Justice, Deterrence, and Fitful Revenge During the Revolutionary War

The War Years (1775-1783)

August 18, 2022
by Louis Arthur Norton Also by this Author


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“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”[1]

The application of justice during the Revolutionary War deserves scrutiny. Historic records related to people condemned to death during this period reflect society’s norm for justice, deterrence, and often vengeance. Countless men on both sides of the conflict were executed for treachery, betrayal, or perfidy. Several examples show the variety of ways that vengeance was wrought, sometimes legalistically and sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes systematically and sometimes spontaneously.

Most of the men examined here were condemned to the gallows, the primary means of capital punishment in the British Empire and therefore in its rebellious North American colonies. A few suffered repugnant exceptions to this accepted practice. The most notable Revolutionary War hangings were those of Continental Army Lt. Nathan Hale executed on September 22, 1776, and British Major John André hanged on October 2, 1780.  Hale was convicted as a spy against the British and Andréas a spy against the Americans. Both were hanged in episodes so well-known that they do not warrant repeating.

Thomas Hickey was the first person to be executed by the Continental Army. Hickey was an enlisted man in the Commander in Chief’s Guard, the corps of lifeguards responsible for protecting General Washington. This was a small special unit formed on March 12, 1776, to protect the general, his official papers, and the Continental Army’s cash. Later that spring, Hickey and another soldier were arrested by civilian authorities for passing counterfeit money. Hickey was turned over to the Continental Army for trial. At his court-martial, he was found guilty of mutiny and sedition and implicated in a plot to murder American general officers on the arrival of the British in New York, or at best to capture Washington and deliver him to the British commander in chief.[2]

After Hickey’s execution on June 28, 1776, Washington published a message to the troops to serve as a warning to all soldiers to “avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.”[3]

Moses Dunbar of Connecticut was deeply affected by the revolutionary fervor that was railing and dividing his family members and neighbors. After much consideration, Dunbar decided that he could not support the colonist’s rebellion against the king and its Declaration of Independence. The partisan royalist fled south across Long Island Sound, where he accepted an offer to become a captain in the king’s army. He later went back to his family in Connecticut but was arrested by local authorities after he attempted to recruit boys to join the British Army. He was incarcerated as a Tory traitor.[4]

Dunbar was sentenced to die upon the gallows at Hartford’s Trinity Hill. It is believed that his father, humiliated by his son’s untoward decision, offered the hemp for the noose. Dunbar was executed on March 19, 1777, before a large crowd of spectators. His remains were taken to the Ancient Burying ground in Hartford and placed in an unmarked grave. It is believed the family removed his body and brought him to an Episcopal cemetery in East Plymouth where he was given a pauper’s grave, still unmarked.

John Hart of Rhode Island was sent from British-occupied Newport to the mainland in early 1777. His mission was to distribute counterfeit money to Loyalists in North Kingstown as a weapon to devastate the local economy, and to acquire recruits for Loyalist regiments being formed in Newport. Once in North Kingstown, Hart and his Tory friends altered their mission. In response, a group known as the Newtown Rangers intensified efforts to intimidate and imprison Tory sympathizers. The British-supported Newport Gazette wrote on May 15, 1777, “The rebels have within this Fortnite past begin a very hot persecution at North Kingston, Exeter, Greenwich, &c. . . . About 20 of these injured and abused men, who had been for some days hiding in the bush, made their escape and arrived here [Newport] on Tuesday.”[5] On May 29 the paper published information about Hart’s counterfeiting plans that reached Rhode Island officials. On May 13, Hart was captured in Exeter. Finally brought to justice and incarcerated in Providence, Hart confessed to his activities distributing counterfeit money, “giving intelligence” to British commanders in Newport, and assisting in recruiting for loyalist regiments in Newport. After examining Hart, the Rhode Island Council of War was “of opinion that he ought to be proceeded against according to Marshal Law, and do recommend it to the Honorable Major General Spencer to cause him to be tried accordingly.”[6] John Hart was found guilty and hanged for treason and being a spy on May 17, 1777.[7]

Cornstalk was a prominent leader of the Shawnee nation just before the American Revolution whose native name, Hokoleskwaor Colesqua, was loosely translated as “stalk of corn” in English. Cornstalk opposed European settlement west of the Ohio River in his youth, but later advocated and negotiated for peace with the British after the Battle of Point Pleasant. When the Revolutionary War began just months later, the truce was shattered. Early in the war, Cornstalk pledged neutrality because he worried his people would be caught in a military struggle and likely lose either way.

