent the awful catastrophe, which they meditated by an act of insubordination upon their part.

After the sentence of death was read to the condemned soldiers at the jail door, we then marched them out and down below town, playing the "dead march" in front of them. We continued our march full half a mile and halted on a piece of ground (common) adjoining a field of rye, which was then in blossom. This was sometime in the early part of June 1781. After a halt was made, the prisoners were ordered to kneel down with their backs to the rye-field fence. Their eyes were then bandaged or covered over with silk handkerchiefs. The officer in command then divided his force of twenty men into two platoons. The whole was then ordered to load their pieces. This done, ten were ordered to advance, and at the signal given by the officer (which was the wave of his pocket handkerchief) the first platoon of ten fired at one of the six. Macaroney Jack was the first shot at and was instantly killed. The first platoon was then ordered to retire and reload, and the second platoon of ten ordered to advance. When the signal was again given, Smith shared the same fate, but with an awfulness that would have made even devils to have shrunk back and stood appalled. His head was literally blown in fragments from off his body. The second platoon was then ordered to retire and reload, whilst the first was ordered to advance and at the same signal fired at the third man. The second platoon then advanced and fired to order, at Sergeant Lilly, whose brave and noble soul was instantly on the wing to the presence of that Supreme Judge who has pledged himself he will do that which is right. The arms of each had been tied above their elbows with the cords passing behind their backs. Being tied thus enabled them to have the use of their hands. I ventured near and noticed that Macaroney Jack had his hands clasped together in front of his breast, and had both of his thumbs shot off. The distance that the platoons stood from them at the time they fired could not have been more than ten feet. So near did they stand that the handkerchiefs covering the eyes of some of them that were shot were set on fire. The fence and even the heads of rye for some distance within the field were covered over with blood and brains. After four were shot, we musicians with a portion of the twenty men were ordered to march and were then conducted up to the main line of the army. After our arrival there, the whole Line was thrown into marching order and led to (his horrid scene of bloody death. When the troops advanced near to the spot they displayed off into double file and were then marched very near to the dead bodies, as also to those still on their knees waiting the awful death that they had every reason to believe still awaited them. The order was for every man to look upon the bodies as he passed; and in order chat the soldiers in the Line might behold them more distinctly in passing, they were ordered to countermarch after they had passed and then marched as close to them upon their return.

The two deserters that were still in a kneeling posture were reprieved, the bandages taken from their eyes, then untied, and restored to their respective companies.

A number of men were ordered out to dig a large grave. The bodies of the four dead soldiers were then wrapped up in their blankets and buried together therein. This last sad duty performed, the soldiers were all marched back to their quarters in camp.

My readers may imagine to what a pitch this sad scene was heightened in sorrow when I state that, on our way from the jail to the place of execution, those sentenced were crying, pleading, and praying aloud, women weeping and sobbing over the unhappy fate of the doomed to death, and the wife of Macaroney Jack screaming and almost distracted. On the way she attempted to run into the line, or provost guard, to where her husband was walking, but was hindered by an officer who felled her to the ground with his sword, he having struck her with the side of it.

The execution of these men by Colonel Butler and his officers was undoubtedly brought about by a love of liberty, the good of country, and the necessity of keeping proper subordination in the army, in order to ensure that good ultimately. Mutiny had shewn itself at many of the military posts within the United States. The conduct of the Pennsylvania and Jersey lines in the revolt at Morristown in Jersey had occurred but the year before, and fresh in the memory of all having knowledge of the operations of the army. Still, the destruction of these men seemed like a wanton destruction of human life. The soldiers at York were afraid to say or to do any thing, for so trivial appeared the offenses of these men that were shot that they knew not what in the future was to be made to constitute a crime. I recollect for myself that for some considerable rime after this, if I found myself meeting an officer when out of camp, I would avoid coming in contact with him if 1 possibly could do so by slipping a short distance to one side, not that I was afraid of an officer more than of a private, whilst I done my duty, but fearing lest they might construe my conduct in some way or other into an offense.

All disposition of mutiny was entirely put down by these steps of cruelty. There were no doubt many times during the Revolution that such executions were called for and highly necessary, and perhaps there was an evidence as well as a conviction before the minds of the officers composing the court martial in their case that we know not of, and that demanded the punishment of death. But, to state it in a word, it was a mournful day among the soldiers and hard and stony indeed were the hearts that were not deeply affected in witnessing this distressing execution of their fellow-soldiers.


1 Samuel Dewees Recounts the Suppression of Insubordination in the Continental Army after the Mutinies of 1781 (1844). First printed in Samuel Dewees, A History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees, A Native of Pennsylvania, and Soldier ofthe Revolutionary and Last Wars, written and compiled by John Smith Hanna (Baltimore: Robert Neilson, 1844), pp. 228-32. Reprinted in Carl Van Dorcn, 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 Vbric Viking Press, 1943), pp. 253-56.

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