Report on Retaliation against British
MS (NA: PCC, No. 19, III, 421–23). Written by JM as chairman. Docketed: “Report of the Committee on Retaliation[.] Entered Oct. 1. 1781[,] Read. Decr. 3d. 1781 Referred to the comee appd. to confer wth. Comr. in chief, &c.”
[1 October 1781]
The Committee to whom was referred the several papers concerning retaliation1 recommend the following
The United States in Congress assembled taking into their serious consideration the various scenes of barbarity by which the present war has from its beginning been characterized on the part of the British arms, & the perseverance of the British Commanders in carrying into execution the sanguinary & vindictive denuntiations of the Commissioners of their King in their Manifesto of the day of 2 by a redoubled licentiousness in burning our towns & villages, desolating our Country & sporting with the lives of our captive Citizens, notwithstanding the multiplied warnings & the humane example which have been placed before them;3 and judging it inconsistent with the dignity of the United States, with the just expectations of the people thereof, and with the respect due to the benevolent rules by which Civilized nations have tempered the severities & evils of war, any longer to suffer these rules to be outrageously violated with impunity, have Resolved and [do] hereby Order that the Commander in chief and the Commanding Officers of separate Departments, cause exemplary retaliation to be executed on the Enemy for all acts of cruelty committed by them against the Citizens & inhabitants of these States: And Whereas it is essentially & particularly necessary that the barbarous and savage practice of destroying by fire the Towns & Villages of these United States4 should be restrained by means more immediately within our power than a Specific retaliation on the Towns & Villages belonging to the Enemy, and it is even more consonant to the Spirit of justice & humanity that such as have made themselves instruments for these incendiary purposes should be the objects of Vengeance than the remote & unoffending inhabitants of such Towns & Villages, The United States in Congress Assembled have further resolved and do hereby declare that British Officers now prisoners to the American arms or which may hereafter be made prisoners shall answer with their lives for every further destruction by fire of any Town or Village within any one of the U. States which shall be made by the Enemy contrary to the laws of War observed among Civilized Nations; and the Department of War5 is hereby ordered to cause all the Officers in the service of the King of G. B. now in their custody,6 to be duly-secured, and on the first authentic notice of the burning of any Town or Village in any one of the U. States unauthorized by the laws of war, to cause such & so many of the said Officers as they shall judge expedient, to be put to instant death.7
Done at Philada &c &c
1. See Virginia Delegates to Nelson, 18 September 1781, n. 3. Among the papers referred to the committee on 28 September were earlier resolutions concerning retaliation, Governor Trumbull’s letter of 13 September to Washington about the British atrocities at New London and Groton, Conn., and Greene’s dispatch of 25 August telling of the burning of Georgetown, S.C., on the first day of that month.
2. JM’s meaning would be clearer if he had written, “denuntiations by the King’s Commissioners in their Manifesto of the third day of October, 1778.” On that day in New York City, Sir Henry Clinton and two of the five commissioners appointed on 13 April 1778 “to treat, consult, and agree, upon the means of quieting the disorders now subsisting … in North America” issued a “Manifesto and Proclamation” urging Americans not to continue their unnatural alliance with France and warning that “the laws of self preservation must direct the conduct of Great Britain; and if the British Colonies are to become an accession to France, will direct her to render that accession of as little avail as possible to her enemy.” It was signed by Frederick Howard, Earl of Carlisle (1748–1825), the head of the commission, by his fellow member William Eden (1744–1814), and by Clinton (John Almon, The Remembrancer; or, Impartial Repository of Public Events. For the Year 1778, and Beginning of 1779 [London, 1779], pp. 126–31; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XII, 1013, 1015–16, 1168–69).
3. Many times in 1778 and 1779 Congress had threatened retaliation against British soldiers and towns, and often these warnings were prefaced with comments about the humane example which the Americans had tried to set by not carrying out their own earlier threats (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XII, 1080–82, 1128–29; XIV, 640, 831, 849–50, 852, 915–16). The issue was also given added force by the “horrid murder” by hanging, without trial, of Colonel Isaac Hayne, a South Carolina militia officer, at Charleston on 4 August 1781 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 917–18, 972). For John Paul Jones’s retaliatory raids in the British isles, see Samuel E. Morison, John Paul Jones, pp. 138–54, 213–15.
4. The committee report of 27 September 1781, which was referred to JM’s present committee, listed thirteen American towns that had been consigned by the British since 1775 to “wanton conflagrations” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1017–18).
5. Although on 7 February 1781 Congress had provided for a Department of War, under the administration of a secretary at war, the Board of War continued to administer the department until 26 November, when Major General Benjamin Lincoln accepted the secretaryship. He had been elected to the office on 30 October 1781 (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 108, n. 6; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 126–27; XXI, 1087, 1141; Jennings B. Sanders, Evolution of Executive Departments of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1935], pp. 98–100).
6. Here JM wrote and crossed out what appears to have been “most conspicu[ous f]or rank & birth.”
7. Congress took no action until 3 December 1781, when this recommendation and further resolutions on retaliation written by JM (q.v.) were “Referred to the committee to confer with Washington” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXI, 1029–30, 1150–51).