Crime and Punishment in the Continental Army

From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the American military justice system was governed by the articles of war, adopted on June 30, 1775.  They were extremely similar to those used by the British enemy, and although both relied heavily on corporal punishment, the American punishments were noticeably less severe.  They limited the maximum flogging sentence to 39 lashes, opposed to the 500 or more lashes that could be given to British soldiers.  It soon became clear that this was not harsh enough to discourage the men from committing crimes.  [1]

Crime and punishment were crucial parts of the everyday life for the Continental Army soldier.  Soldiers committed crimes for many reasons, most of which fall into two main categories: feelings of fear or oppression, and financial gain.  Once the realities of war and the extreme harshness of life in camp set in, many men were driven to desert or commit similar crimes, such as being absent without leave, due to their feelings of fear and desperation. Additionally, many soldiers felt their enlistment contracts and basic needs were not being met.  This, along with oppression and coercion through fear from their superiors, led the men to become insubordinate and sometimes revengeful towards their officers. On the other hand, some soldiers used their affiliation with the army to commit crimes such as plundering and robbery for their own financial or other gains.  Patrick Reed, a private in the Fourth Company, took part in the “infamous” and “horrid” crime of plundering.  He deserted shortly after his trial, and his fate is unknown . [2]

Washington Reviewing His Troops at Valley Forge

Washington reviewing his troops at Valley Forge by William Trego.  Conditions at Valley Forge were extremely harsh, causing turmoil between soldiers and officers.

A new set of articles was adopted on September 20, 1776, which remained in effect through the rest of the war.  The maximum flogging sentence was raised from 39 lashes to 100, although General George Washington sometimes issued up to 500 lashes.  This increase in the allowance of flogging can be seen in the 1777 sentences and punishments of Maryland drummer Patrick Ivory and fellow soldier Edward Cosgrove.  The two men were caught stealing, and although Cosgrove received 300 lashes, Ivory was only sentenced to 100 lashes and a demotion in rank.  Ivory then deserted in 1779, and was sentenced to another 100 lashes after his arrest.  [3]

The articles also explicitly stated several crimes for which a man could be punished with death, including enlisting in multiple regiments to collect bounties, sleeping while on duty, leaving a post before authorized, and “discharging of fire-arms, drawing of swords, beating of drums, or by any other means whatsoever, [causing] false alarms in camp, garrison, or quarters.” The case of Marylander Christian Castler shows why this last rule was necessary.  In 1776, he was accused of attempting to shoot a non-commissioned officer while in camp, however the Maryland Council of Safety ruled that his specific circumstance was not punishable by death.   

Soldiers could also be executed for desertion, often depending on when the man deserted, whether he came back, and what he did while he was gone.  Maryland Private Solomon Slocum not only deserted, but he went to the British, joined their ranks, and then returned to the American Army as a spy.  In 1781, at age 22, he was “hanged on a tree by the roadside in full view of all that passed by.”  His public execution was intended to serve as an example to other soldiers of what their fate would be if they decided to perform similar actions as Slocum.

Soldiers had to watch floggings and executions being performed.  One soldier, often the drummer, was chosen and forced to implement the punishments on their fellow troops, and were scrutinized by their officers to ensure they did not lessen the blow from the required harshness.  Many men attempted to resist executing these punishments, but were unsuccessful.  As the war continued, the sentences grew even harsher, which deterred many men who were considering enlisting.  [4]

Punishments were not consistent, which added to the terror of a court martial, because there was no way to predict what the punishment would be. Even after punishments were decided upon, they could be changed or not actually carried out.  There are several cases where multiple soldiers were sentenced to death, and at the last second, even while the ropes were being tied around their necks, some men would be pardoned and others would not. This can be seen in the case of Edward Cosgrove, who was sentenced to death in 1781 for desertion and pardoned at the last moment, while a fellow Maryland soldier he deserted with was actually executed.  Even more terrifying and nerve-wracking was the fact that not all soldiers had the privilege of a court trial, and many officers, including Anthony Wayne, Nathaniel Greene and Henry Lee, would execute or flog soldiers on the spot. Because of this, it is impossible to collect accurate statistics on crime and punishment.  [5]


General Anthony Wayne attempting to quell the mutiny of Pennsylvania troops on New Year’s Day, 1781, during the American Revolutionary War.  The most famous mutiny of the Revolutionary War.

While many officers attempted to force their troops into submission through the use of fear and violence, the men attempted to resist this by coming together to plea for justice.  In severe, but surprisingly common, cases the men were even compelled to commit mutiny. Mutiny took several different forms, all with varying degrees of severity.  In his account of the war, Joseph Plumb Martin described an instance where the men “turned out, but without their arms, and paraded in front of their huts” until the “officers…came in front of the regiment, expressing a deal of sorrow for the hardships [they] were compelled to undergo, but much more for what they were pleased to call [the men’s] mutinous conduct.”  Mutiny was taken so seriously in the Continental Army that Marylander John Radery was sentenced to death for even threatening to start one.  [6]

Soldiers were not the only men in the military who committed crimes.  Officers also did this, although their punishments were often meant to cause embarrassment in front of the men or their fellow officers.  Sergeant John Toomy was accused and convicted of disobeying orders from his superiors, and was publicly reprimanded for his crime. This is greatly opposed to the sentences given to the soldiers, which were meant to inflict physical pain or death.  It was common after defeats for officers to be blamed for the loss, such as in the case of Ensign William Courts who was accused but ultimately acquitted of cowardice at the Battle of Brandywine.  After a small skirmish, Lieutenant John Steward accused Sergeant William Phelps of cowardice.  The conversation became heated, and led to Steward being on trial for slapping Phelps and threatening the life of Colonel Silliman. [7]  

Although not all officers attempted to coerce through violence, and not all soldiers committed crimes, it is important to remember the reality of what everyday life looked like for many of the Continental soldiers.  On top of the harshness of war and camp, they often lived in additional fear of being suspected of a crime and painfully punished, or having to watch this happen to happen to one of their brothers in arms.  

-Natalie Miller, Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution Research Fellow, 2017


[1] James C. Neagles, Summer Soldiers: A Survey and Index of Revolutionary War Courts-Martial, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1986), 5; Charles Patrick Neimeyer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 134.

[2] Neimeyer, 132-133, 140; Neagles, 16.

[3] Neagles, 5.

[4] Neimeyer, 140-142.

[5] Neimeyer, 144-145.

[6] Neimeyer, 139, 158; Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1962), 150-151.

[7] Neagles, 30-35.

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