The Nicknaming of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne

Critical Thinking

May 3, 2013
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author


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madDear Mr. History: 

How did General “Mad” Anthony Wayne get his nickname?  Was he some kind of lunatic in battle?  I’ve also heard that Wayne’s ghost haunts Pennsylvania because the general died sort of a gruesome death.  What’s the story?  Sincerely, Mad Man.

Dear Mad Man: 

Glad you asked about Anthony Wayne!  He was born and raised in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I also spent some of my younger days.  But we didn’t hang out or anything – pretty sure we went to different high schools.

Wayne’s nickname didn’t originate from any battlefield exploits.  According to the definitive biography on Wayne by Paul D. Nelson, the name became popular in the early winter of 1781, when Wayne’s Pennsylvania division was in winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.  The story goes that New Jersey law officers arrested an eccentric soldier known as “the Commodore” or “Jimmy the Drover,” for a local civil infraction.  The soldier demanded Wayne’s intervention.  But Wayne threatened to have the miscreant flogged instead.  “Jimmy the Drover” reportedly responded “Anthony is mad!  Farewell to you; clear the coast for the Commodore, ‘Mad Anthony’s’ friend.”  Wayne’s Pennsylvanians really got a kick out of the story and decided that “Mad Anthony” described their commander pretty well.  You have to admit that it’s not bad, as nicknames go.  Though it didn’t stem from combat, Wayne’s exploits on and off the battlefield definitely made the name a good fit.

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War Wayne was a respected southeastern Pennsylvania farmer and businessman.  He strongly supported the Patriot cause and in January 1776 gained a commission as a colonel with command of the Fourth Pennsylvania Battalion.  He first served on the northern frontier and briefly commanded the key post of Ft. Ticonderoga.  Congress promoted him to brigadier general in February, 1777, and Gen. Washington transferred him to the main Continental Army that April to command a brigade of Pennsylvanians.

He was nothing if not colorful.  Wayne was a champion curser during an era when many officers excelled at profane talk.  Understanding that soldiers take great pride in their appearance, he kept his men looking as sharp as possible.  He set the example as a snappy dresser with his preference for ruffled shirts under an immaculate blue uniform coat with white facings.  His dress habits earned him his first nickname of “Dandy Wayne,” which was a nice jab but less than an inspiring as a nom de guerre.  The thing is, soldiers love a colorful leader, and Wayne’s personality helped him infuse a winning attitude throughout the units he commanded.  Pennsylvania soldier Alexander Graydon thought that Wayne was “somewhat addicted to the vaunting style,” but admitted that he “could fight as well as brag.”

Wayne was an exceptionally dynamic leader.  He studied martial literature, was a strict disciplinarian, and expected his junior officers to be both respected and feared by their soldiers.  He exuded energy during battle, and though his nickname may lead you think that he acted rashly, Wayne was actually famous for keeping his cool in action.  Any risks he took were those that he calmly calculated to achieve success.  That’s not being “mad,” it’s solid leadership that brings results.  He and his Pennsylvanians fought well during the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, after which Washington commended him for “good conduct and bravery.”  In July 1779 Wayne led the Corps of Light Infantry in a midnight bayonet assault against the supposedly impregnable British bastion of Stony Point.  An enemy musket ball gashed his scalp during the attack, and Congress awarded Wayne a special gold medal for winning such a stirring action.

Off the battlefield Wayne was not a man to be trifled with.  At Ft. Ticonderoga in early 1777, troops of the Sixth Pennsylvania mutinied over their enlistment terms until Wayne brow-beat the leaders into surrendering.  He squashed a second mutiny in a rifle company by aiming a pistol at one of the ring leaders until the man begged for his life.  During the Morristown encampment in January 1781 (before the incident with The Commodore), he negotiated the successful end to the mutiny of his Pennsylvania Line over their enlistment terms and lack of pay.  His still-disgruntled soldiers threatened yet another mutiny while preparing to move into Virginia that May.  This time there was no negotiating; a court-martial found the leaders guilty of mutiny, and Wayne had four of them executed.  Still yet another mutiny occurred once the march began – yes, another one.  A quickly-convened court martial followed, and Wayne executed the ring leaders in front of his entire division.  That put the kibosh on any future mutinies under his command.  You can see why his men decided that “Mad Anthony” was a good sobriquet for their tough, colorful, hard-fighting general.

Wayne left the Continental Army as a major-general at the end of the Revolution in 1783, and afterward served briefly in the U.S House of Representatives.  In 1792 President Washington appointed him the commander of a new professional army, the Legion of the United States, fighting the Northwest Indian War in the territory that became Ohio.  With the same skill he showed fighting the British, Wayne crushed a Native American army at the battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794.

Circa 1795
Circa 1795

In 1796 Wayne decided to move his headquarters to Pittsburgh, and this is where we start getting to the gruesome death.  He set out in mid-November by sailing from Detroit to Presque Isle, which is now Erie, Pennsylvania.  But he was not a well man.  For years Wayne suffered ill health, probably related to a bout of malaria he contracted in 1782, two musket ball wounds from the Revolution, and a lifetime of imbibing in good wine and rich foods.  His most recent affliction, a serious and painful case of gout, flared up as he began the trip.

