Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Revolt and execution: the little known Pompton Mutiny

We've shared many aspects about the many heroic, though lesser-known aspects of New Jersey's Revolutionary War history. We've visited places where patriotic militias turned back the British, and other sites where the locals put up a good fight but ended up losing their homes. And we've marveled at the tenacity of the men who endured the terrible winter of 1779-1780 in the rough log huts of the Jockey Hollow encampment, surviving despite minimal rations, ragged clothing and, in many cases, without even the most rudimentary of footwear.

More than two centuries later, it's easy to look upon the hardships and the outcome of the war, and assume that the men of Washington's army were some sort of saints who endured in the knowledge that they would emerge victorious. Grade school history books do nothing to tarnish that assumption, but we're talking about very human people put into an extraordinarily awful situation. The conditions were enough to try anyone's patience, and, in fact, some were stretched to their breaking points. Adding insult to injury, many hadn't been paid in quite some time, and newer recruits were getting more generous bounties than longstanding soldiers had gotten when they enlisted.

By January 1781, the troops of the Pennsylvania Line of the Continental Army had had enough. Believing their three-year hitch was up, they left their Jockey Hollow camp to air their grievances with the commonwealth's Supreme Executive Council (effectively the group acting as governor). Long story short, the two sides ultimately agreed that the longer-serving soldiers would be discharged and allowed to reenlist, thus receiving the more generous bounty. One might say they were rewarded for severe insubordination, not something that military leadership would generally want to encourage.

A few small markers at Jockey Hollow offer brief mentions of the Pennsylvania Line mutiny, but the New Jersey mutiny -- and there was one -- is a little harder to find.

The exact location is in question, but you can learn about it on Newark-Pompton Turnpike in Riverdale, from a marker across the road from the grade school. Ivan found it: a small sign about the size of a "no parking" warning, that's labeled "Pompton Mutiny."

Encamped near Federal Hill overlooking present day Passaic County, the soldiers of the New Jersey Line were just as destitute as their Pennsylvania brethren -- poorly clothed and malnourished. And like their cohorts, about 200 of the Jerseymen set off to air their grievances to the state government in Trenton. Hearing of the Pennsylvanians' success along the way, these new mutineers soon returned to Pompton, hoping for a similar outcome. Receiving none, they revolted again a few days later.

This mutiny would end much differently. Once he received word of the revolt from camp commander Colonel Israel Shreve, General George Washington took quick and decisive action. A wave of mutinies would destroy the Continental Army even as Congress was working to resolve longstanding pay issues. Maintaining order was essential to a strong military, and an early example had to be set. He sent General Robert Howe and 500 troops south from West Point to quell the disturbance, with no allowances for negotiation. To further emphasize the seriousness of his intent, Washington ordered, "If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders."

That's exactly what happened on January 27, 1781. After surrounding the mutinous bunch and finding no further resistance, Howe selected about a dozen of the mutineers as a firing squad to execute their ringleaders, Sergeants David Gilmore and John Tuttle.

In a letter to New Jersey Governor William Livingston, Washington portrayed the executions as an inevitable step in quelling the revolt:  "The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step, notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers."

Where, exactly, all of this occurred, is up for conjecture, perhaps fueled by the fact that the area known as Pompton during the revolution has been divided into four separate towns in the years since. Besides the Riverdale sign that caught our attention, another marker on Union Avenue in Bloomingdale claims marks the spot of the execution of two of the mutineers. Some say that the graves of Gilmore and Tuttle are somewhere on Federal Hill, marked only by the piles of stones heaped upon their final resting places.

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