Courts-Martial of the Corps of Light Infantry, 1779

The War Years (1775-1783)

October 28, 2019
by Michael J. F. Sheehan Also by this Author


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Orderly books are great sources of information for military historians. Their contents are a treasure, and include everything from general and regimental orders, returns, lists, troops movements, guard postings, and the day to day activities of the men themselves. They also include the results of courts- martial, giving insight into what a particular soldier did (or in some cases did not do) that irritated officers or violated the agreed upon Articles of War. The verdict of the courts, composed of officers, is followed by the announcement of the punishment and either the approval or remittence thereof by the commanding officer.

In June 1779, Gen. George Washington issued orders for the formation of a Corps of Light Infantry, ultimately composed of four regiments, to be commanded by Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne. This temporary conglomerate unit existed for six and a half months, into January 1780. Just like the parent regiments from which the various companies were drawn, the temporary Light Infantry regiments utilized orderly books. Two of those books are known to survive. One, in private hands, is the book of Capt. Seth Phelps of the 3rd Light Infantry Regiment, a unit composed entirely of Connecticut companies (Phelps was from the 4th Connecticut Regiment) and commanded by Col. Return Jonathan Meigs. The other, published and available online, is from Capt. Robert. Gamble’s company (drawn from the 7th and 8th Virginia Regiments) of the 1st Light Infantry Regiment commanded by Col. Christian Febiger. Both books offer an excellent view of life in the Corps of Light Infantry in the time after the Corps’ famous July 16, 1779 attack on the British fortifications at Stony Point. Included among their many details are a number of court martials. Despite the high praise the Corps of Light Infantry received in the wake of Stony Point, and the high standards of their commander General Wayne, the men of the Corps could be less then exemplary at times. Soldiers, in any age, endure high stress, the rigors of combat, exposure to disease and climate fluctuations, personal rivalries, hope for advancement and honor, and many more such stressors. They were human and bound to have their temporary failings or misunderstandings—understandable in such an environment. A court-martial did not automatically indicate a bad or poor soldier. Nonetheless, the following survey of courts-martial that took place in the 1779 Corps of Light Infantry offers a different look into the lives and struggles of the “light bobs.” The courts-martial are presented by theme, rather than chronologically. A number of themes regarding infractions were found. They related to Stony Point, officer disputes, theft, alcohol, desertion, abuse of officers by enlisted men, and finally, miscellaneous.

The Storming of Stony Point
Stony Point was one of the Continental Army’s most unique actions. One of the requirements was that as they made contact with the enemy, the Light Infantry was not to utter a word. After that, they would yell, “The Fort’s Our Own.” One man was accused of breaking that order: Capt. Jacob Ashmead (2nd Pennsylvania Regiment) of either the 1st or 2nd Light Infantry Regiment. He was charged with being “drunk in the time of the assault . . . and behaving ridiculously and unbecoming an officer at the head of his company,” and “2ndly for . . . frequently huzzaing during the approach to the enemy’s works to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.” These were serious charges, especially for a commissioned officer. The general court-martial acquitted Ashmead of drunkenness, but found him “guilty of the 2nd charge.” The court was of opinion that he breached the articles of war in calling out huzzahs not from “willful or designed disobedience of orders but from an involuntary impulse of the Mind, owing to Inadvertancy.” He was subject to be “reprimanded by His Excellency in General Orders.” Washington conceded that his conduct was “very reprehensible and of such a nature . . . to defeat the most important and concerted enterprises.”

Ashmead was not the only one to catch flack. At a “Court Martial . . . was tried Lieut Smith of Col Putnam’s Regt,” accused of “taking several articles of plunder from a soldier on the night of the Storm of Stony Point.” Smith was “acquitted of the charge.” The conduct of those involved at Stony Point was held in high regard, and these two trials show that.[1]

Officer’s Disputes
The Continental Army’s officers did not always get along. There were rivalries, disputes, and many other disagreements. One of them concerned Capt. Jeremiah Talbot of the 7th Pennsylvania. He was tried for “disobedience of orders and mutiny.” The court would have none of it, and immediately released him, dismissing the charges. Lt. John Maynard of the Massachusetts Line had quite a tale. He and Lt. Col. François de Fleury did not get along, and it showed. Maynard was charged by de Fleury for “disobedience of orders and want of respect for a field officer on duty, hindering him performing his visit of guards.” Maynard was found guilty of “disobedience of orders,” and “having detained Col. Fleury as a prisoner all night . . . the court therefore do [suggest] Lt. Maynard be privately reprimanded by the Genl [Wayne].”

Capt. Ashmead wasn’t out of trouble just yet. He endured another court-martial, this time a dispute with Col. Richard Butler, commander of the 2nd Light Infantry Regiment. This time, he was accused of “disorderly behaviour in the [Light] Infantry Corps and refusing to depart from Col. Butler’s Regt when ordered.” It is not clear if this argument arose from Ashmead’s earlier charges, but nonetheless, he was found “not guilty of the charge exhibited against him and do acquit him with honor.” The affair, however, did not end there. Wayne was upset with Captain Ashmead’s conduct in “disobeying his arrest, coming on the Parade in defiance of Col. Butler’s orders . . . [and] declaring that if any non-commissioned officer or private should disobey him he would confine them.” Ashmead had been furious: “[he] appears to have carried the principle of a written arrest too far for necessity . . . if [he] conceived himself injured . . . or irregularly deprived of his proper command the true line of conduct would have been . . . complaining to General Wayne.” Ashmead was ultimately released from arrest and returned to duty.

Lt. Col. Fleury’s episode with Lt. Maynard did not end. De Fleury himself was tried on charges brought against him by Maynard, all relating to the same evening. De Fleury was charged with “ungentlemanly behaviour and insulting language while on guard.” He was found guilty of “ungentlemanly behaviour and making use of insulting language.” Again, Wayne was not happy—such constant discord among officers served no one. The

frequent arrests which have taken place in a Corps which have acquired so much glory . . . it affords a matter of joy to our publick enemies [meaning the discord] . . . he therefore wishes the officers to endeavour to cultivate that harmony and friendship which ought to subsist so distinguished a Corps.

Lt. Col. De Fleury was ordered “immediately out of arrest.”[2]

Despite Wayne’s warning, officers continued to be at each other’s throats. Not unlike the de Fleury-Maynard episode, Butler now had his own with Ashmead. Butler was accused of exciting the “soldiers of Capt. Ashmead’s Company to Mutiny by ordering . . . [them] not to obey any orders of the Capt,” and not surprisingly for “treating Capt. Ashmead in an unprecedented and un-officer like manner by refusing him liberty to wait on General Wayne to complain of ill treatment . . . and sending him under guard . . . to West Point.” It isn’t clear exactly why Butler had been having such a violent and public dispute with Ashmead, but it likely stemmed from Ashmead’s own court-martial. Disputes between officers of rank were serious—they tended to interrupt the proper flow of authority, and disrupt the faith and trust the soldiers were supposed to hold in their superiors. Butler’s charge of mutiny was dismissed, but it was found that Butler was “not justifiable in sending Capt. Ashmead under guard . . . to West Point,” as it breached the 5th article of the 18th section of the Articles of War. Since Butler was a field officer, this was a general court-martial and therefore the sentence, which was for Butler to be reprimanded by Wayne, had to be approved by Washington in his capacity of commander-in-chief. Washington didn’t let the issue pass without some comments of his own. Butler, he thought, had “conduct blamable in not permitting Ashmead to see General Wayne unless he would engage to comply to a condition which Col. Butler had no right” to ask of him.[3]

Theft and Marauding
Alexander Drisdell of Virginia was tried on a charge of theft. He had stolen from another soldier, one Barritt. Drisdell was sentenced to receive one hundred lashes along with “stoppages of half pay until they shall pay Barritt they money . . . stol’d from him.” Soon after, James Black of the 2nd Battalion, First Light Infantry, was charged “with stealing a ham of Bacon.” Found guilty, he was subjected to fifty lashes. Both of these men were from the 1st Light Regiment, but they were not alone in theft. In the 3rd Light Regiment, Joseph Clinton was charged with taking “a pocket book containing 34 dollars belonging to Mary Hull, converting the same to his own . . . & denying his having the same.” He was found guilty unanimously and sentenced to “receive 40 lashes on his naked back & repay the money by stoppages of his pay,” for evidently he had already spent the cash or could not produce it. Clinton, however, would receive mercy. Colonel Meigs ordered that “upon some mitigating circumstances respecting the money, the youth of the prisoner, & his good character heretofore, the Corporal Punishment is remitted.” Another soldier, a Corporal James, was tried for “endeavoring to maraud on the inhabitants,” aside from “insulting Col. De Hart” of the militia and was sentenced to receive one hundred lashes.[4]

