Dateline: Connecticut, May 1780 OR Mutiny With No Bounty, Part 1

May 11, 2022 Posted by: Ranger Eric O.

This paper will focus on the Connecticut mutiny of 1780. While this was a small mutiny, it is one of the better-known mutinies. There are several reasons for the notoriety of this particular mutiny. First, it took place in what is now a National Park. As a result, the Connecticut mutiny is part of the park’s interpretive story. Secondly, it was one of the few mutinies that took place among troops directly under the command of Washington. Finally, it is one of the better documented mutinies, primarily due to the account written by Private Joseph Plumb Martin. His account is one of the few that provides us with an enlisted man’s viewpoint of a mutiny.    


Three smallish log cabin style huts. Each can fit about four men inside. There are gaps in the walls.
Soldier's Huts in Jockey Hollow.

Fortunately, in the case of the Connecticut mutiny, we also have accounts from a Connecticut captain and a colonel, as well as Washington’s report. Additionally, there are accounts from other officers in Jockey Hollow. But like any set of eyewitness accounts, each person had their own perspective and prejudices. And of course, none of the accounts fit perfectly together. It falls to the reader and the historian to decide what accounts make sense and which one don’t seem quite right.

In this summary/introduction, I’ll give you the basic information of the Connecticut mutiny. The larger paper will provide you with all the eyewitness accounts and you can decide which parts you think are correct.

By mid-May 1780, the soldiers in Jockey Hollow suffered once again from a lack of food, particularly beef. This food shortage hit the Connecticut troops especially hard. They had spent the previous few months on outpost duty where they lacked sufficient food, subsisting primarily on cornmeal. They hoped when they returned to camp, they would finally get more food, but it did not happen.

The mutiny occurred on May 25, 1780, in the First Connecticut Brigade made up of the 3rd, 4th, 6th and 8th regiments. Two regiments took part in the mutiny, but it’s unclear which ones were involved.

Captain Samuel Richards of the 3rd regiment claimed it was soldiers of his regiment and the 6th. While mutineer, Joseph Plumb Martin of the 8th regiment said it was his regiment and the 4th regiment. Both men wrote their accounts after the war and their memories might be faulty. Of the two men, I have found Martin’s memoir overall to be more accurate than Richards. Then again, you could split the difference and say that the mutineers belonged the regiments of both men which would mean that it was the 3rd and 8th regiments that mutinied. When Colonel Meigs reported to Washington the day after the mutiny he merely said that the mutineers were the “two Regiments on the left.” I’ve never seen a plan laying out how the regiments were laid out in the brigades. Logically, you’d assume they were arranged in numerical order 3rd, 4th, 6th and 8th. Which would mean the mutineers were the 3rd and 4th regiments or the 6th and 8th. Neither of which conforms to Richards or Martin’s accounts. The only account that mentions the arrangement of the brigades is Martin’s. He said that the 4th and the 8th regiments were on the left and the 3rd and the 6th were on the right. Based on all the accounts, the only thing we can say with certainty is that two regiments of the First Connecticut Brigade mutinied.

The two mutinous regiments attempted to get the other two regiments to join them but were prevented by the camp guards. Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs confronted the mutineers with a drawn sword. Both Richards and Martin state that a soldier “leveled his gun with the bayonet fixed” towards Colonel Meigs. Martin claims Meigs was wounded, but Richards and Colonel Meigs fail to mention anything. However General Washington writing to the President of Congress said, “Colo. Meigs who acted with great propriety in endeavouring to suppress the mutiny was struck by one of the Soldiers.”

The two regiments of mutineers returned to their huts. Various Connecticut officers attempted and failed to regain control be ordering or reasoning with the mutineers. Uncertain of the loyalty of the two other regiments, Meigs alerted the officers of the nearby First Pennsylvania Brigade asking them to assemble their troops, just in case. By all accounts, Colonel Walter Stewart, the acting commander of the 1st PA brigade came over and spoke to the mutineers but failed exert any influence over them. The mutiny had started because the men were hungry, frustrated, and angry. They had no plan and the mutiny lost steam and fell apart. A few of the perceived ring leaders were confined, though I have been unable to find what finally happened to them.

