Temper, Temper: Officers and Gentlemen Go Berserk

The War Years (1775-1783)

April 20, 2016
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author


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Civility is the cheapest, and yet the most profitable traffic.[1]

Put large numbers of men together for extended periods of time and they’re bound to eventually get on each other’s nerves. For armies in the eighteenth century, rowdy brawls were to be expected from the men in the ranks, who were generally drawn from the lower and middling classes of society. Far better behavior was expected of officers, who were, at least in theory, “gentlemen” possessed of better makings.

But all men, as Thomas Jefferson observed, “are created equal;” consequently, they can be equally obnoxious. American commanders were regularly bedeviled by controversies and courts-martial stemming from arguments and scuffles involving officers, who were just as prone as the enlisted men to run amok. Ready access to strong drink didn’t help matters. Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne, who could be pretty starchy in his own right, was nonetheless annoyed by quarrelling officers who persistently placed each other under arrest during fiery confrontations. Wayne enjoined his men to “Indeavor to Cultivate that harminey and friendship that ought to subsist … but should there be a misunderstanding among any of the officers in futer, he wishes them to settle it amicably or find some other mode than that of Court Martials.”[2]

Even when Americans were held as prisoners of war, a condition that one would expect to occasion a sense of cooperation, ill manners could make things pretty unpleasant. When about 250 captured officers were placed in confinement subsequent to the fall of Charleston, South Carolina, discipline collapsed in a seething atmosphere of juvenile bickering. Maj. Gen. William Moultrie, who was left with the unpleasant task of refereeing the arguments, later observed that it was not surprising that there “should be continual disputes among them, and frequently duels,” considering the fact that so many men were “huddled up together in the barracks, many of them of different dispositions.” In an offhanded comment directed, no doubt, at officers who weren’t South Carolinians, Moultrie noted that some of the men were “very uncouth gentlemen.” [3]

Dismissive Britons occasionally offered commentary on the Rebels’ penchant for turning average men into officers. The colorful diarist Nicholas Cresswell was confounded when he met “an Irish Tailor metamorphosed into a Captn. and an Irish Blacksmith his Lieutenant.”[4] Even cultivated American officers bemoaned the caliber of men who had been granted commissions. After dealing with a frustrating string of petty disputes, Maj. Gen. Richard Montgomery carped that “I wish some method coud be fallen upon of engaging Gentlemen to serve – a point of honor and more knowledge of the world to be found in that Class of men woud greatly reform discipline and render the troops much more tractable.”[5]

George Washington was ultimately exasperated by such incessantly childish bickering between men who were ostensibly on the same team. “Nothing gives me more pain,” he wrote, “than the frequency of complaints that are made and difference of various kinds that happen among a set of Men embarked in the same great cause, who ought rather to cultivate harmony than break out into dissensions upon almost every occasion that offers.”[6]

Man’s Best Friend

For the members of Seth Warner’s Extra Continental Regiment, garrison duty at New York’s Fort Edward, a post near Lake Champlain that saw little activity after 1777, could be painfully monotonous. But during the last week of June, 1779, the troops were treated to an ugly incident which no doubt relieved the tedium a bit.

It all started when Lt. David Bates stepped out the door of the post barracks and Private Doctor Prindle (his name, not his occupation), walked in the door after him. The two men didn’t exactly care for each other to begin with; Bates, it would seem, was in the habit of hitting Prindle’s dog. But Bates also had a dog, and with Bates out of the building, Prindle took his revenge, slapping Bates’s dog in the ear. Bates, clearly infuriated when his dog yelped, stormed back into the barracks and demanded to know who had kicked his dog. “Nobody kicked him,” replied a quick-thinking onlooker. When Bates persisted, Prindle confessed that he had hit the dog, and the lieutenant then demanded why he had done so. Obviously without choosing his words too carefully, Prindle shot back “For fun by God.”

With that, tempers escalated quickly. Bates snapped, “struck” Prindle, and asked him “how he Liked that for fun” and “if he Struck for fun.” “Yes by God, as you have my dog often,” answered Prindle; for good measure, the private then “Cursd and damd” the lieutenant. Outraged by such insubordination, Bates then hit Prindle several more times and called out the guard. Regimental Surgeon Azel Washburn, who witnessed the nasty squabble, claimed that Prindle broke into hysterics when he knew he was under arrest. “Being very full of anger,” recalled the good doctor, Prindle “raved and cursed every thing that came first into his head. Damd the dog and the rascal that owned him.”[7]

Prindle, who had been struck by an officer during what amounted to little more than a private argument, was found guilty of “impertinent language” but elicited sympathy from the presiding officers of his court-martial. The fracas was “attended with Such Curcumstances” that Prindle was sentenced to no more than a severe reprimand.[8]

And in this Corner

If you’re going to be cashiered from the service, you might as well leave a memorable impression. That was apparently the thinking of Lt. William Horton, who gathered with a number of other officers at Mandival’s Tavern in New York’s Hudson Highlands. Drink flowed freely, senses dulled, and tempers flared. For reasons unrecorded, and likely unknown to the participants themselves, a noisy argument broke out. A witness to the ensuing theatrics explained that things really went awry when “Captain Graham came into the room to still the rout.”

