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On this day: Revolution mutiny resolved after talks

On this day (Jan. 7) in 1781, the climatic seventh day of the most serious and widespread mutiny in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War occurred.

On Jan. 1, 1781, several regiments of the Pennsylvania Line left their Morristown, N.J., winter quarters fully armed and gathered to march to Philadelphia to confront the Continental Congress regarding their numerous accumulated grievances. Many of the mutineers had enlisted “for three years or during the war” and felt they were now, over three years after their initial enlistments, to be discharged. Their other grievances included lack of food, inadequate quarters, inadequate clothing, and lack of pay.

On Tuesday, Jan. 2, the mutineers rejected the pleas of their commander, Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, to return to their quarters. Wayne had said he would go himself to Philadelphia and present, on their behalf, their grievances, but this offer was initially rejected.

During the early hours of the mutiny, at least three officers were wounded trying to restore order. The mutineers elected a board of sergeants to present their grievances.

Meanwhile, Gen. Wayne had traveled to Philadelphia to urge Congress to do something about what he considered the legitimate grievances of his troops. Congress quickly responded by appointing a committee (headed by President (Governor) of Pennsylvania Joseph Reed, to travel to Princeton, N.J., to negotiate with the mutineers.

By the evening of Jan. 3, about 1,500 marching mutineers had reached Prince- ton, where they set up camp on and near the campus of the local college (present-day Princeton University). Also on this Wednesday, Gen. George Washington, with the main army at Windsor, N.Y., first learned of the mutiny, but was too far away to participate in the Jan. 7 and 8 negotiations in Princeton.

Also interestingly, Jan. 3 was the day British Commander Sir Henry Clinton first heard of the mutiny and quickly sent two agents (John Mason and James Ogden) to Princeton to offer pardons and money to the mutineers if they would desert to the British. On Sunday, Jan. 7, the mutineers’ firmly rejected the British offers of pardon and money and summarily hanged Mason and Ogden as spies.

During the intense negotiations of Jan. 7 and 8 between the mutinying sergeants and Joseph Reed, Reed accepted the earlier promises of Gen. Wayne to grant total amnesty to the mutineers and to promise that Congress would forthwith deal seriously and compassionately with the legitimate issues of lack of food, adequate shelters, and back pay.

Finally, those men who had enlisted for three years and had fulfilled that commitment were to be honorably discharged. Thus, happily, the most serious and widespread mutiny of the eight known mutinies of the Revolutionary War period was resolved with a minimum of bloodshed and animosity.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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