In the fall of 1777, Cornstalk made a diplomatic visit to Fort Randolph at Point Pleasant, to inform the Americans of his faction’s neutrality. He was detained at the American fort and its commander decided to take hostage any Shawnees who fell into his hands. When, on November 10, 1777, an American militiaman from the fort was killed nearby by unknown Indians, angry soldiers executed Cornstalk, his son Elinipsico, and two other Shawnee.[8] American political and military leaders were alarmed by the murder of Cornstalk, believing, with justification, that he had been their best hope of securing Shawnee neutrality. At the insistence of Virginia governor Patrick Henry, Cornstalk’s killers were eventually brought to trial, but their fellow soldiers refused to testify against them, and all were acquitted.

David Farnsworth was a colonial-era American loyalist who became a British agent during the American revolution. Farnsworth initially was a patriot. He enlisted in the rebel forces at the age of fifteen in 1775, serving as a drummer and participating in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Farnsworth and a partner were caught with over $10,000 in fake Continental dollars in their possession.[9] If this fake script got into circulation it would devalue real currency, impeding the ability of states and Congress to fund the war effort. On October 8, 1778, in a court-martial held in Danbury, Connecticut, Farnsworth and the other man were tried as spies and for having a large sum of counterfeit money. They were convicted and hanged in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 3, 1778.

John Roberts III was a Pennsylvania Quaker millwright accused by some neighbors of being a Loyalist charged with mixing glass in the flour ground at his mill to give to American troops. On August 10, 1778, Roberts was arrested and tried, but the charges against him were never confirmed. Prominent citizens, including three signers of the Declaration of Independence, signed petitions attesting to Roberts’ good character and calling for a pardon. Less than three months later, Roberts and another man were executed on November 10 for treason by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Roberts’ supporters claimed that he was a scapegoat, and his execution was a warning to other Loyalists; others said it was retribution for suspected profiteering during the British occupation of Philadelphia. A local woman, Elizabeth Drinker, wrote of the executions, “they have actually put to Death; Hang’d on the Commons, John Robarts . . . an awful Solemn day it has been . . . the poor afflicted widows, are wonderfully upheld and supported, under their very great trial” because the bereaved women had “many simpathzing Friends.”[10]

Claudius Smith was a leader of a band of Loyalist irregulars during the American Revolution. Along with several members of his family, including three of his four sons, he purportedly terrorized the New York countryside in an area formerly known at the time as Smiths Cove in Orange County, north of New York City. Accounts state that Claudius was a Loyalist who took part in Tory raids alongside some Mohawk Indians and was aided in his anti-Whig activities by the Loyalist Mayor of New York during the Revolution.

Smith gained a disquieting reputation among the Patriots whom he beleaguered, but he was never accused of killing anyone. In fact, he was known to help to defend Loyalists in the area. One of Smith’s men, however, apparently robbed and then killed Patriot officer Major Nathaniel Strong on October 6, 1778. Gov. George Clinton of New York offered a reward of $1,200 for Smith’s arrest. He was soon captured and was hanged on January 22, 1779, in the town of Goshen, New York. Two of his sons, William and James, were incarcerated roughly a month later.[11] Richard Smith, his third son, remained at large throughout the war.

Francis Henry de la Motte (François Henri de la Motte) was a French citizen and ex-French army officer who was arrested in Great Britain in January 1781 on suspicion of being a spy. Great Britain and France were at this time at war not only in the rebelling American colonies but in the West Indies, the North Atlantic, and as far away as the Indian Ocean. He was held for six months in the Tower London. The Frenchman, accused of passing on intelligence concerned with fleet dispositions at several British ports, was tried on July 23, 1781. De la Motte was found guilty of running an operation that sent secret naval intelligence to the French and their allied American rebel colonists.

