The Watermelon Army


General Lighthorse Harry Lee
by Charles William Peale

The following is taken from The Whiskey Rebellion by Thomas P. Slaughter, 1986, by Oxford University Press:

When nationalized troops sent to crush the Whiskey Rebellion reached Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in late September 1794, passions on both sides were high. Civilian-soldiers unused to the military life-either too young to have experienced the hardships of Revolutionary warfare or too old to suffer easily such trials again-were hungry, weary, and determined to use the new muskets and bayonets issued to them for this campaign. They were enraged by the derisive name "Watermelon Army" coined by detractors of their military prowess in the West. They had now reached the eastern edge of organized opposition and found liberty poles, symbolic of anti-excise protest, still standing. On the civilian side, there was resentment born of preexisting disaffection from the government and anger at this assault on the political liberties of those who protested federal policies. Local people resented this martial intrusion into their daily lives, the damage caused by marauding soldiers who broke down fences, trampled crops, and stole food, firewood, and shelter as it suited them. The scene was ripe for conflict despite the best efforts of senior Officers to prevent violence, and two separate episodes resulted in civilian fatalities.

The first death caused by the army came on September 29. Dragoons galloped across the countryside that day in search of suspects associated with the raising of liberty poles in Carlisle. Among those rounded up in nearby Myerstown was a young man who was physically ill. The fellow declared his innocence and the debility that kept him from standing as directed by his captors. The sick boy next "attempted to go into the house without leave; the lighthorseman ordered him to stop, on the peril of being shot, and if he could not stand to sit or lay down, and in the mean time cocked his pistol. When the boy was in the posture of laying himself down, and the lighthorseman about to uncock his pistol, it went off and shot the boy mortally." The murder was an unfortunate accident. The youth who suffered an excruciating death from the wound to his groin, was not complicit in the anti-excise activities. He had obeyed the guard to the best of his ability. The soldier had no intention of killing him, but was perhaps a bit trigger-happy and unused to handling the weapon. Nonetheless, an innocent person was dead in the sort of incident likely to damage the army's reputation and to arouse further disrespect for the government. Federal officials hoped to instill fear among dissidents, but not necessarily to kill them; friends of order had no wish to open themselves to charges of oppression or to create martyrs useful to the political opposition.

The second fatality inflicted by the army occurred two days later, at a tavern in Myerstown. Several officers stopped to quench their thirsts, and a drunken civilian named Charles Boyd greeted them at the door with raised glass and a provocative toast-"Huzza for the whiskey boys!" The officers warned Boyd off with a threat to arrest him and then sought to avoid confrontation by retiring to another room. Boyd pursued them, "using vulgar and degrading expressions against the troops and the cause they were going upon." Captain Crain [Crane?], one of the victims of Boyd's diatribe, then ordered Private Zaccaria Burwell to take the belligerent man into custody. Boyd resisted the arrest, first beating back Burwell's pointed musket with a stick, then grabbing its protruding bayonet in an apparent effort to wrest the weapon from its owner. Again the private warned Boyd off, but the contest continued and in the scuffle Boyd got stabbed by the bayonet, Falling to the ground mortally wounded, the victim uttered his last words: "Success to the whiskey boys."

President Washington expressed "poignant regret" for the deaths and directed that the perpetrators be turned over to state magistrates. After taking testimony, a judge released both without charge. Washington also ordered officers to redouble efforts to avoid similar incidents. As Alexander Hamilton informed Governor Mifflin for the President, "it is a very precious and important idea that those who are called out in support and defense of the laws should not give occasion or even pretext to impute to them infractions the laws."

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