In part 4 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode, we address the grave claim that George Washington personally ordered the execution of 200 Continental soldiers.
The show had just left off stating that desertion was a constant problem in the Continental Army, which it was. Then the narrator, Adam Conover, goes on to say:
AC: …So Washington decided to enforce a statute that said any soldier who abandons his post will receive little mercy and suffer death immediately.
Fake narrator: No! Washington would never threaten to kill his own men! That’s blasphemy!
AC: Oh, he didn’t just threaten. Some soldiers were so upset about the poor conditions and lack of pay that they coordinated full-blown mutinies. In one case, 200 Continental soldiers mutinied but they were soon captured.
Washington: We must make an example of these traitors. Put them in front of a firing squad and make their own friends pull the trigger. Assemble all the regiments to bear witness [yelling] SO THAT EVERY SOLDIER WILL KNOW THE PRICE THAT IS PAID FOR TREACHERY!!
FN: That didn’t really happen?
AC: I cannot tell a lie—it did. Support for the war was so minimal that Washington resorted to killing his own men just to keep his army of bribed, drunk, confused, and impoverished colonists together to fight for a cause they had no interest in defending–economic freedom for wealthy elites.
FN: That’s terrible!
The source cited onscreen for this is “Joshua Shepard, Journal of the American Revolution, 9 Feb 2016.” We went online at the Journal—https://allthingsliberty.com–and searched in vain for an article by Joshua Shepard on this topic. The only article by Shepard was from February 24, 2016, on the 1775 Gunpowder Episode. Any real citation includes the name of the book or article cited; this failure on the part of ARE makes us very suspicious. What year was this Washington revenge-murder described in the show carried out? When? What company of soldiers? The very lack of real details debunks the claim.
UPDATE: An HP reader found this article! We are very grateful to Kraig for this. It’s called “George Washington convenes a firing squad” and it is at All Things Liberty. It does not, however say anything about Washington ordering the executions of 200 men. It can’t say that, because it never happened. Here’s what the article says:
On September 22, Washington announced his approval of the sentence [of execution against one man, Ebenezer Leffingwell, for “misbehavior before the enemy” and attacking an officer] and set the date of the execution for the following morning at 11 o’clock. The entire affair was orchestrated as a sobering object lesson in the dangers of quitting one’s post in action and threatening a superior officer. “The men of the several Regiments below Kingsbridge,” Washington ordered, “not upon Fatigue or Guard are to march down at that hour.” Leffingwell was “to be shot at the head of the Army, on the Grand-Parade.”
One can only imagine Leffingwell’s terror as the scene unfolded on Monday morning, September 23. An earthen embankment was thrown up, and although eyewitness accounts fail to mention it, a grave had likely been dug. The Connecticut regiments were formed up around the parade ground but remained outraged by the entire business. The prisoner was escorted to the site, publicly bound and blindfolded, and forced to kneel. A firing squad lined up in front of Leffingwell and prepared for “the fatal word of command.”
In an astounding eleventh hour reversal, Leffingwell abruptly received a pardon. The reprieve, recalled Joseph Plumb Martin, was read by a chaplain, who seems to have annoyed the troops. The clergyman, Martin recalled, delivered a lengthy harangue in which he described “the enormity of the crime charged upon the prisoner, repeatedly using this sentence, ‘crimes for which men ought to die,’ – which did much to further the resentment of the troops already raised to a high pitch.” When the actual pardon was announced, the troops erupted in wild cheering. The reprieve was well timed, thought Martin, as Leffingwell’s blood “would not have been the only blood that would have been spilt.”
So we are glad to find the article ARE cited, but our happiness is overshadowed by our dismay at its being used by ARE to “prove” that Washington ordered the execution of 200 of his men. When it clearly does not.
BACK TO THE POST: What we did find on the Journal’s site was an article by Michael Schellhammer called “Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line” that describes a 1780 mutiny by Continental soldiers wintering in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Schellhammer acknowledges that the soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line had not been paid for a year when they mutinied. He also describes the general the men who mutinied served under–Anthony Wayne.
Many soldiers had enlisted in 1777 under the somewhat confusing terms of “for three years or the duration of the war.” Focusing on the first clause, “for three years,” some soldiers believed that the reorganization would conclude their enlistments. But the regimental officers focused on the second clause, “or the duration of the war,” and denied the soldiers’ requests for discharge
Knowing that his men were getting fed up with the situation, the possibility of a mutiny could not have been far from Wayne’s mind. Mutiny was punishable by death under Congress’s Articles of War, but soldiers still chose to rebel against their higher authorities to protest harsh conditions or enlistments.
We put that last part in bold—mutiny was punishable by death in just about any army, any where, at any time in human history. Adam Conover drips scorn as he says that “Washington decided to enforce a statute that said any soldier who abandons his post will receive little mercy and suffer death immediately”—as if it were up to Washington! Or as if it was some unusual decision no other commander would make. He didn’t decide to enforce the statute; he enforced it. As any commander would.
You can click the link above to read the long article; suffice it to say here that Capt. Adam Bettin was killed by a mutineer and two other officers were wounded in the mutiny by about 1,500 soldiers. It was, according to Schellhammer, “by far the biggest uprising in the Continental Army yet” in 1780–five years into the war.
Unlike the previous mutinies, the size of this one presented more than disciplinary problems. The Continental Army could ill afford to have so many soldiers exit the ranks. Worse, for all the American commanders knew, the mutinous group could “turn Arnold” and join the British forces that were only about 20 miles away near New York City. Wayne sent two officers speeding to Philadelphia to alert Congress and the Executive Committee and dispatched an aide-de-camp to inform General Washington, who was at the army camp at New Windsor, New York. In his return letter, Washington approved of Wayne’s actions and directed him to identify the mutineers’ grievances for Congress to address. Washington was also concerned that the mutiny could spread to other units and stayed put to keep a lid on things at New Windsor.