The terrible sentence pronounced by the royal judge was that the prisoner was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. De la Motte was executed for High Treason on July 27, 1781 but spared some of these gruesome follow-up procedures.  After hanging for nearly an hour, his body was taken down and burned, but he was not quartered. A large crowd witnessed de la Motte’s execution at the Tyburn gallows as a warning “to discourage others”.[12]

Isaac Hayne fought as a Continental Army private during the March 1780 siege of Charleston when he was captured by the British. After surrendering the soldier was allowed to return home, but as a prisoner under parole. After some months, Hayne was called to report to Charleston and informed that he must declare himself a British subject, sign an oath of allegiance and be subject to be impressment into the British army or be punished with imprisonment. Hayne struggled with the decision of changing his allegiance. Col. James Paterson, the British commandant of Charleston, promised Hayne that if he were called upon to serve in the British army he could decline. He signed the oath, trusting that he would never have to take up arms against America. Hayne also justified his decision because family members had become ill with smallpox.  He had lost one child to the disease and now his wife and other children were sick. Hayne could not allow his wife and children to perish without him, therefore returning home was of utmost importance. This verbal agreement between Paterson and Hayne greatly influenced his decision to sign the oath and return to his sick family. The promise did not carry much weight. In the summer of 1781, Hayne was called to serve the British army. Outraged, Hayne felt that the British violated their word, rejected the British call to arms, and returned to serve in the Continental Army.

After participating in several missions Haynes was captured once again by the British. On July 8, 1781, he was taken to Charleston to be tried. While in custody, Hayne’s citizenship status was once again debated. If a British citizen, he could be subject to a judgment of treason and espionage. Hayne was never allowed a trial. On July 29, 1781, he was informed that he was sentenced to capital punishment. On August 4, 1781, Isaac Hayne was hanged. The oath of allegiance he signed had ultimately led to his demise. Word of his unjust death quickly spread through Charleston and inspired many men to join the American cause. The name Isaac Haynes became a rallying cry for the Patriots to join Gen. Nathanael Greene’s army in the hills of western South Carolina during the latter part of the war.[13]

Capt. Joshua Huddy’s execution took place after a battle at New Jersey’s Toms River Blockhouse. Toms River was a notorious privateering headquarters and the site of salt works. After the fight, the Associated Loyalists, a unit organized by the former Tory governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, pursued, captured, and incarcerated the Patriot officer, and held him in irons a British warship. He was told that he would be freed in a prisoner exchange, but was instead taken by boat to Middletown Point, near Sandy Hook Bay. On April 12, 1782, Huddy was hanged without trial on a beach from makeshift gallows.[14] His final words were, “I shall die innocent and in a good cause.” A sign was placed on Huddy’s body to indicate that this hanging was revenge for the killing of a Loyalist.[15]

William Crawford was commissioned a lieutenant colonel on February 13, 1776, in the 5th Virginia Regiment and later was assigned to the 7th Virginia Regiment.[16] Crawford left that command in November 1776. During August 1777, Crawford then led a detachment of about two hundred men of the 13th Virginia to join Washington’s main army near Philadelphia.[17] During that campaign, he commanded a scouting detachment for Washington’s army.[18] Crawford was then detached to serve a field officer in Gen. William Maxwell’s light infantry corps.[19]

On September 3, 1777, Crawford led about 300 scouts from Maxwell’s corps to harass the British vanguard. Crawford served in the Light Infantry Corps at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. On October 11, 1777, militia units from the Virginia counties of Prince William, Culpepper, Loudoun, and Berkley were formed into a brigade and placed under Crawford’s command. He served at Fort Pitt under Generals Edward Hand and Lachlan McIntosh and was later involved in the construction of Forts Laurens and McIntosh.

In 1782, Gen. William Irvine induced Crawford to lead an expedition against enemy Indian villages along the Sandusky River. Crawford led his force of roughly 500 volunteers deep into American Indian territory hoping to surprise them. Unfortunately, the Indians and the British troops stationed at Detroit learned of the expedition and brought a force to the Sandusky to oppose the Americans. After a day of indecisive fighting, the Americans became surrounded. During a poorly-executed retreat, Crawford and dozens of his men were captured. The Indians executed many of them in retaliation for the Gnadenhutten massacre earlier in the year during which ninety-six peaceful Indian men, women, and children had been murdered by Pennsylvanian militiamen. As vengeance, Crawford’s execution on June 11, 1782, was extremely brutal. He was tortured for hours before being burned at the stake.

John B. McClelland enlisted in the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion on January 28, 1776 and was later appointed as a captain in the 1st Battalion of Westmoreland Militia, a unit that later was prominent in the Siege of Yorktown. By 1782, the Indians of the frontier had allied themselves with the British and started attacking settlers. McClelland, now a major, was made third in command of an expedition led by the same Colonel Crawford discussed above. Its mission was to put an end to Indian attacks on American settlers in that region.

