George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Robert Howe, 27 January 1781

From Major General Robert Howe

Ringwood [N.J.] 27th Jany 1781.


In obedience to your Excellency’s Commands I arrived at this place yesterday evening and found that the Mutineers were returning to their huts.1 Col. Dayton had offered them pardon for their offences provided they immediatly would put themselves under the Command of their officers and would behave in future consistent with that Subordination So essential to Military discipline.2 To this they Seemingly acceeded but Soon demonstrated by their Conduct that they were actuated by motives exceedingly distinct from those they had professed, for tho’ in Some respects they would Suffer a few particular officers to have influence over them, yet it was by no means the Case in general, and what they did do, appeared rather like following advice than obeying Command. arrived at their huts they condescended once to parade when ordered, but were no sooner dismissed than Several officers were insulted. One had a bayonet put to his breast, and upon the man’s being Knocked down for his insolence a musket was fired, which being their alarm signal, most of them paraded in arms. In short their whole behaviour was Such as cried aloud for chastisement, and made it evident that they had only returned to their huts as a place more Convenient for themselves, where they meant to negociate with the Committee appointed (previous to their mutiny) to inquire into their grievances And to which they thought to have dictated their own terms.3 having long been Convinced that in Cases of insurgency no medium lay either for Civil or Military bodies between dignity and Servility but Coertion, and that no other method could be possibly fallen upon without the deepest wound to Service, I instantly determined to adopt it. we marched from Ringwood about midnight, and having by the assistance of Colonels Shrieve & Barber made mySelf acquainted with the Situation of their encampment I thought it proper to occupy four different positions about it. Lt Col. Commt Sprout with one party and a piece of artillery was ordered to take post on their left. Lt Col. Millen with another party and two pieces on their right; Major Oliver with his men in front of their incampment; Major Throop with his in the rear of it. Major Morril who with the New hampshire detatchment had been ordered to Pompton by the way of Kings ferry and was arrived, was directed to post himself upon the Charlottenburg road about half a Mile above the first bridge.4 thus was every Avenue Secured, and in this position the Mutineers found us when daylight appeared. Col. Barber of the Jersey line was Sent to them with orders immediatly to parade without arms and to march to the ground pointed out for them. Some Seemed willing to Comply, but others exclaimed: what! no conditions. then if we are to die, it is as well to die where we are as any where else. Some hesitation happening among them Co. Sprout was directed to advance and only five Minutes given the Mutineers to Comply with the orders which had been Sent them. this had its effect, and they, to a Man, Marched without arms to the ground appointed for them5—the jersey officers gave a list of those they thought the most atrocious offenders, upon which I desired them to Select three, (one of each regiment) which was accordingly done. a Field Court Martial was presently held and they received Sentence of death by the unanimous decree of the Court. two of them were executed on the Spot, the third I have reprieved because the officers inform me that they were guided in their naming him more by his having been the Commanding Officer of the party than from any Circumstances of aggravation in his own Conduct, and because it appeared in evidence that tho he had been Compelled to take the Command, he had endeavoured to prevail upon the men to return to their duty. these reasons, Sir, induced me to Spare him, which I am persuaded your Excellency will approve. I thought it would have a good effect to appoint the executioners from among those most active in the mutiny.6 After the execution the officers were ordered to parade the men regimentally, to divide them into platoons, each officer to take his platoon—in this Situation they were directed to make & made proper concessions in the face of the troops to their officers, and to promise by future good Conduct to attone for past offences. I Then Spoke to them by platoons representing to them in the Strongest terms I was Capable of the heinousness of their guilt as well as the folly of it, in the outrage they had offered to that civil Authority to which they owed obedience And which it was their incumbent duty to Support and maintain. they Shewed the fullest Sense of their guilt and Such Strong marks of Contrition that I think I may venture to pledge my Self for their future good Conduct.

I take pleasure in expressing, Sir, the warmest approbation of the Conduct of the detatchments of every line detailed for this Command. The rapid march made by each on the Several routs they took in very inclement weather, through a depth of Snow and upon an occasion which from the nature of it nothing but a Sense of duty and love of their Country could render pleasing are very meritorious instances of their patriotism as well as of their Zeal for Service. I have the honour to be with the greatest respect Sir Your Excellency’s Most obedient and Most humble servant,

Robert Howe

LS, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in GW to Samuel Huntington, 31 Jan., DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169.

