George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 12 January 1778

To Henry Laurens

Valley Forge January 12th 1778


As I do not recollect with precision, whether any or what Resolutions have been made by Congress respecting Captures by the Army or Detachments of It, and not having all their proceedings with me, with which I have been honored from time to time, to assist my inquiries upon the subject, I must take the liberty to request, that they will determine and favor me with their decisions upon the following points.

First, what articles captured are to be considered as public property?

Secondly, Whether articles captured by parties or Detachments, not determined public property, are to be distributed or sold for the benefit of the Army at large, or are to be considered as the sole & exclusive right of the Captors?

Thirdly, If in general instances, Such articles as are taken and which are not considered public property, are determined to be the sole & exclusive right of the Captors, are Stationary Detachments, who from their situation have much more than a common chance of making prizes to be considered upon the same footing?

Fourthly, If there is to be a distinction between Stationary & Other detachments, and the former are denied an exclusive right to the Captures they make, what proportion of the Articles are they to have?1

I have been induced to state the above Questions on account of some difficulties, that have arisen, respecting the prize taken by the Detachment at Wilmington under Genl Smallwood, that the same may be determined, and certain principles established to govern in like and future cases. In the instance of this prize, As the baggage taken, from Genl Smallwoods and the Officers representation, will be but inconsiderable, when divided among themselves, I have consented that they shall have it at a just appraisement & distribution, and have directed him to have the whole and the value properly inventoried, that such order may be made respecting the latter, as the decisions of Congress may justifye and point out. I have also directed a Sale of the Brig, as I understand some Offers have been made for her, and as her situation may be considered hazardous & precarious.2

Besides the Brig taken at Wilmington, A vessel has stranded at Reedy Island with Goods on board.3 It is said a Quantity of Rum—some Bales of Cloth4—a number of Hats and some other articles, (all wanted by the Army) have been taken out of her by the Militia, particularly those of Kent County.5 These General Smallwood is endeavouring to find, that they may be of public benefit. I have the Honor to be with great respect Sir Your Most Obedt servant

Go: Washington

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. GW wrote William Smallwood on this date, enclosing his letter to Laurens and asking Smallwood to read it before sending it on to Congress, which Smallwood did on 17 January. Congress read this letter on 20 Jan. and referred it to the marine committee (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 10:66).

1Harrison struck out additional words at this place on the draft: “as a reward & encouragement for their exertions?”

2Earlier congressional resolutions on the distribution of prize ships and cargo had not specified the procedures to be followed in cases of captures made by army detachments (see ibid., 3:371–75, 4:36–37, 6:882–83). On 25 Jan. 1778 Laurens wrote GW enclosing Congress’s resolution of the previous day “That the vessels and goods lately captured as aforesaid, ought to be libelled in the court of admiralty in that State where the capture was made; but if no such court should be erected in that State, then the prosecution should be in the court of such State as the captors may find convenient, the judge whereof, on condemnation, will order distribution to be made agreeably to the resolution of Congress; and that six printed copies of the extracts of the journals of Congress relative to the capture and condemnation of prizes, &c. be transmitted to General Washington and General Smallwood” (ibid., 10:88).

3Harrison crossed out the words “a valuable Cargoe” on the draft, replacing them with “Goods on board.”

4The words “a quantity of wine” are struck out at this place on the draft.

5The following sentence is crossed out at this place on the draft: “These I have requested Genl Smallwood to secure, and to give proper Certificates for ’em, A measure he began to had adopted himself upon the first information he had of the fact and which he is now pursuing.” Smallwood enclosed a list of cargo from the vessel stranded at Reedy Island in his letter to GW of 10 January.

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