Eyewitness Accounts

Hungry Soldiers

Private Joseph Plumb Martin was hungry. Which isn’t surprising if you’ve read his memoir. During the Revolutionary War, Martin was always hungry and complaining about the lack of food. His most quoted line about food described his hunger in January 1780 at Morristown when he recalled, “We were absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called victuals. I saw several of the men roast their old shoes and eat them, and I was afterwards informed by one of the officers’ waiters, that some of the officers killed and ate a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them.”

After this, the Connecticut Line was sent out on outpost duty from February to mid-May. Stationed in Westfield and Springfield, New Jersey, they were constantly on the move guarding the lines near Elizabeth. There was little food for the soldiers on the outposts. Martin complained, “we had next to nothing to eat… we had no wheat flour, all the breadstuff we got was Indian cornmeal and Indian corn flour… Flesh meat was nearly as scarce as wheaten bread; we had but very little of the former and not any of the latter. There was not the least thing to be obtained from the inhabitants, they being so near the enemy, and many of them seemed to be as poor as ourselves.

After enduring months of constant duty and Loyalist raids, the Connecticut troops were relieved in mid-May. But the food situation had not improved. Martin wrote, “Our duty was not quite so hard now as it had been, but that faithful companion, hunger, stuck as close to us as ever. He was a faithful associate, I will not say friend, for, indeed, poverty is no friend, nor has he many admirers, though he has an extensive acquaintance. The soldiers were well acquainted with him during the whole period of the Revolutionary War.”

Unfortunately, things did not improve for Martin and his friends when they returned to Jockey Hollow. Martin noted, “We left Westfield about the twenty-fifth of May and went to Basking Ridge to our old winter cantonments. We did not reoccupy the huts we built, but some others that the troops bad left [see map above]. Here, the monster Hunger, still attended us. He was not to be shaken off by any efforts we could use, for here was the old story of starving, as rife as ever. We had entertained some hopes that when we bad left the lines and joined the main army, we should fare a little better, but we found that there was no betterment in the case. For several days after we rejoined the army, we got a little musty bread and a little beef, about every other day, but this lasted only a short time and then we got nothing at all.”

By May 25, 1780. Martin and his compatriots in the 8th Connecticut Regiment were hungry, frustrated, and angry.

And it wasn’t just the Connecticut troops that suffered. On May 25, Lt. Col. Josiah Harmar [above] of the Pennsylvania Line wrote we have had no Beef for eight days past.” While General Washington complained, “Our situation here is equally melancholy—for the Troops on several days have been entirely without meat—and at best on half & quarter allowance for a considerable time.” Doctor James Thacher of Stark’s Brigade added, “We are again visited with the calamity of which we have so often complained, a great scarcity of provisions of every kind. Our poor soldiers are reduced to the very verge of famine; their patience is exhausted by complicated sufferings, and their spirits are almost broken.”

Angry Soldiers

At this point Martin and the Connecticut soldiers had reached a boiling point and there was no stopping it. Martin explained and tried to justify what happened, “The men were now exasperated beyond endurance; they could not stand it any longer. They saw no alternative but to starve to death, or break up the army, give all up and go home. This was a hard matter for the soldiers to think upon. They were truly patriotic, they loved their country, and they had already suffered everything short of death in its cause; and now, after such extreme hardships to give up all was too much, but to starve to death was too much also. What was to be done? Here was the army starved and naked, and there their country sitting still and expecting the army to do notable things while fainting from sheer starvation. All things considered, the army was not to be blamed. Reader, suffer what we did and you will say so, too.”

A portrait of a man in a Continental Army officer's uniform. He is older with wrinkles.
A portrait of Josiah Harmar by Raphaelle Peale

U.S. Department of State

The Mutiny

Captain Samuel Richards, of the 3rd Connecticut Regiment, provided an officer’s prospective on what happened next. “Another season of starvation occurred: while remaining in New Jersey. For several days previous to the 25th of May the rations were curtailed; and then entirely suspended. On that day two Connecticut regiments – Wyllys’ [3rd CT] & Miegs’ [6th CT] appeared paraded under arms without an officer to head them, and directed in their movements by serjeants: Their movements had been silent until then. The officers all sprang out and enquiring the object of their movement and their designs; they replied thro’ a leading serjeant, that their sufferings had become so great they could endure them no longer, and were determined to quit the service and return home: adding that from the commencement of the year they had received neither pay nor clothing, and now provision failed..."

JUST WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? Tune in for the next American Revolutionary Episodic to find out!

Last updated: July 28, 2022

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