The Execution of the Federal Hill Mutineers, 1781

NOTE: This eyewitness account is from the diary of James Thacher, M.D., a surgeon in the Continental Army. It tells of General Robert Howe's mission to track down mutinous American troops who were stationed on Federal Hill overlooking Riverdale, N.J. The mutiny came just three weeks after the Pennsylvannia Line mutiny in Morristown. Two of the Federal Hill mutineers were put to death. Also note that during the Revolution, Federal Hill is believed to have been known as Burnt Mountain. -- Cal Deal, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

March on the 27th at one o'clock, a.m., eight miles, which brought us in view of the insurgent soldiers at dawn of day. Here we halted for an hour to make the necessary preparations. Some of our soldiers suffered much anxiety lest the soldiers would not prove faithful on this trying occasion.

Orders were given to load their arms - they 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 terms of compromise, while in a state of resistance. Two fieldpieces were ordered to be placed in view of the insurgents, and the troops were ordered to surround the huts on all sides.

General Howe then ordered his aide-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 they paraded in 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. General Howe ordered that three of the ringleaders should be selected as victims for condign punishment. These unfortunate culprits were tried on the spot. Colonel Sprout being president of the court martial, standing on the snow, and they were ordered to be immediately shot.

Two of the most guilty mutineers were next selected to be their executioners. This was a most painful task; 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 mercy and forgiveness of their God, and such was their agonizing condition, that no heart could refrain from emotion of sympathy and compassion.

The first that suffered was a sergeant and an old offender; he was led a few yards distance and place on his knees; six of the executioners, at a 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 dispatch 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, instantly sent into eternity. The third, being less criminal, by the recommendation of his officers, to his unspeakable joy, received a pardon.

This tragical scene produced a dreadful and 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 seemed to congratulate himself that his forfeited life had been spared.

He then commanded them to ask pardon of their officers, and promise to devote themselves to the faithful discharge of their duties as soldiers in future. It is most painful to reflect, that circumstances should imperiously demand the infliction of capital punishment on soldiers who have more than a shadow of plea to extenuate their crime. These unfortunate men have long suffered many serious grievances which them have sustained with commendable patience; but have, at length lost their faith in public justice.

The success of the Pennsylvania insurgents undoubtedly encourage them to hope for exemption from punishment. But the very existence of an army depends on proper discipline and subordination. The arm of authority must be exerted, and public examples be exhibited to deter from the commission of crimes. The spirit of revolt must be effectually repressed, or a total annihilation of the army is inevitable.

Sir Henry Clinton, on this occasion, had his hopes again excited; ever ready to profit by treachery or revolt, he dispatched an emissary to encourage the insurrection and to make the most tempting offers to induce the mutineers to desert, and join the British standard; but the messenger himself frustrated his hopes by delivering the papers to our own officers.