Lieutenant Horton didn’t welcome the interference, and commenced arguing with Captain Graham. Horton “cursed, damned, and swore,” and Graham gave him a push. It led to a shove. At some point during the altercation, an enraged Horton stripped off his shirt, and, bare-chested, got down to business. He seized the captain, “jammed” him up against the bar, and then threw him down in the chimney corner. Not satisfied, Horton leapt on top of the Graham and commenced strangling him. Although witnesses failed to mention it, one suspects that there was more profanity during the grappling on the floor.

Horton was pulled off his victim and taken from the room, but still held a considerable grudge. Struggling to get back at Graham, an apoplectic Horton thundered, “Now I am under an arrest, damn you, I will give a flogging!” Whatever his failings may have been, Horton was bluntly honest at his court-martial on December 5, 1776. Captain Graham, he admitted, “told near the truth” about the unfortunate incident. Such forthrightness, however, failed to help him, and Horton was cashiered, sadly denying Patriot forces the services of an undeniably fierce, albeit terribly misguided, fighter.[9]

A Frenchman Behaving Badly

Col. Charles Armand, the former Marquis de la Rouarie, was a well respected officer but apparently not much of a house guest. In June of 1779 Armand, along with a handful of other officers, stopped at the home of James Vandeburgh, a well connected New Yorker and colonel of the Dutchess County militia. During the short two hour visit, the patrician Armand got into a spat with Vandeburgh’s son, then Vandeburgh himself, and had the former locked up under guard.

Armand got himself worked up into quite a dander, took control of the home, and raved like an outraged nobleman. Vandeburgh claimed that he was “in bodily fear” during the incident, and the ruckus emanating from the home drew the attention of passersby. When Jeremiah Clarke attempted to intercede and requested that Armand release the young Vandeburgh, the colonel responded by slapping the hat off of Clarke’s head and kicking him out of the room. To get his point across, Armand then proceeded to knock the hat off the head of Jonas Adams. The spat ended with wounded feelings on all sides. By Armand’s reckoning, the New Yorkers were guilty of anti-French bigotry, and he regretted that a court-martial would result from “the quarrel of a respectable officer with a rascal” like Vandeburgh.[10]

Ultimately, Armand was found guilty of confining Vandeburgh’s son and slapping the hats off the heads of Clarke and Adams. “The Confinement of a Citizen by military authority,” read Armand’s reprimand, “was irregular and blamable, and there appears to have been an improper degree of warmth in Colonel Armand’s conduct.”[11]

Another Frenchman Behaving Even Worse

He was, arguably, the most violently erratic officer to serve in the Continental Army. Jean-Bernard-Bourg Gauthier de Murnan, a major in the corps of engineers, was apparently proficient in his official duties but utterly incapable of working and playing with others. A letter from George Washington in August 1780 detailed Murnan’s first recorded brush with trouble. “I am sorry to find,” wrote Washington, that a quartermaster sergeant in the 3rd Connecticut Regiment “has been stabbed by you in the Arm and Body.”[12]

It was not the last of Murnan’s shocking outbursts. That September he faced a court-martial subsequent to a confrontation with, of all people, the Reverend David Jones, who was serving as a chaplain. Murnan had occupied quarters which Jones considered his, and was tried for “unofficer and ungentlemanlike” behavior. Murnan was exonerated of the charges, but had clearly been a little rough on the hapless clergyman.[13]

Murnan’s provocative behavior only got worse, and at Dobbs Ferry, New York on July 25, 1781, he apparently took leave of his senses. The precise chronology of the day’s chaotic events is difficult to piece together, but Murnan was a walking disaster. Attempting to seize a boat but confronted by the sentry tasked with guarding it, the infuriated Frenchman responded by spitting in the man’s face, drawing a sword, and threatening to kill him. Murnan stirred up even more trouble when he interfered with a fatigue party of New Hampshiremen. Capt. Daniel Livermore, who was quite protective of his troops, didn’t particularly care for the Frenchman’s treatment of the work party, which included kicking the men.

When their dispute came to a head, it’s remarkable that no one was killed. Murnan called Livermore a “damned rascal”, threatened to cut off his nose, and then drew a sword and took a swing. Livermore fought back with his espontoon, striking Murnan so hard that the staff broke. He then grabbed another espontoon from a fellow officer and continued beating the Frenchman; for good measure, he kicked Murnan “in case he should again Kick any of the soldiers.”