Alcohol Related Incidents
Alcohol in and of itself wasn’t always the cause for a court-martial, but what came of its excessive use often was. A Corporal Glen was tried for “disobedience of orders, absence at Roll Call and drunkeness.” He was sentenced to be reduced to a private soldier. Glen was not alone in getting into trouble when it came to alcohol. Privates John Bowling and John Malvin were tried for the same crime as Corporal Glen and sentenced to receive fifty lashes each. Luckily for them, the recommendation of the court and the “former good character they have had, [the colonel, Febiger] was induced to Remit the Punishment for this time.” Should they, however, do the same again, they could expect “Double Punishment for the same crime.” Immediately after, Thomas Roberts and William Gibbs were tried for being absent “without leave, second for drunkeness, & thirdly for not attending Role Call.” A charge of theft was unproven and therefore dropped for Gibbs; he only received “fifty lashes on his Bare Back.” Roberts, however, was to receive one hundred and fifty lashes, as he was additionally guilty of theft, but “the Col. [Febiger] orders he shall receive one hundred lashes well Laid on.”

In September 1779, three rowdy men of the Light Infantry caused quite a disturbance. Samuel Harvey, Duncan McKinley, and Jeremiah Rhiardon were tried for leaving their sergeant, “getting drunk when on patrol and threatening to kill Sgt Lovell of Col. Putnam’s Regiment.” Harvey, evidently the leader, was given one hundred lashes, while the other two were to receive fifty lashes, “to take place tomorrow evening at retreat beating.” However, the very next day, it was announced that “from the general good character of Duncan McKinley as a soldier and by the earnest particular solicitations of many suitable officers, Gen’l Wayne is induced to pardon him.” One soldier, Aaron Fargo of “Capt [Henry] Champion’s company,” was charged with selling spirituous liquors to his fellow soldiers at an extravagant price. His story, as he told it, was that he had was carrying a “canteen of rum” to his messmates “on guard, but in passing by Col. Butler’s Regiment,” he was solicited to sell some and sold half a pint to one of the soldiers for four dollars, and “it was the first he ever sold.” He was sentenced to some pay stoppages, to do special “duty for a fortnight and to have his allowance of rum stopped for the time.”[5]

Alcohol could naturally induce soldiers to get physical, and the Light Infantry were no exception. In November 1779, when Wayne’s Corps had shifted into New Jersey, Joseph Tomberson was “confined for getting drunk, stricking Sam’l Jones of Capt Claghorn’s company and insulting Sgt Hepbourne and making a disturbance at an unureasonable time of night.” Tomberson admitted drunkeness and noise, but that was it. Lt. Elihu Trowbridge thought otherwise; he saw Tomberson pull Jones out of his tent and “strike him.” Sergeant Hepbourne said very much the same, that Tomberson, “being ordered to his tent, he repeated he would be damned if he would go for him [Jones] be there.” Tomberson then “collared him [Jones] and tore the strap from his shoulder then clenched upon the knee of his britches and tore them.” Tomberson received fifty lashes.

Another soldier, Neil McKinsey from Pennsylvania, didn’t fare as well. For “absenting himself from his guard, drunkhardness, and unsettling language,” he received one hundred and sixty lashes. George Grier was tried for a breach of the 6th article of the 13th section of the Articles of War, which reads “Whatever sentinel shall be found sleeping upon his post, or shall leave it before he shall be regularly relieved, shall suffer death, or such punishment as shall be inflicted by the sentence of a court-martial.” In Grier’s case that was three hundred lashes. Fortunately, the court thought him “a proper object of mercy as no sentinel ought to be posted when in that situation,” for Grier was “groggy when he went on guard.” Wayne agreed with the court’s recommendation of mercy and Grier went back to his duty with his regiment unscathed.[6]

Desertion was a consistent problem for the Continental Army and it was no different in the Light Infantry. From headquarters at Aquackanock, New Jersey, John Reddinburgh, John Crestion William, and Robert Hawkins of the Light Infantry’s artillery detachment were charged with “desertion and attempting to make their escape to the enemy.” Luckily for them, they were found not guilty, and they returned to their duty. William Mallock, however, was not so lucky. Mallock was a “soldier in Capt. Talbot’s company . . . of Col Butler’s Regt charged with theft . . . and attempting to go to the enemy.” He was found guilty and the court unanimously recommended death, for whenever “any soldier becomes so lost as to the sentiments of virtue and honor . . . he is no longer to exist in a land of liberty or to remain a disgrace to the name of a soldier.” Wayne confirmed the sentence and ordered him to be “shot to death this afternoon [September 8th, 1779] at 6 o Clock.” Mallock is as of yet the only known execution in the 1779 Corps of Light Infantry.[7]

