Acts of Defiance – A Short History of Mutiny in the U.S. Military

Pennsylvania troops turn on their officers in January of 1781.

Pennsylvania troops turn on their officers in January of 1781.

“In a number of cases, American soldiers, sailors and airmen have protested orders, defied their commanders and even risen in open rebellion. Consider these examples.”

IN SEPTEMBER 2013, cyberspace was a-buzz with photos of what appeared to be U.S. military personnel voicing their opposition to the White House’s plan to strike Syria.

As the Obama Administration continued to make its case for war in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, photos surfaced of individuals in American uniforms hiding their faces behind signs denouncing the proposed military action.

Subversive selfies? Earlier this month, what appeared to be American soldiers and sailors posted photos of themselves online to protest possible air strikes on Syria.

Subversive ‘Selfies’? Earlier this month, what appeared to be American soldiers and sailors posted photos of themselves online to protest possible air strikes on Syria.

“I didn’t join the U.S. Navy to fight for Al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war,” wrote one protester referring to the notorious terrorist organization’s role in the anti-Damascus insurgency. Another image showed what appeared to be an American soldier hiding behind a sign reading: “Stay out of Syria!”

A group of hackers even posted the shots on the official USMC website. A pro-Assad activist group known as the Syrian Electronic Army later took responsibility for the coup.

And while doubts as to the authenticity of the images were widely voiced, it didn’t stop an army of bloggers and armchair pundits from weighing on the fiasco.

One writer wondered if the images (if genuine) constituted “treason”. Another site called the situation a “historical disgrace”. A number of pundits breathlessly (and not without some measure of hyperbole) declared the protest as outright “mutiny”.

Yet, even if the images are in fact legitimate, it certainly would not be the first case of open resistance to military authority in the United States. In a number of cases, American soldiers, sailors and airmen have protested orders, defied their commanders and even risen in open rebellion. Consider these examples:

Some of the most outspoken voices in the anti-war movement during the 1960s, were GIs who’d served in Vietnam.

Vietnam: ‘Soldiers in Revolt’

During the latter years of American involvement in Vietnam, opposition to the war within the armed forces had become a crippling problem for the Pentagon. Soldiers deserted in huge numbers while others circulated petitions demanding an end to hostilities. In some cases, sailors sabotaged their own vessels to prevent deployments. According to historian David Cortright author of the book Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam Warthere were at least a dozen bona fide instances of mutiny among U.S. troops serving in Vietnam. In one case, a company in the 7th Cavalry openly refused to head out into the field — and right in front of a CBS news camera crew. The entire affair became part of a 1970 documentary from the network entitled The World of Charlie Company.

B-52 losses were so high during the 1972 Christmas Bombing campaign, many crews refuses to fly. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Pilots’ Mutiny

It wasn’t just grunts to who balked at fighting. During the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam in late 1972, B-52 crews flying from bases in Guam and Thailand destroyed their own officers’ clubs and refused to participate in further missions. While some pilots reportedly opposed taking part in the raids on moral grounds, more protested the appalling casualty rates being suffered by the American bomber crews. As many as 34 Stratofortresses were lost to enemy air defences during the 11-day campaign along with nearly 50 other aircraft. Eventually a dozen officers were disciplined for dissenting, however mission planners eventually suspended the campaign.

Sixty-four African American soldiers face trial after the Houston uprising. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Racial Tensions

A number of American military mutinies have stemmed from racial unrest. For example, an armed rebellion by 156 black soldiers in Houston erupted in November of 1917 after civilian police viciously beat an African American infantryman in the streets of the city. According to eyewitnesses, the soldier was attacked while trying to prevent the officers from assaulting a civilian woman in public. When news of the beating spread, black soldiers seized weapons and marched on the city. Sixteen civilians and four soldiers were killed in the night-long uprising. Eventually, order was restored, but 19 supposed ringleaders were tried and hanged. More than a half-century later, another nineteen mutineers were charged following a riot by as many as 200 black sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk as it cruised off the coast of Vietnam on Oct. 11, 1972. The crewmen were protesting a perceived imbalance in the enforcement of discipline between white and black sailors by officers on board. Nearly 60 crewmen were wounded in the two-day disturbance, which threatened to keep the carrier’s combat aircraft from taking part in the Linebacker raids.

The USS Somers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Rebels at Sea

An alleged mutiny on another U.S. Navy vessel wasn’t motivated by racial injustice, but rather greed. While returning to New York from Africa in November of 1842, the skipper of the ten-gun brig USS Somers got wind of a plot by 20 crewmen to take the ship and go a-pirating. The captain, an officer by the name of Mackenzie, launched an investigation into the alleged conspiracy. His probe netted number of seamen along with a 19-year-old midshipman who happened to be the son of the U.S. Secretary of War. After a hasty drumhead trial, Mackenzie had three crewmen, including the junior officer, summarily hanged and dropped over the side. Once in port, an inquiry and later a court marshal found that Mackenzie had lawfully exercised his authorit. Mackenzie’s critics charged that the Somers was just days away from port and that the skipper could have easily clapped the offenders in irons and turned them over to military authorities for a proper trial. The captain’s acquittal caused a stir in the media. Novelist James Fenimore Cooper publically denounced the navy for letting Mackenzie off.

Poor living conditions and late pay compelled soldiers in Washington’s Army to mutiny in the final year of the American Revolution.

Unruly Continentals

Mutiny is almost as old as the U.S. military itself. Case in point: On New Years Day in 1781, much of Pennsylvania’s 2,400-man army stationed at Jockey Hollow, New Jersey staged a mass walk out after serving without pay in unbearable conditions for more than three years. Commanders tried to rein in the dissidents with threats of violence, but troops sent to suppress the mutiny joined it themselves. The disgruntled soldiers claimed that their enlistments, which stipulated only three years of service, had expired. Sensing an opportunity to split the rebels, the British general Sir Henry Clinton promised to compensate the Pennsylvanians for their back wages if they quit the rebellion and sat out the war at home. The soldiers refused the offer. They were eventually placated when general Anthony Wayne and George Washington’s aide de camp Joseph Reed granted all mutineers formal discharges with special cash bonuses if they’d re-enlist for the duration of the war.  About 1,200 soldiers accepted the offer, and many re-upped.

6 comments for “Acts of Defiance – A Short History of Mutiny in the U.S. Military

  1. 26 September, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    The USS Kitty Hawk incident is totally new to me as well as the others. Incredible… There was civil unrest even on board a carrier during deployment. My take? After all the food stamps, anti-discrimination laws, assistance to those in poverty (now increasing tremendously) supported by a certain political party, things are no better 40 years later. In fact, it may be worse.

    These “mutinies” were eye-openers (but necessarily of the 7th Cavalry).

  2. 26 September, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    I believe the USS Forrestal had a similar mutiny around the same time. I too was surprised.

  3. Veritas
    27 November, 2015 at 1:12 am

    There were fewer desertions in Vietnam than the US Army in Europe following the invasion of Siciliy. Considering the length of the war in Vietnam that’s not much of a problem, as the author thinks. The problem was far worse because the Army preferred the term AWOL to dessertion, despite the huge numbers of troops in the ETO who took French leave.

    The “mutinies” cited are overwhelming in one time period and reflected the society as it existed at that time. The disturbances in the military reflected those in society at large. They hardly constituted “mutinies” in the classic sense. The pilots who revolted had ample reason to question a leadership that failed to suppress enemy air defenses and had ignore electronic counter measures and defense suppression for decades. Unfortunately the B-52 crews had to pay the butcher’s bill.

    To demonstrate the extent of the slaughter, two more weeks of continued operations at the same casualty rates would have eliminated those bomber groups involved. Not the highpoint of the USAF history.

    What is remarkable is the failure of the military to mutiny given that outlandish rules of engagement that have been placed on them since Vietnam and have only gotten worse since. Under Obama these restrictions are such that I am amazed that the military doesn’t nuke the White House.

    • 27 November, 2015 at 9:08 am

      Interesting observations. But just for the record: we trust you yourself don’t advocate ‘nuking’ the WH.

  4. Perry Needmo
    21 September, 2017 at 5:03 am

    Shame on the Author for ommiting the US Navy’s Mutiny @ Port Chicago that ultimately led to desegregating the entire US Millitary.

    No mention of the most significant mutiny in US millitary history explains why America is where it is right now in 2017 with the epidemic self righteous bigots and faux patriots.

    RIP – Joe Small & The Port Chicago 50.

    • 21 September, 2017 at 9:05 pm

      We did cover that when we took a look at massive accidental explosions (Port Chicago’s blast and general unsafe working conditions led to the uprising), but you are correct — we should have included it in this piece as well.

      And just for the record, we have also covered the Detroit riot of 43.

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