For his actions, Livermore was cashiered but reinstated when fellow officers interceded on his behalf. At Murnan’s court-martial, accusations revealed a bizarre string of violent episodes that stretched back for several years. Murnan had supposedly stolen a fellow officer’s horse at sword point, attacked a servant, stolen wood belonging to an officer’s family, and badly clubbed an enlisted man. Not surprisingly, the presiding officers of the court sentenced the tempestuous Frenchman to be dismissed from the service.

George Washington confirmed the opinion of the court, but his final decision was no doubt disheartening to anyone who had ever served with Murnan. Because some of the testimony didn’t appear to support the worst accusations, Washington reinstated Murnan, “notwithstanding the impropriety of his Conduct on the 25th. of July.”[14]

You’re Not My Boss

When dinner conversation turns into an armed confrontation, it’s bound to end up in a court-martial. Lt. Abner Bacon of Knowlton’s Rangers explained how it all started. Entering the officers’ quarters on the evening of September 26, 1776, Bacon observed a group of men dining and, apparently making a snide comment about the appetites of his fellow officers, quipped that “we must draw more rations.” Ensigns Thomas Fosdick and Benoni Shipman took umbrage with the remark, and the evening’s atmosphere turned stormy. Both of the ensigns, claimed Bacon, “came up and damned me, and abused me very much.” The altercation grew ugly, and it was agreed to let lieutenants Lemuel Holmes and Jacob Pope settle the matter. Although Holmes was in nominal command of the detachment, both Fosdick and Shipman decided to take up an argument with him as well. Having stirred up a hornet’s nest, Bacon quietly slipped out of the room.

The situation only got worse. Holmes ordered the ensigns to quiet down, and Fosdick responded that he would take no such orders as “he was as good as any of us, and would not be commanded by any of us.” Shipman was of the same mind, and after cursing Holmes and every one else in the room, added that “There was no one more than another who had command of the detachment.” Getting nowhere with the unruly ensigns, Holmes ordered them under arrest, but Fosdick shot back that “he would not go under arrest unless he pleased.” Fosdick then lost control of himself and basically threatened a mutiny, shouting that “they would turn out their company against the rest of the party.” Fosdick, apparently joined by Shipman, then went into a back room and emerged with a musket. After a brief scuffle, the other officers succeeded in disarming them, but Shipman remained defiant, shouting and cursing with wild abandon.

Their court-martial was short and to the point. Both Fosdick and Shipman plead not guilty to charges of abusive language, disobedience of orders, and mutiny. The official record of their defense was a little thin: “The prisoners produce no evidence.” The duo was found guilty of the lesser charges, but let off of the charge of mutiny, and were sentenced to no more than a reprimand.[15]


[1] Richard Lambart, Earl of Cavan, A New System of Military Discipline, Founded Upon Principle (Philadelphia: R. Aitken, 1776), 255.

[2] Orderly Book of Captain Robert Gamble of the Second Virginia Regiment, in R.A. Brook, ed., Proceedings of the Virginia Historical Society (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1892), 11: 242.

[3] William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far as it Related to the States of North and South Carolina, and Georgia (New York: David Longworth, 1802), 2:119.

[4] Lincoln MacVeagh, ed., The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777 (New York: The Dial Press, 1924), 160.

[5] Michael P. Gabriel, Major General Richard Montgomery: The Making of an American Hero (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), 140.

[6] Letter, George Washington to Thomas Proctor, March 22, 1778, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, From the Original Manuscript Sources (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1934), 11:128.

[7] “Rascal” was a much more insulting term than it is today; while Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary gave the definition as “A mean fellow; a scoundrel; a sorry wretch,” a period dictionary of slang defined it as “a rogue or villain … a rascal originally meaning a lean or shabby deer, at the time of changing his horns, penis, &c. whence, in the vulgar acceptation, rascal is conceived to signify a man without genitals …” Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: W. Strachan, 1755); Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: S. Hooper, 1785), 134.

[8] “Fort Edward, in 1779 and 1780, Orderly Book of the Captain Commanding”, in Henry B. Dawson, ed., The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries (Morrisania, New York: 1867), 2nd Series, 2:374.

[9] Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, 1853), 5th Series, 3:1084-1085.

[10] Armand’s self-justification, in French, can be found in Harold C. Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961) 2:134-136.

[11] General Orders, August 31, 1779, in Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 16: 207-208.

[12] Jean-Bernard-Bourg Gauthier de Murnan to George Washington, August 8, 1780, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/washington/99-01-02-0263).

[13] General Orders, September 21, 1780, in Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 20:76.

[14] Information for the events of July 25 come from Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 22:482-483 and 23:63-65.

[15] Force, American Archives, 5th Series, 2:589-590.

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