J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lt. Ziegler and “Our Thirty-Two Mutineers”

On 13 Sept 1775, Pvt. Jesse Lukens (1748-1776), son of the Surveyor-General of Pennsylvania, wrote back to his home colony from the siege lines at Boston about the behavior of Col. William Thompson’s battalion of Pennsylvania riflemen. The Pennsylvanians had arrived at the siege of Boston in the summer of 1775. They were specially valued for their marksmanship, so they seem to have been assigned unusually light duty. Their colonel was also apparently not a strict disciplinarian.

Lukens described the result:

They had twice before broken open our guard house and released their companions who were confined there for small crimes, and once it was with the utmost difficulty that they were kept from rescuing an offender in the presence of all their officers. They openly damned them and behaved with great insolence. However, the Colonel was pleased to pardon the men and all remained quiet; but on Sunday last the Adjutant having confined a Sergeant for neglect of duty and murmuring the men began again and threatened to take him out.
That was 10 September. The adjutant was Lt. David Ziegler (1748-1811), born in Heidelberg—one of a number of German immigrants or sons of immigrants in the battalion’s officer corps. I love the charge of “murmuring.”
The adjutant, being a man of spirit, seized the principal mutineer and put him in also, and coming to report the matter to the Colonel, where we were all sitting after dinner were alarmed with a huzzaing and upon going out found they had broken open the guard house and taken the man out.

The colonel and lieutenant-colonel, with several officers and friends, seized the fellow from amongst them, and ordered a guard to take him to Cambridge to the main guard, which was done without any violent opposition, but in about twenty minutes thirty-two of Capt. [James] Ross’ company, with their loaded rifles, swore by God they would go to the main guard and release the man or lose their lives, and set off as hard as they could run. It was in vain to attempt stopping them. We stayed in camp and kept the others quiet.

Sent word to Gen. [George] Washington, who reinforced the guard to five hundred men with fixed bayonets and loaded pieces [i.e., artillery]. Col. [Daniel] Hitchcock’s regiment, (being the one next to us,) was ordered under arms, and some part of Gen. [Nathanael] Greene’s brigade, (as the generals were determined to subdue by force the mutineers, and did not know how far it might spread in our battalion.)

Genls. Washington, [Charles] Lee, and Greene came immediately, and our thirty-two mutineers who had gone about a half a mile towards Cambridge and taken possession of a hill and woods, beginning to be frighted at their proceedings, were not so hardened, but upon the General’s ordering them to ground their arms they did it immediately. The General then ordered another of our companies, Capt. [George] Nagel’s, to surround them with their loaded guns, which was immediately done, and did the company great honor.

However, to convince our people (as I suppose, mind,) that it did not altogether depend upon themselves, he ordered part of Col. Hitchcock’s and Col. [Moses] Little’s regiments to surround them with their bayonets fixed, and ordered two of the ringleaders to be bound. I was glad to find our men all true and ready to do their duty except these thirty-two rascals. Twenty-six were conveyed to the quarter-guard on Prospect Hill, and six of the principals to the main guard.

You cannot conceive what disgrace we are all in, and how much the General is chagrined that only one regiment should come from the South, and that set so infamous an example, and in order that idleness shall not be a further bane to us, the General’s orders on Monday, were “that Col. Thompson’s regiment shall be upon all parties of fatigue, and do all other camp duty with any other regiment.”
So no more special treatment for Thompson’s riflemen.
The men have since been tried by a general court-martial and convicted of mutiny, and were only fined twenty Shillings each for the use of the hospital—too small a punishment for so base a crime. Mitigated, no doubt, on account of their having come so far to serve the cause and its being the first crime.

The men are returned to their camp and seem exceedingly sorry for their misbehavior and promise amendment. I charge our whole disgrace upon the remissness of our officers, and the men being employed will yet, no doubt, do honor to their Provinces. For this much I can only say for them that upon every alarm it was impossible for men to behave with more readiness or attend better to their duty; it is only in the camp that we cut a poor figure.
The picture above is a Pennsylvania long rifle made around 1780, in the collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and visible through ExplorePAhistory.com.

TOMORROW: A recent book that puts this mutiny in context.

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