McClelland, no novice in military affairs, was considered a brave and efficient officer, and was much respected as a citizen. Upon receiving intelligence that a British detachment from Detroit was about to join forces with the Wyandot warriors along with a large number of Shawnee, Crawford ordered a retreat and McClelland led the way. They were nonetheless soon attacked by the Indians and during the scuffle, McClelland was wounded and fell from his horse. Other retreating horsemen spread the word that the major was killed where he fell. Unfortunately, this was not the case.[20] McClelland was captured, and his body was cruelly mangled and lacerated by tomahawks. The wounds on his torso were painfully permeated with gritty gunpowder that blackened his skin. McClelland’s body, along with others who suffered similarly, was dragged outside of the town. In a heinous act, the corpses were given to the dogs, except their heads, which were mounted on poles.[21] The exact date of McClelland’s gruesome execution is not known, but it was in 1782 near the end of the war.

It has been said that “the sword of justice has no scabbard.”[22] These documented executions of soldiers and spies put to death by the Revolutionaries, Loyalists, Native Peoples, and British tell a macabre tale, perchance an immortal curse on mankind. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and desire for revenge was, and remains, a byproduct of war. The American Revolutionary War was no exception to this unfortunate principle.


[1]William T. Sherman to James M. Calhoun, September 12, 1864, in Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, eds. Jean V. Berlin and Brooks D. Simpson (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

[2]Douglas S. Freeman, George Washington: A Biography (New York: Scribners, 1948–57), 4:119.

[3]General Orders, June 28, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0086.

[4]Virginia DeJohn Anderson, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 161, 165.

[5]Newport Gazette, May 15, 1777.

[6]Minutes of the Rhode Island Council of War, vol. 1 p. 170, Rhode Island Historical Society.

[7]Christian McBurney, Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014), 30-31.

[8]Colin G. Calloway, The Shawnees and the War for America (New York: Viking, 2007), 64-65.

[9]Kenneth Scott, Counterfeiting in Colonial America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 258.

[10]Elizabeth Drinker Diaries, 1788-1807, Collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, entry for November 10, 1778.

[11]Erastus C. Knight, New York in the Revolution (Albany, N.Y., O.A. Quayle, 1901), 165.

[12]M. D’Auberade, The authentic memoirs of Francis Henry de La Motte, who was convicted at the Sessions House in the Old-Bailey, on Saturday, the fourteenth of July, 1781, for high treason (London: J. Wenman, 1781).

[13]C. L. Bragg, Martyr of the American Revolution: The Execution of Isaac Hayne, South Carolinian (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2017).

[14]William S. Stryker, The Capture of the Block House at Toms River, New Jersey (Trenton, NJ: Naar, Day & Naar, 1883), 14-15.

[15]Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976).

[16]Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1937), 4:32.

[17]C.W. Butterfield, The Washington-Crawford letters. Being the correspondence between George Washington and William Crawford, from 1767 to 1781, concerning western lands (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1877), 116n.

[18]C.W. Butterfield, A historical account of the expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782 (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co. 1873), 103-104.

[19]Michael C. Harris, Brandywine – A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beattie, 2014), 124.

[20]Butterfield,A historical account of the expedition against Sandusky, 221–223.

[21]Ibid., 345–347.

[22]Joseph de Maistre, Les Soires de Saint Petersbourg, (Paris: Librairie due Grecque, Latine et Français, 1821).



  • As bad as hanging was “confiscation of Tory Property – in Pennsylvania the Allen family felt it the worst. I realize that you have written about this family in the past. Many later sued the government for unlawful seizures. chb

  • This well-researched and informative article sparked several thoughts by describing the known executions. First, given the history of subsequent revolutions, it is incredible the few numbers of executions. Recorded in Norton’s article are ten executions by the Rebels and six by the British or their allies. The Americans averaged just over one execution per year, and the British less than one over the eight-year war. Of course, there were many undocumented killings, but not on the scale of the French or Russian revolutions.

    Second, the British did not execute any Americans for rebelling, which was a significant departure from previous rebellions in the British dominions. British commanders realized that executing high-profile prisoners such as Ethan Allan and Charles Lee would result in Rebel retaliating against captured British officers. The British did not even put to death the captured Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

    Lastly, destruction of property and forced migration backed up with threats of violence, not execution, were the most often tactics used by Rebels and Loyalists against their adversaries.

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