George Washington Papers

To George Washington from General William Howe, 19 January 1778

From General William Howe

Philadelphia 19th Janry 1778.


I enclose you an Extract of a Letter from Mr Boudinot to Mr Fergusson the Commissary of Prisoners at this Place, signifying to him that it is expected, that after the 1st Day of February next, we supply all Prisoners with you, West of New Jersey, with every Kind of Provisions sent out from our Lines. and that he has it positively in Charge not to suffer our Agents to purchase any Provisions for them in the Country after that Day.1

The Distance at which most of the Prisoners are from hence (many of them from 300 to 400 Miles)—their dispersed Situation through so great an Extent of Country, and many other very obvious Difficulties, demonstrate the Impracticability of such a Mode of Supply. To insist upon it would be to deprive the Prisoners of the only Means of Subsistence, or, in other Words, to destroy by Famine those who might, with a Cruelty less Savage, have been put to Death on the Spot, in the first moment of their Capture.

Mr Boudinot does not mention by whom this Measure is threatened to be adopted: But it is so repugnant to the Rules of War in all civilized Nations, and so marked with Inhumanity, that I cannot persuade myself it has been derived from your Advice; and I am unwilling to suspect that even the present Rulers of this Country, are so entirely lost to all Sense of Honor, and to all Feelings of Humanity, as to pass an Edict for the deliberate Destruction of those whom the Chance of War has thrown into their Hands.

It is alledged by Mr Boudinot, that the Prohibition he mentions, is become absolutely necessary, as it is rather unequal to suffer our Agents to purchase every Kind of Provision at their pleasure among you, whilst your Agent is refused the Priviledge of purchasing necessary Clothing with us.

How subtil and disingenuous is this Argument? Provision, or the Means of Existence, can only, from the Nature of Things, be supplied by Agents or Commissaries on the Spot. Clothing can be provided at a distance, and sent in to our respective prisoners. The one is a Demand of daily Necessity, indispensable, and immediate: The other is but occasionally requisite; and a short Delay in the Supply, can never be fatal, rarely injurious. Upon these Principles the Prisoners on both Sides have been hitherto subsisted; nor can there be an honorable Reason for any Innovation.

The Allowance of Provisions to prisoners here is continued according to an established Regulation, explained in a former Letter: It is specified in a Paper which I enclose.2 But, exclusive of this Allowance the Men are permitted to receive such additional Refreshments as you may at any Time think proper to send, and our Markets are always open to them. I cannot therefore apprehend that the unjustifiable Measure communicated by Mr Boudinot to Mr Fergusson, will be pursued: on the contrary I expect that not only the Prisoners to the Westward, but those to the Eastward of New Jersey, will still be supplied with Provisions, in the usual Manner.

It was some Surprize to me Yesterday to be informed that you would permit only one Quarter Master to pass with the Clothing for the British Prisoners.3 Although one Person for a similar purpose on your part, is undoubtedly sufficient (all the Prisoners I have in this Province being within the Town of Philadelphia) yet the Necessity of my employing a greater Number is obvious, from the divided State of our unfortunate Men in your possession: And as it can’t be alledged that the Quarter Masters I lately ordered on that Service, encroached upon the Spirit of the Agreement subsisting between us, I must hope you will not, on any future Occasions, refuse a pass for an adequate Number of my Officers; assuring you that no unworthy Advantages shall be taken in consequence of your Compliance. With due Respect I am Sir Your most obedt Servant

W. Howe

LS, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in GW to Henry Laurens, 8 Feb., DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; three copies, P.R.O., 30/55, Carleton Papers; copy, P.R.O.: Colonial Office, Secretary of State’s Correspondence with Commander-in-Chief, North America.

1The enclosed extract of a letter of 10 Jan. from Elias Boudinot to Henry Hugh Fergusson reads: “It gives me Pain Sir that I am obliged to inform you that it is expected that after the first Day of February next, you will supply all your Prisoners with us, West of New Jersey, with every Kind of Provisions sent out from your Lines; and that I have it positively in Charge, not to suffer your Agents to purchase any Provisions in the Country after that Day. The proper Passports for your conveying any Quantity you may think proper to the different Places of your Prisoners Confinement, shall be ready whenever you require them; and your Agents shall be allowed to distribute Provisions and other Necessaries as you may please to direct. I shall also take Care that our Prisoners with you are fully supplied with Provisions from hence after that Day. As to Firewood I will either send a Sufficiency to them, or supply your Prisoners in their different Cantonments with as much for every Ten Men, as you shall assure me you allow to every Ten of ours. The Officers in like Manner. This Measure has become absolutely necessary, as it is rather unequal to suffer your Agents to purchase every Kind of Provisions at their Pleasure among us, whilst our Agent is refused the Priviledge of purchasing necessary Cloathing with you. If any Inconvenience should arise to the unfortunate Prisoners on this Account, it cannot be chargeable on us” (DLC:GW).

In a letter to the Board of War on the following day, