George Washington Convenes a Firing Squad

The War Years (1775-1783)

February 9, 2016
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

In an army where men died as a matter of course, there was nonetheless something peculiarly unsettling about the business scheduled for the morning of September 23, 1776.  The grim verdict of a court-martial four days before had, at least in the opinion of Connecticut’s Joseph Plumb Martin, left the troops “greatly exasperated.”[1]  For his part, Pennsylvania Lt. James McMichael blandly described the prelude to the unpleasant affair.  “At 11 o’clock,” he recorded in his diary, “the whole army at Mount Washington met on the grand parade in order to see a man shot.”[2]

It was a stark exhibition of force that was nonetheless deemed unavoidable.  From the outset of his tenure as commander in chief, George Washington was unambiguous in his expectations for the appropriate submission of the troops under his command.  For the general, who clearly entertained hopes that his own men would eventually be capable of challenging the British toe-to-toe, subjection to military authority was imperative to the fighting trim of the army.  In the first general orders which he issued after his arrival outside of Boston, Washington explained that “it is required and expected that exact discipline be observed, and due Subordination prevail thro’ the whole Army, as a Failure in these most essential points must necessarily produce extreme Hazard, Disorder and Confusion; and end in shameful disappointment and disgrace.”[3]

The Continental Congress had already adopted a basic framework for the discipline of the army.  On June 30, 1775, delegates adopted a body of regulations known as the sixty-nine Articles of War which governed the behavior of American troops.  One article addressed an obviously intolerable infraction: physical assaults, or even threats, against superior officers.  Any soldier “who shall strike his superior officer, or draw, or offer to draw, or shall lift up any weapon, or offer any violence against him,” would be subject to the highest form of military adjudication, a general court-martial.[4]  Any soldier who abandoned his post in action would receive little mercy and “suffer death immediately.”[5]

The first conspicuous test of such infractions, and Washington’s willingness to punish them, came on September 16, 1776.  From the army’s position at Harlem Heights on Manhattan Island, Washington had ordered out a morning scouting party to probe British positions further south.  The American detachment, a New England outfit known as Knowlton’s Rangers, tangled with enemy light infantry pickets and was then forced to give ground in the face of a counterattack.  When Washington formulated plans to strike at exposed British troops, he directed a staff officer, Col. Joseph Reed, to bring up reinforcements.

Reed was a highly valued member of the general’s staff.  A Philadelphia attorney and something of a self-made man, Reed entered the military world the previous year with the rather plum assignment as Washington’s first military secretary.  After barely a year of service, he received a marked promotion, which had been announced in the army’s general orders on June 18.  “Joseph Reed Esqr: is appointed Adjutant General of all the Continental Forces with the Rank of Colonel, and is to be regarded and obeyed accordingly.”[6]

Unfortunately, not everyone heeded that counsel on the morning of September 16.  Following Washington’s instructions, Reed located the 3rd Virginia Regiment, ordered up reinforcements for the planned attack, and then headed back for the front.  Before he reached Knowlton’s troops, the colonel encountered a skulking soldier, who, at least by Reed’s description, was “running away from where the firing was, with every mark of fear and trepidation.”[7]  It was Ebenezer Leffingwell, a soldier from Col. John Durkee’s Connecticut regiment, who had been on detached duty with Knowlton’s Rangers during the morning’s skirmish.[8]

The encounter between the two men proved less than cordial.  Reed struck Leffingwell with his sword – presumably using the flat of the blade – and barked orders for him to return to his post.  Leffingwell agreed, and, seeming to comply, scampered into the underbrush toward the direction of the fighting.  Soon thereafter, Reed again noticed Leffingwell making a dash for the rear.  It was a classic case of no more Mr. Nice Guy.  Although Reed had previously swatted at Leffingwell with his sword, the frustrated adjutant immediately set out in pursuit, he later explained, “with a determination to mark him.”[9]

Thereafter, the ugly confrontation degenerated to a wildly confused fracas.[10]  Reed, with drawn sword, thrashed away at Leffingwell’s head and shoulders.  Leffingwell exclaimed that he would kill Reed if he didn’t back off.  From the distance of about sixteen feet, he then pointed his musket at Reed and appeared to pull the trigger.  Much to the latter’s relief, the cock snapped but the gun failed to go off.  While a furious Reed seized a musket from a passing soldier, Leffingwell apparently attempted to gain the cover of a ditch.

Reed was far from giving up the chase.  When Leffingwell saw Reed approaching, the hysterical soldier “fell to bellowing out.”  Reed angrily leveled his musket and pulled the trigger; miraculously, his piece likewise snapped but failed to fire.  Whether due to dull flints, bad powder or improper loading, both men had narrowly escaped death.  “I should have shot him,” claimed Reed, “could I have got my gun off.”[11]  Reed possibly took a few more swings at Leffingwell.  It had not been a bloodless argument.  At some point during the melee, Leffingwell’s scalp was laid open by a sword blow and one of his thumbs was severed.

That was the least of the hapless soldier’s difficulties.  By so much as lifting his weapon against Reed, Leffingwell had crossed the line from mere insubordination to outright mutiny.  After he was taken into custody, the Connecticut soldier seems to have committed yet another egregious error.  “He has since confessed to me,” Reed later testified, “that he was running away at the time I met him.”[12]

There was, not surprisingly, another side to the story.  Fellow Connecticut soldier Joseph Plumb Martin later penned his recollections of campfire gossip.  According to Martin, Leffingwell was not only the innocent victim of a gross misunderstanding but a selfless hero.  Leffingwell, so the story went, had been directed to bring up more ammunition and was simply obeying orders when he was accosted by Reed, who refused to believe his explanation and threatened him with a sword.  “Fired with just indignation at hearing and seeing his life threatened,” Leffingwell simply “cocked his musket and stood in his own defence.”[13]

Such grandiose scuttlebutt did little to help Leffingwell.  On September 19, he was brought before a general court-martial and charged with “cowardice and misbehaviour before the enemy, and of presenting and snapping a musket at Colonel Reed.”  Leffingwell plead not guilty, but there is no record that he offered further testimony.  There was certainly no evidence that he was acting under orders, or that he was engaged in securing ammunition for his comrades.  Lieutenant Benoni Shipman offered the only testimony on Leffingwell’s behalf, claiming that the soldier had performed well during the early morning skirmish at Harlem Heights.  But subsequent to the initial stages of the fighting, Shipman admitted that “I know nothing of the prisoner, or where he was.”[14]

Reed provided the most lengthy testimony, but came just short of claiming that Leffingwell had pulled the trigger on his musket.  “He presented his piece at me,” said Reed, “and I think snapped his piece at me.”  That minor detail, in any event, was somewhat immaterial.  The evidence was clear enough to the officers that composed the court, who reached a verdict in short order.  Leffingwell was found guilty of “’misbehaving before the enemy, and of presenting his musket at Colonel Reed’, and of a breach of the twenty-seventh article of the rules and regulations for the government of the Continental forces.”[15]  The sentence was short and grim: Leffingwell would “suffer death for said crime.”[16]

As the date of the pending execution approached, the Connecticut troops, in the words of Joseph Plumb Martin, were “greatly exasperated” by the whole affair.  Leffingwell’s version of events was clearly believed by a good number of the soldiers, who manifested their displeasure by voicing “secret and open threats” against their superiors.[17]  Joseph Reed never expressed doubt of Leffingwell’s guilt, but on further reflection decided to intercede on the condemned soldier’s behalf.  In a letter to his wife, Reed explained that although “one of our own rascals” had made an attempt on his life, “I believe I must beg him off.”  The colonel indicated that the loss of Leffingwell’s thumb was punishment enough.[18]

On September 22, Washington announced his approval of the sentence, 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.”[19]

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.”[20]

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.”[21]

Joseph Reed’s good graces were no doubt crucial in securing mercy.  In his general orders for that day, Washington explained that Leffingwell had been pardoned on account of “his former good Character and upon the intercession of the Adjutant General, against whom he presented his firelock.”  Despite the pardon, the commander in chief remained eager to instill rigid discipline in the Continental Army, and coolly announced that “the next offender shall suffer death without mercy.”[22] As Washington would prove on subsequent occasions, it was no hollow threat.

For Ebenezer Leffingwell, the entire experience was, no doubt, horrifically bittersweet.


[1] Joseph Plumb Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier: The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2006), 27.

[2] Diary of Lt. of the Pennsylvania Line, 1776-1778, in William Henry Egle, ed., Journals and Diaries of the War of the Revolution with Lists of Officers and Soldiers (Harrisburg: E.K. Meyers, 1893), 199-200.

[3] General Orders, July 4, 1775, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931), 3:309.

[4] Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1905), 2:113.

[5] Ford, Journals of the Continental Congress, 2:116.

[6] General Orders, June 18, 1776, in Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 5:156.

[7] Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D.C.: 1843), 5th series, 2:500.

[8] Henry P. Johnston, ed., The Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service During the War of the Revolution, 1775-1783 (Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainerd Company, 1889), 106.  Johnston, who cites “incomplete” rolls for Durkee’s Regiment, lists Leffingwell as a private in 1776.  Court-martial proceedings fail to indicate any rank. Leffingwell had previously served a twenty-three day stint during the Lexington alarm, and as a sergeant in Huntington’s Regiment during 1775.  Johnston, The Record of Connecticut Men, 19, 86.  Joseph Plumb Martin, who did not serve in Leffingwell’s regiment, recollected decades after the fact that Leffingwell was a sergeant.

[9] Force, American Archives, 2:500.

[10] Reed left two accounts of the incident: in testimony before the court-martial and in a letter to his wife. Although the pertinent facts are identical, the precise chronology of the confrontation varies slightly between the two accounts.

[11] Force, American Archives, 2:500.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier, 27.

[14] Force, American Archives, 2:500.

[15] Congress adopted the original sixty-nine Articles on June 30, 1775, but revised the code with the passage of sixteen additional articles on November 7, 1775.  The articles were further updated as the “Code of 1776” on September 20, 1776.  John Henry Wigmore, A Source-Book of Military Law and War-Time Legislation (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1919), 9.

[16] Force, American Archives, 2:500.

[17] Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier, 27.

[18] William B. Reed, ed., Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847), 1:238.

[19] General Orders, September 22, 1776, in Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 6:90-91.

[20] Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier, 27.

[21] Ibid.

[22] General Orders, September 23, 1776, Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 6:102-103.


  • Fascinating story! A Connecticut native, I grew up and attended school with Leffingwells. I wonder if they were direct or collateral descendants. I would love to know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *