Pennsylvania Line Mutiny

Pennsylvania Line Mutiny

The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny began January 1, 1781, and ended with negotiated settlement on January 8, 1781. The negotiated terms were concluded by January 29, 1781. The mutiny was the most successful and consequential insurrection by Continental soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. Although the mutineers demanded a change in their conditions, they refused to defect to the British despite enticement by British General Sir Henry Clinton. When negotiations with the Pennsylvania government promised satisfactory resolution, many of the soldiers returned to arms for the Continental Army and participated in future campaigns. This mutiny inspired a similar insurrection by the New Jersey Line, but instead of a favorable negotiated settlement, several New Jersey soldiers were executed for treason to bring their units back to order.


During the winter of 1780-1781, the Continental Army was dispersed into smaller components to ease the strain of supply. The Pennsylvania Line, comprising about 2,400 men, was encamped at Jockey Hollow, New Jersey, near Morristown. Conditions for the army were deplorable, as reported in letters by both General George Washington, commander of the entire Continental Army, and General Anthony Wayne, commander of the Pennsylvania Line. In previous years, both Washington and Wayne had cited corruption and unconcern on the part of state governments and the Continental Congress in fostering the poor conditions.

Pennsylvania troops had particular cause for discontent, as Pennsylvania was one of the stingiest states in paying its soldiers - many of the Pennsylvania Line had served for three years in exchange for only their initial $20 bounty. Other states’ troops were receiving enlistment bounties valued in hundreds of dollars (New Jersey recruits received a $1,000 bounty), and even new Pennsylvania recruits received large bounties while serving soldiers neither received regular pay nor reenlistment money.

By January 1, 1781, the soldiers’ dissatisfaction reached a boiling point. Many “three year men” reckoned that their enlistment terms, “for three years or the duration of the war,” had ended with the coming of the new year. However, desperate to maintain the army’s manpower, the Line’s officers reckoned the enlistment terms to mean that solders were bound to serve for the duration of the war if it lasted more than three years. The Pennsylvania government would later admit that the widely accepted reckoning used by the soldiers was the correct one.

The Mutiny

On January 1, 1781, the Pennsylvania Line held a raucous new year’s 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.

Continental and British negotiations

On January 5th, 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.

Reed spent the night of January 6th 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 7th, Reed arrived in Princeton to meet the Board of Sergeants. Although Wayne initially feared his men might not welcome Reed, on the contrary, Wayne and Reed were forced to dissuade the soldiers from honoring him with a cannon salute, which might have alarmed the locals.

Also on January 7th, an emissary from General Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in New York City, arrived with 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 they refused to turn them over immediately to Wayne and Reed, they showed their good faith to the patriotic cause 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 bounty 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.


Reed made arrangements in Trenton, where the Pennsylvanians marched to began the discharging process on January 12th. When the proceedings ended on January 29th, only 1,150 out of 2,400 men remained in the Pennsylvania Line. However, the remaining regiments accepted their old officers, who led some of them south soon after to participate in the Siege of Yorktown and capture of General Cornwallis’ British Army.


Yordy III, Charles S. [ "The Pennsylvania Line Mutiny, its Origins, and Patriotism."] August 8, 2005.

last = Carp
first = E. Wayne
publication-date = 1984
title = To Starve the Army at Pleasure
publication-place = Chapel Hill
publisher = University of North Carolina Press
isbn =

last = Royster
first = Charles
publication-date = 1979
title = A Revolutionary People at War
publication-place = Chapel Hill
publisher = University of North Carolina Press
isbn =

ee also

* American Revolutionary War
* Continental Army

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