It is relatively well known that the American Colonies were divided among Patriots and Loyalists during the Revolutionary War period, but at least George Washington had a well organized and unified Continental Army, right? Not always. By the beginning of 1781, rations, clothing, and wages had become so poor that many soldiers throughout the Army were unhappy. On top of that, many soldiers thought their enlistments were over at the end of 1780. While this didn’t deter most from their revolutionary goals and the Continental Army as a whole remained loyal and dedicated, some factions threatened to mutiny and did exactly that in January.
On January 1, 1,500 Pennsylvania troops in Morristown, New Jersey launched a mutiny that was resolved with little bloodshed, but not before the “mutineering” spirit spread to soldiers 20 miles away in Pompton, New Jersey. Some New Jersey troops were dispatched to help contain the revolt in Morristown, but ultimately the soldiers related with Pennsylvanians’ grievances and, according to Michael Schellhammer, distributed handbills that threatened a mutiny of their own.
The New Jersey legislature took steps to improve the soldiers’ provisions and gave each enlisted man $5 on January 15, but it was too little too late. On January 20, approximately 200 (allegedly very drunk) men walked out of camp with their sergeants and headed south, presumably to Trenton to make their demands. The mutineers intended to gather sympathizers as they marched through other army encampments, but were unsuccessful as a messenger from Pompton warned other commanders along the route to Trenton. The mutineers attempted to negotiate with Colonel Elias Dayton in Chatham, New Jersey, but had their demands refused. However, they were given the opportunity to return to Pompton without penalty as long as they agreed to abandon the mutiny and return to their duties. The soldiers complied and returned to Pompton, where they continued to be generally unhappy but the mutiny was over. The end, right? Nope.
A few days earlier on January 21, word reached George Washington in New Windsor, New York that the mutiny was taking place. Sensing a pattern and fearing more widespread mutinies, Washington elected to crush the mutiny with force and ordered Major General Robert Howe to take around 500 troops from West Point to handle the mutineers. Washington ordered Howe to “compel the mutineers to unconditional submission” and to “grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance.” Washington gave Howe the freedom to decide how he would stop the mutiny, but ordered Howe to “instantly execute a few of the most active and incendiary leaders.”
Early in the morning on January 27, Howe’s troops moved into position around the encampment at Pompton. Howe ordered all his soldiers to surround the living quarters of the former mutineers and gave them five minutes to get in formation unarmed. Howe appointed a Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Sprout to lead a court-martial, which found the mutiny’s three most prominent leaders, Sergeant David Gilmore, Sergeant John Tuttle, and Sergeant Major George Grant, guilty and were to be executed immediately. Gilmore and Tuttle were executed by their own soldiers and former mutineers, while Grant received a pardon due to seemingly being coerced into his role as a mutiny leader.
While Washington saw it necessary to punish the mutiny with force and make its leaders an example to the rest of the Continental Army, he also recognized the legitimacy of the soldiers’ grievances and immediately pushed Congress to improve their conditions. This, the Pompton – or New Jersey Line – Mutiny, was the last major revolt by enlisted soldiers during the Revolutionary War.