To better understand the people and events that helped shape us, a reexamination of historical moments usually centers on significant pockets of time. So it’s curious that a March 1917 meeting of the Princeton chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution chose a period in American history that is not often revisited.
The meeting, convened at Morven, the family estate of Richard Stockton, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, was reported by the organization’s magazine in April 1917, noting that the reading of historic letters comprised a portion of the gathering. “Some were dated Morven and others were addressed to members of the Stockton family at Morven,” the article informs. “Among the letters read was one from Jefferson, two from Gen. Washington; some from members of the family who were loyalists and had fled to Canada at the breaking out of the Revolution…”
But the article notes that “perhaps the most interesting to us today are the letters from Sarah Bache dated from Philadelphia and Washington’s response written at what is often spoken of as “the darkest hour of the Revolution.”
Sarah Bache was the daughter of Benjamin Franklin and an active member of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia aiding in the U.S. colonies’ fight for independence. In 1780, the year of her correspondence to General George Washington, she led the Ladies Association in making more than 2,000 shirts for Continental Army soldiers at Valley Forge. The shirts, however, were only a partial remedy in an attempt to stem “the darkest hour” of the Revolutionary War.
According to Willard M. Wallace in his book Appeal to Arms: A Military History of the American Revolution, “In view of the scarcity of recruits, Congress reduced the army in 1780. The one hundred and four battalions authorized in 1776 had been reduced to eighty in 1779 and were now further consolidated in October 1780…”
The Pennsylvania Line, quartered in Morristown, New Jersey in December 1780, exemplified the problems facing American soldiers. Wallace writes, “Many of them claimed that they had signed up for three years only and were being held for the duration now that the three years were up. They were reduced almost to nakedness, were poorly fed and had not been paid for a year.”
Wallace reports that much of the difficulty facing the soldiers “was caused by excessive delay and administrative detail in the government departments, the lack of central direction in Philadelphia and the slackness of the states…”
In her letter to Washington, dated December 26, 1780, Bache explains that “we packed the shirts in three Boxes and delivered them to Col. Miles… there are two thousand and five in number; they would have been at Camp long before this, had not the general sickness which has prevailed prevented [;] we wish them to be worn with as much Pleasure as they were made.”
She was undoubtedly unaware of what would transpire in New Jersey six days later. Soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line, according to Wallace, “acting under the command of their sergeants and stimulated by a New Year’s Day issue of rum” decided to “take matters into their own hands.” Ignoring orders, the soldiers set off for Philadelphia, where they meant to address Congress, “which alone had the power to right their wrongs.”
An attempt to reconcile with the mutineers in Princeton failed, and the soldiers continued on to Trenton, where talks would resume in a second attempt to quell the uprising. Wallace notes that “ready to march against the rebellious troops” were soldiers from New England, where a mutiny had risen the previous spring and was contained, ironically enough, by the Pennsylvania Line. Before talks could take place in Trenton, however, the New Jersey Line ran out of patience with the State Legislature not meeting its needs.
Next Week: Washington