The Maryland 400’s Mutineer

In a recent post, we explored crime and punishment in the Continental Army. During the Revolutionary War, desertions and mutinies were crucial parts of the Continental soldier’s experiences. In the first year of war, 80 percent of criminal activity of the troops was classified as desertion or mutiny. As the war went on, mutinies only became more organized, more common, and involved more men. [1]

The main reasons talk of a mutiny could begin to stir were fear, desperation, and poor living conditions. The fear of death for a potentially losing cause combined with deplorable conditions produced despair to the point of violence. George Washington often pleaded with the Continental Congress, informing them that he needed funds so he could provide more humane treatment for his troops. [2]


Otho Holland Williams (1975) by Peter Egeli, after Charles Willson Peale.

Otho Holland Williams, a Maryland officer, wrote to his brother on November 10, 1781, calling the American forces in the south “only the remnant of an army.” The large demands that were being placed on the state for food, clothing, and manpower were almost impossible to meet. The Maryland Line almost mutinied in October of 1781 for this reason; at the time they had not been paid for two years and were unclothed. Some soldiers decided to leave the camps to test the reaction of their officers, but they returned once roll calls were announced. There was no mutiny, as a South Carolina soldier who had encouraged the discontent was publicly shot. [3]



Washington pleading with mutinous soldiers, 1782, by JOB.

Although Washington was often able to calm mutinies by begging for the soldiers’ patience and appealing to their sense of honor, this was not always effective. When it was not, threats of mutiny were resolved by coercion or show of force. George Washington and his officers were not fond of killing their soldiers, but they were willing to use the death sentence as a lesson for others. An example of this show of force is found within the story of Sergeant John Radery. Radery often expressed disaffection for the Continental Army, spoke disrespectfully of his commanding officer, Colonel John Eager Howard, and often told other soldiers that he would “never endeavor to injure the enemy.” Radery was sentenced to death in the fall of 1781 and was executed on September 1, 1781. [4]

Radery was not the only soldier who was frustrated with the conditions the Continental soldiers faced. Unified groups of discontented soldiers can be seen in a series of events dealing with the Pennsylvania Line, the best documented rebellion of the war. The main portion of it began January 1781 near Morristown, New Jersey. The soldiers had enlisted for three years or the duration of the war, but after the war had extended past the three year mark it was not clear as to when their enlistment was truly up. About half of the line marched away from camp. Eventually they came to an agreement with Congress that granted those who did not want to continue serving an honorable discharge and those who did were to be paid a bonus of hard money. [5]


Portrait of Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne

This was not the end of the Pennsylvania Line’s disgruntled nature. Despite the promise of pay in hard currency, the soldiers were given paper money which was nearly worthless. The soldiers refused to march south to join the southern soldiers. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who gained his reputation at the Battle of Stony Point, chose to make an example out of four of the six ringleaders by ordering the men’s own units to execute them. Once starting the march to the Carolinas, the troops were ordered to file past the bleeding soldiers lying on the ground. [6]


Once they arrived in Virginia, the disgruntled Pennsylvanians were still not content. By the Spring of 1782, soldiers under Major General Nathanael Greene were putting up signs around camp that said “can soldiers do their duty if clad in rags and fed on rice?” Greene wrote to Robert Morris, the superintendent of finances, that it was “talked freely among the men that if pay and clothing did not arrive by such a day, they would march their officers to Dorchester, and allow them only a few days more, before they would deliver them to the enemy, unless their grievances were redressed.” [7]

Many officers attempted to force their troops into submission through the use of fear and violence. Soldiers often attempted to resist this by coming together for a common cause. Although a few men attempting a mutiny would be easy for officers to handle, large scale efforts truly showed the power the soldiers had in numbers. It was much easier to come down hard as soon as one was threatened to start, as happened to John Radery, than to let it grow to the point of it being uncontrollable, like the story of the Pennsylvania Line.


Last Moments of Command (1989) by Joseph Sheppard

The final Pennsylvanian mutiny occurred in 1783. Eighty soldiers from the Pennsylvania Line marched to Philadelphia in June of 1783 to present their demands to the Continental Congress. By the time they arrived, their numbers had risen to about 500. Congress fled for their own safety, and although officials of the Pennsylvania Executive Council met with the mutineers to peacefully bring the situation under control, Congress did not return to Philadelphia until 1787. Instead, they traveled to various cities over the following years, including Trenton, New Jersey; Annapolis, Maryland; and New York City. The Continental Congress met in Annapolis from November 26, 1783 to June 3, 1784. On January 14, 1784, The Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, was ratified by Congress in Annapolis. It was also here that George Washington established civilian rule over the American government and resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783. [8]


– Taylor Blades


[1]  Charles Patrick Neimeyer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 135, 147.

[2] James C. Neagles, Summer Soldiers: A Survey and Index of Revolutionary War Courts-Martial, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1986), 17, 21, 57.

[3] John Dwight Kilbourn, A Short History of the Maryland Line in the Continental Army. (Baltimore, MD: The Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland 1992), 56-57; Otho Holland Williams to Elie Williams, November 11, 1781, Otho Holland Williams Papers, 1744-1839, Maryland Historical Society, MS. 908.

[4] Neagles, 37, 57, 228.

[5] Neagles, 59-61.

[6] Neagles, 62.

[7] Neimeyer, 154.

[8] Neagles, 63.

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1 Response to The Maryland 400’s Mutineer

  1. These are great articles that speak to the day to day hardships our people suffered during the war and the harsh realities of a soldiers life that Washington had to manage making his accomplishment even greater. Great job in making these men’s lives and events more real to us today.

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