Wayne was in severe pain when his boat arrived at Presque Isle on November 19 and his soldiers carefully unloaded the old general and took him to the nearby army blockhouse, commanded by Capt. Russell Bissell.  A doctor attended to Wayne, but the gout spread to his abdomen, and it is possible that a stomach ulcer ruptured and caused an infection.  There is even a theory that his rival general, James Wilkinson, poisoned Wayne.  Whatever they were, the ailments destroyed his body.  At about 2:00 AM on December 15, Wayne died in Bissell’s quarters.  As Wayne wished, soldiers dressed him in his best uniform and buried him at the foot of the camp’s flagstaff.  Capt. Bissell marked the grave with a simple stone monument and a small wooden fence, which was a nice touch, I think.

Years later, the army abandoned the blockhouse and Wayne’s gravesite was neglected.  In 1808 Wayne’s daughter, Margaretta, decided that her father’s proper resting place was the family burial plot in Radnor Township in southeastern Pennsylvania.  But disinterring and transporting a body was expensive and not the work for a woman in that era.  With encouragement and funding by the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati, Wayne’s son, Isaac, travelled to Erie in September 1809 to retrieve the general’s remains.

Isaac passed on exhuming the body himself and hired an old acquaintance of his father, a Dr. J.C. Wallace, for the job.  The doctor discovered Wayne’s body in surprisingly excellent condition – only portions of one foot and leg had decomposed.  The rest of the body was like soft chalk or pork, according to witnesses.  Embalming was a rarity at the time and not available at Presque Isle, so transporting a fleshy cadaver over 300 miles to Radnor was impossible.  Wallace decided – possibly without Isaac’s consent – to separate the flesh from the bones and render the skeleton, at least, suitable for transport.  With some assistants, and a few onlookers, Wallace performed this rather macabre operation by dismembering Wayne’s body, boiling the parts in a large iron kettle, carving away the flesh, and scraping the bones clean.  The scene became even more ghoulish when one gawker snipped a lock of Wayne’s hair as a keepsake.  Another took the general’s intact boot, later had its match made, and wore both boots until they wore out.  Wallace and his men then packed the bones into a small casket for Isaac Wayne, and buried the general’s flesh, the instruments used in the procedure, and the kettle water in the original grave.  By the way, I sure hope somebody paid Dr. Wallace a lot of money.  Isaac Wayne carted his father’s bones to Radnor Township, where the remains were buried with military honors on October 24, 1809.

Here’s where the ghost story comes in.  According to the legend, Isaac Wayne’s cart bounced so much on the rough frontier roads that the casket frequently opened and spilled bones along the way.  The story goes that every January 1, Wayne’s birthday, the ghost of the general rises, along with a horse, and rides the roads of the Keystone State in search of his lost bones.  The ghost is often seen along U.S. Route 322 that runs southwest across Pennsylvania.  Others have seen the ghost riding the opposite direction from Radnor to Presque Isle, also along Route 322.

Either way, having driven that state a lot, I suspect that the general is merely trying to get around without taking the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which has a lot of potholes and State Police.  And knowing that Wayne was most assuredly not buried with a horse, we could question how he obtained his ghostly steed, but that’s no fun.  I suspect that even in death, Anthony Wayne would exist as he did in life – with style and panache – so merely walking the Earth would be beneath him.  They didn’t call him “Mad Anthony” for nothing.

There is much more to know about this fascinating character.  To read up on Wayne’s life, check out the authoritative biography, Anthony Wayne: Soldier of the Early Republic, by Paul D. Nelson.  For more information on Wayne’s death, see “General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne: The Man With Two Graves,” in the March/April 2010 issue of American Revolution magazine, by our own Hugh T. Harrington.  For the theory of Wayne’s murder see “Treason! Slander! Murder?  James Wilkinson’s Possible Assassination of Anthony Wayne,” in Patriots of the American Revolution magazine, January/February 2012, by Sandra Ormerod and Hugh T. Harrington.  And to read about Wayne’s exploits at the battle of Stony Point, I humbly recommend my own book, George Washington and the Final British Campaign for the Hudson River, 1779.

And please don’t ever refer to him as “Dandy Wayne.”



  • Enjoyed this–an ancestor was with Wayne at Ticonderoga and Stoney Point, and in my research on the ancestor’s doings Wayne became my favorite Rev War character. The ghost story was new to me,
    but the part about him avoiding the turnpike sounds just like him. He was quite a guy.

  • My grandmother claimed she was a descendant of Anthony Wayne. My ancestry does go back to Benjamin (1728-1797) and Elizabeth Hutton, at Chester County, Pennsylvania and the Revolutionary War. Please help me fill in the blanks if you can.

  • Wonderful stories! I live in Fort Wayne, IN, which was founded 221 years ago this month. I occasionally lead historical tours of the downtown area and we always include the story about the ghost and the rendering. This gives me a little more detail to include.
    (And I can’t even imagine how a Fort Wayne citizen would react if anyone referred to him as Dandy Wayne).

  • Enjoyed reading about Mad Anthony Wayne. My ancestor surgeon John Morton served with him in the fourth pa and then he became an in law when his sister married into the van leer family.

  • I was born in Toledo, Ohio. As a child we often drove the Anthony Wayne Trail to visit relatives in the area, so the comment about General Wayne’s ghost avoiding the turnpike gave me a chuckle. Thank you for the insights into one of my favorite American heroes.

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