Abuse of Officers by Enlisted Men
Inevitably, officers might be too overbearing towards the men, or at least were perceived by them to be, and conflicts were not uncommon. Trials arising from such disagreements could be simply ended, like that of Sgt. John Fulford for “publickly defaming the character of Lt. Coubness.” The case was dismissed when it was found that the charges were unsupported. Also peacefully ended was the case of Roswell Minor “for insolent messages to Ensign [Robert] Allyn,” where Minor was sentenced to “30 lashes.” The court, though, “being informed that Minor has had the character of a good soldier & that he appears perfectly sensible of the crime orders that the execution of the sentence be omitted [and] the prisoner released.” Charges against Henry Gosling of Phelps’ company were likewise dismissed; he was accused initially of “heaving stones at Capt. [Eleazer] Claghorn’s marquee.”

At a general court-martial that took three days, Ezra Ames, William Goldsmith, and Thomas Summers were tried for offenses against officers. Ames was accused of “Storming the officers of Col. Meigs’ Regt & fixing his bayonet at them and calling on them to turn out with their espontoons for he was not afraid of them;” he was rewarded with five hundred lashes. Goldsmith was “tried for making disturbances in Camp, exciting mutiny, and flinging stones at Capt. Claghorn’s marquee,” and sentenced to one hundred and sixty lashes. Thomas Summers was “tried for insulting & challenging Lt. Joseph Smith,” for which he was sentenced to three hundred lashes.[8]

Aside from the above themes of offenses, there were plenty more ways for soldiers to be brought before a court. Samuel Hunt, for example, was tried for “Insolence & mutiny.” Initially sentenced to sixty lashes, Colonel Febiger remitted his punishment “at the intercession of a number of officers.” Major Henry McCormick, from the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment and one of Wayne’s staff officers for the Corps of Light Infantry, was tried for “wantonly ill treating & abusing sundry inhabitants in their own house . . . & warning a child of the widow Garrison with a sword,” while the Corps was in New Jersey. The major was cleared by both weak evidence and his own excellent defense. A month or so later, Corporal Wheeler was charged with “leaving his guard and cheating Sgt. Woster.” He too was found not guilty. Not long after, Jacob Thuston was tried “for receiving a prisoner from Col. De Hart [of the New Jersey militia], suffering persons to pass him improperly & demanding a countersign when there was none given him on his post.” He was sentenced to receive two hundred lashes.[9]

These are the stories of men who erred. Soldiers endure long lengths of frustrating experiences, conditions, and activities, the tedium of military service, the boredom of lack of activity, and countless other things. It is fortunate that of the above trials, only one man lost his life, and fortunate more so that many of the men received leniency. Let the preceding paragraphs verify the importance of primary source material in gaining an accurate view of the life of the common soldier.


[1]Anthony Wayne to George Washington, July 15, 1779, Founders Online,; It is not clear which Pennsylvania companies were dispersed into the two regiments that received them, the 1st and 2nd Light Regiments. General Orders, August 21, 1779, Founders Online,; Seth Phelps Orderly Book, Privately Owned, 65-6.

[2]Seth Phelps Orderly Book, 75-6, 78-9, 83-5, 91-3.

[3]Ibid, 106-110.

[4]Orderly Book of Captain Robert Gamble of the Second Virginia Regiment Commanded by Col. Christian Febiger, August 21- November 16, 1779 (Richmond, VA: Virginia Historical Society, 1892, 237, 259), Seth Phelps Orderly Book, 124-5, 206.

[5]Orderly Book of Captain Robert Gamble, 237. Seth Phelps Orderly Book, 80-1, 86-7. The special duty assigned Private Fargo appears to read “camp yeoman.”

[6]Seth Phelps Orderly Book, 197-8, 218, 207. Journals of the Continental Congress – Articles of War; September 20, 1776, Yale Law School, The Avalon Project,

[7]Ibid, 200-1, 89-90.

[8]Seth Phelps Orderly Book, 33, 55, 213, 205-6. It is unclear if the two cases of men throwing rocks at Capt. Claghorn’s tent were related.

[9]Orderly Book of Captain Robert Gamble, 258. Seth Phelps Orderly Book, 131-2, 199, 206.


  • Fascinating Michael! These incidents show much about the conditions of Continental Army soldiering and leadership. Great find on the Capt. Seth Phelps orderly book. Thanks for bringing these to light and in the proper context.

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