1For GW’s orders, see his letter to Howe of 22 Jan; see also Howe to GW, 25–26 January.

3For the appointment of this committee, see Frederick Frelinghuysen to GW, 20 Jan., and n.2 to that document; see also GW to the Commissioners for Redressing the Grievances of the New Jersey Line, this date.

4Amos Morrill (c.1742–1810) joined the 1st New Hampshire Regiment as a lieutenant in May 1775. After that regiment disbanded, he joined the 5th Continental Regiment as a captain in January 1776. The following November he transferred to the 1st New Hampshire Regiment. In March 1780, Morrill became major of the 2d New Hampshire Regiment, and in March 1782 he transferred to the consolidated New Hampshire Regiment, where he served until the close of the war. Morrill died in Saint Albans, Vermont.

5Dr. James Thacher, surgeon of the 9th Massachusetts regiment and an eye-witness to these events, wrote in his journal: “Marched on the 27th, at one o’clock A.M. eight miles, which brought us in view of the huts of the insurgent soldiers by dawn of day. Here we halted for an hour, to make the necessary preparations. Some of our officers suffered much anxiety, lest the soldiers would not prove faithful on this trying occasion. Orders were given to load their arms: it was obeyed with alacrity, and indications were given that they were to be relied on. Being paraded in a line, General Howe harangued them, representing the heinousness of the crime of mutiny, and the absolute necessity of military subordination; adding that the mutineers must be brought to an unconditional submission: no temporizing, no listening to terms of compromise, while in a state of resistance. Two field-pieces were now ordered to be placed in view of the insurgents, and the troops were directed to surround the huts on all sides. General Howe next ordered his aid-de-camp to command the mutineers to appear on parade in front of their huts unarmed, within five minutes; observing them to hesitate, a second messenger was sent, and they instantly obeyed the command, and paraded in a line without arms, being in number between two and three hundred. Finding themselves closely encircled and unable to resist, they quietly submitted to the fate which awaited them” (Thacher, Military Journal description begins James Thacher. Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Comprising a detailed account of the principal events and Battles of the Revolution, with their exact dates, And a Biographical Sketch of the most Prominent Generals. Hartford, 1862. description ends , 251–52).

6Thacher described the execution in his journal: “These unfortunate culprits were tried on the spot, Colonel Sprout being president of the court-martial, standing on the snow, and they were sentenced to be immediately shot. Twelve of the most guilty mutineers were next selected to be their executioners. This was a most painful task; being themselves guilty, they were greatly distressed with the duty imposed on them, and when ordered to load, some of them shed tears. The wretched victims, overwhelmed by the terrors of death, had neither time nor power to implore the mercey and forgiveness of their God, and such was their agonizing condition, that no heart could refrain from emotions of sympathy and compassion. The first that suffered was a sergeant, and an old offender; he was led a few yards’ distance, and placed on his knees; six of the executioners, at the signal given by an officer, fired, three aiming at the head and three at the breast, the other six reserving their fire in order to despatch the victim, should the first fire fail; it so happened in this instance; the remaining six then fired, and life was instantly extinguished. The second criminal was, by the first fire, sent into eternity in an instant. The third being less criminal, by the recommendation of his officers, to his unspeakable joy, received a pardon. This tragical scene produced a dreadful shock, and a salutary effect on the minds of the guilty soldiers. Never were men more completely humbled and penitent; tears of sorrow and of joy rushed from their eyes, and each one appeared to congratulate himself that his forfeited life has been spared” (Thacher, Military Journal description begins James Thacher. Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Comprising a detailed account of the principal events and Battles of the Revolution, with their exact dates, And a Biographical Sketch of the most Prominent Generals. Hartford, 1862. description ends , 252–53). For the briefer account of another officer with the detachment, see Benjamin Gilbert’s letter to his father, February 1781, in Shy, Letters of Gilbert description begins John Shy, ed. Winding Down: The Revolutionary War Letters of Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert of Massachusetts, 1780–1783. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1989. description ends , 34–35.

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