washington faces rebellion -- 6/17/19

Today's selection -- from A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Hardships of the Revolutionary War and lack of pay eventually caused soldiers to rebel against their own leaders: 

"[Robert] Morris was superintendent of finance [for the American Revolution]. [In contending with the financial difficulties of the war, his] plan was to give more assurance to those who had loaned money to the Continental Congress, and gain the support of officers by voting half-pay for life for those who stuck to the end. This ignored the common soldier, who was not getting paid, who was suffering in the cold, dying of sickness, watching the civilian profiteers get rich. On New Year's Day, 1781, the Pennsylvania troops near Morristown, New Jersey, perhaps emboldened by rum, dispersed their officers, killed one captain, wounded others, and were marching, fully armed, with cannon, toward the Continental Congress at Philadelphia.

"George Washington handled it cautiously. Informed of these devel­opments by General Anthony Wayne, he told Wayne not to use force. He was worried that the rebellion might spread to his own troops. He suggested Wayne get a list of the soldiers' grievances, and said Congress should not flee Philadelphia, because then the way would be open for the soldiers to be joined by Philadelphia citizens. He sent Knox rushing to New England on his horse to get three months' pay for the soldiers, while he prepared a thousand men to march on the mutineers, as a last resort. A peace was negotiated, in which one-half the men were dis­charged; the other half got furloughs.

"Shortly after this, a smaller mutiny took place in the New Jersey Line, involving two hundred men who defied their officers and started out for the state capital at Trenton. Now Washington was ready. Six hundred men, who themselves had been well fed and clothed, marched on the mutineers and surrounded and disarmed them. Three ringleaders were put on trial immediately, in the field. One was pardoned, and two were shot by firing squads made up of their friends, who wept as they pulled the triggers. It was 'an example,' Washington said.

"Two years later, there was another mutiny in the Pennsylvania line. The war was over and the army had disbanded, but eighty sol­diers, demanding their pay, invaded the Continental Congress head­quarters in Philadelphia and forced the members to flee across the river to Princeton -- 'ignominiously turned out of doors,' as one historian sorrowfully wrote (John Fiske, The Critical Period,) 'by a handful of drunken mutineers.' "

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Howard Zinn


A People's History of the United States


Harper Perennial


Copyright 1999 by HarperCollins Publishers


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