We see that Washington was informed of the mutiny and his response was to confirm Wayne’s attempts to halt the mutineers and to let Congress know–once again–that the men’s legitimate grievances had to be addressed.
Here’s how the article ends:
Now let’s see how all the parties finally settled the mutiny. The former mutineers arrived at Trenton on January 9. Over the next week a committee reviewed enlistments, taking the men at their word about their enlistment dates, and discharging soldiers who claimed eligibility. The soldiers also received shirts, shoes, blankets, woolen overalls and fifty Pennsylvania shillings, the equivalent of a month’s pay. Almost the entire Pennsylvania Line went on furlough for sixty days. None of the mutineers received punishment. At the end of January Wayne reported to Washington the discharge of 1,220 soldiers, leaving the Pennsylvania Line with 1,180 sergeants and privates. Washington thought that some of the men lied to get out early.Recruiting efforts began soon and many men re-enlisted for a bounty of nine Pennsylvania shillings.
A court-martial convicted Gen. Clinton’s emissaries Mason and Ogden of spying and sentenced them to death.
So much for finding evidence of Washington the murderer in the source cited by the show.
Schellhammer does say at the end of his article that “In May  some of Wayne’s men mutinied again, and this time the consequences were brutal.” We looked in vain for an article on the same website, but a little searching turned up articles elsewhere.
Executed Today had this summary of the mutiny that followed the Pennsylvania Line mutiny:
On this date in 1781, George Washington quelled a dangerous mutiny in his starving Continental Army with a couple of salutary summary executions.
Weeks before, the Pennsylvania Line had mutinied for better pay — successfully. (When approached by British agents offering hard currency should they turn coat, the mutinous troops patriotically arrested the agents.)
General Washington had cause to fear widespread discontent in his chronically undersupplied army, however. He circulated to Congress and to several state governors an urgent appeal (.pdf) for more aid to hold up morale.
“The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently the want of provisions, are beyond description … it is vain to think an army can be kept together much longer under such a variety of sufferings as ours has experienced … unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months’ pay to the troops in money, which will be of some value to them, and at the same time ways and means are devised to clothe and feed them better … the worst that can befall us may be expected.”
Washington vowed in the meantime to “continue to exert every means I am possessed of to prevent an extension of the mischief.”
—So Washington was still attempting to get Congress to supply the soldiers when the mutiny occurred, and he laid the blame for the men’s poor conditions squarely on the men of the Congress who would not exert themselves to provide for the army.
The mischief, however, extended.
The New Jersey line at Pompton imitated — and the imitation was reportedly explicit — the Pennsylvania line. They had legitimate grievances, like nearly everyone in the Continental Army, and that was precisely the problem: if mutiny became the means to resolve grievances, Washington wouldn’t have a Continental Army much longer.
—The last is a point well-taken, and applicable to any army. Note that the generous terms the first mutineers got actually inspired the second set to mutiny. Washington could not allow this.
Washington detailed Gen. Robert Howe to make an example.
Sir: You are to take the command of the detachment, which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers of the Jersey line. You will rendezvous the whole of your command at Ringwood or Pompton as you find best from circumstances. The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. The manner of executing this I leave to your discretion according to circumstances. 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.
–Washington’s explicit orders to Howe were to make an example only of the most active leaders of the mutiny—not to execute 200 men.
And as Washington reported this afternoon to New Jersey Governor William Livingston … success.
Dr. Sir: I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency, that the measures concerted for quelling the mutiny in the Jersey line were this morning carried into full execution. The mutineers were unexpectedly surrounded and awed into an unconditional surrender with little hesitation and no resistance. Two of the principal actors were executed on the spot, the rest pardonned. 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 [of executing two leaders], 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.
A general pardon was promised by Colonel Dayton, on condition of an immediate and full return to duty. This condition was not performed on the part of the mutineers and of course they were not entitled to the benefit of the promise; besides which the existence of the Army called for an example. I have the honor etc.
—Two men executed, the rest pardoned. We just want to reiterate that.
That second paragraph of the letter hints at a bit of ass-covering from Washington. The officer on the scene, Elias Dayton, had, according to Charles Patrick Neimeyer, already smoothed the disturbance by promising that a state commission would adjudicate discharge claims.
The placated “mutineers” were therefore surprised to be roused from their beds at Ringwood, N.J., by Howe’s forces and forced to form a firing squad to execute their own sergeants. (Neimeyer also claims that the first six-man squad intentionally missed.)
This in-the-field execution to enforce military discipline was a precedent later cited by Alexander Mackenzie to justify hanging Philip Spencer, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small at sea for mutiny.
—Yes, Continental soldiers were forced to execute their sergeants. But there were not 200 sergeants, and it’s unlikely the men didn’t want to carry out the execution because they were the officers’ “friends”. It’s likely that few people want to execute other people. Firing squads were professional units for this reason. Washington made men who were not members of a firing squad take part so that they would never forget the price men paid for treason…
…oh yes, that sounds familiar—it’s what ARE had Washington scream in petty, selfish anger as he sent 200 men to their imaginary deaths. In reality, 12 men had to be recruited to shoot two men.
Where did ARE really find the harmful myth they broadcast? Not in the source they cited. That problem will come up again next time when the show claims that the British Army honored its promise to free enslaved black Americans who fought on their side.