George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, 11 August 1775

To Lieutenant General Thomas Gage

Cambridge August 11th 1775


I understand that the Officers engaged in the Cause of Liberty, and their Country, who by the Fortune of War, have fallen into your Hands have been thrown indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons—That no Consideration has been had for those of the most respectable Rank, when languishing with Wounds and Sickness. That some have been even amputated, in this unworthy Situation.1

Let your Opinion, Sir, of the Principle which actuates them be what it may, they suppose they act from the noblest of all Principles, a Love of Freedom, and their Country. But political Opinions I conceive are foreign to this Point, the Obligations arising from the Rights of Humanity, & Claims of Rank, are universally binding and extensive, except in Case of Retaliation. These, I should have hoped, would have dictated a more tender Treatment of those Individuals, whom Chance or War had put in your Power—Nor can I forbear suggesting, its fatal Tendency to widen that unhappy Breach, which you, and those Ministers under whom you act, have repeatedly declared you wish’d to see forever closed.

My Duty now makes it necessary to apprize you, that for the future I shall regulate my Conduct towards those Gentlemen who are or may be in our Possession, exactly by the Rule which you shall observe, towards those of ours, who may be in your Custody. If Severity, & Hardship mark the Line of your Conduct, (painful as it may be to me) your Prisoners will feel its Effects: But if Kindness & Humanity are shewn to ours, I shall with Pleasure consider those in our Hands, only as unfortunate, and they shall receive the Treatment to which the unfortunate are ever intitled.

I beg to be favoured with an Answer as soon as possible. And am, Sir, Your most Obedt & very Hbble Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Joseph Reed’s writing, MiU-C: Gage Papers; copy, P.R.O., C.O.5/92, ff. 256–57; copy, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; copy, NjMoHP; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The LS is endorsed “Recd Aug. 11th.” The copy in the Public Record Office was enclosed in Gage’s letter to the earl of Dartmouth of 20 Aug. 1775, and the copy in PCC, item 152, was enclosed in GW to Hancock, 31 Aug. 1775.

Thomas Gage (c.1719–1787), commander in chief of the British forces in North America from 1763 to 1775, became acquainted with GW on the Braddock expedition in 1755, and the two men remained friends until the beginning of the Revolution. A lieutenant colonel in Braddock’s army, Gage rose to the rank of major general by the end of the French and Indian War and was named temporary commander in chief for North America in the fall of 1763. His appointment became permanent a year later, and in 1770 he was promoted to lieutenant general. When Gage went home to England on a leave of absence in the spring of 1773, GW attended the farewell dinner given him by the citizens of New York (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 3:182). During the year that Gage was gone from his post, events in America reached a crisis. Gage returned to America in May 1774 not only as commander in chief but also as royal governor of Massachusetts charged with implementing Parliament’s punitive measures against that colony. He commanded the British army in Boston throughout the troubled months that followed. Receiving orders recalling him to England on 26 Sept. 1775, Gage turned his command over to Gen. William Howe on 10 Oct. and arrived in London on 14 November. He spent the remainder of his life in England in virtual retirement.

1The prisoners held by the British in Boston included a number of American soldiers captured at the Battle of Bunker Hill, some of whom were severely wounded, and several civilians who were suspected of spying for the Patriots or otherwise assisting them. One of the jailed civilians, John Leach, wrote in his journal for 19 Aug. 1775: “The poor sick and Wounded prisoners fare very hard, are many days without the Comforts of Life. Doctor Brown Complained to Mr. [James] Lovell and me, that they had no Bread all that Day and the day before. He spoke to the Provost, as he had the Charge of serving the Bread; he replied, they might eat the Nail Heads, and knaw the plank and be damn’d. The Comforts that are sent us by our Friends we are obliged to impart to these poor suffering Friends, and Fee the soldiers and others with Rum, to carry it [to] them by stealth, when we are Close Confined and cannot get to them. They have no Wood to burn many days together, to Warm their Drink, and dying men drink them cold. Some of the Limbs which have been taken off, it was said, were in a state of Putrifaction, not one survived amputation” (“A Journal Kept by John Leach during His Confinement by the British, in Boston Gaol, in 1775” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 19 [1865], 260).

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