When the Princeton chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution selected correspondence between Benjamin Franklin’s daughter Sarah Bache and General George Washington to read at its March 1917 meeting, the organization had the benefit of hindsight, knowing the outcome of the American Revolution. But when they composed their letters, Bache and Washington were in the midst of what might have been the darkest portion of the war, a period of poor conditions and extended military service for soldiers whose response was to mutiny.
Bache’s letter, dated December 26, 1780, told Washington of a shipment of just over 2,000 shirts for the soldiers by the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to help remedy the tattered uniforms the military had been wearing for several years. Six days later, an uprising by the Pennsylvania Line stationed in Morristown, New Jersey occurred, spurring its participants on a journey to Philadelphia to confront Congress about their grievances.
The Pennsylvania Line mutiny had not been suppressed when Washington sat down to write his response to Bache on January 15, 1781. “I should have done myself the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the letter you did me the favor to write on the 26th of December…at the moment it came to hand, had not some affairs of a very unusual nature (which are too recent and notorious to require explanation) engaged my whole attention,” Washington wrote.
He informs Bache that “the value of the donation will be greatly enhanced by a consideration of the hands by which it was made and presented. Amidst all the distresses and sufferings of the Army, from whatever sources they [have] arisen, it must be a consolation to our virtuous Countrywomen, that they have never been accused of withholding their most zealous efforts to support the cause we are engaged in; and encourage those who are defending them in the field.”
What Washington could not have foreseen was the Pennsylvania Line inspiring a similar insurrection from the New Jersey Line at Pompton on January 20. Willard M. Wallace, in his book Appeal to Arms: A Military History of the American Revolution, explains that “this time Washington would have nothing to do with negotiation…He sent General Robert Howe of South Carolina with a strong body of New Englanders to use summary measures in dealing with the mutineers.”
Wallace reports that Howe arrived in New Jersey on January 28 and surrounded those participating in the insurrection. “Twelve of the most guilty mutineers,” he writes, “were then chosen as a firing squad and compelled to shoot two of their leaders…Amid such distressing scenes the mutiny of the New Jersey Line collapsed.”
The following day, the matter with the Pennsylvania Line had been contained, with back pay and new clothing guaranteed and discharges given to soldiers on the basis of their claims, according to Wallace.
But it would not be until summer of that year, Wallace, explains, that many of the conditions plaguing the soldiers were corrected when “…greater centralization was effected” with “a superintendent of finance replacing the Board of Treasury and a clothier general, who acted upon the financier’s approval, relieving the states of their responsibility for clothing the troops.”
In her correspondence, Bache sets aside the war for a moment and focuses on personal matters: “My Father in one of his last Letters says, “If you happen again to see Gen. Washington, assure him of my great and sincere Respect…” In his response, Washington is clearly touched by the compliment and offers his own. “…the indulgent manner in which he is pleased to express himself respecting me, is indeed very pleasing,” he writes, “for nothing in human life can afford a liberal mind more rational, and exquisite satisfaction than the approbation of a wise, a great and a virtuous man.”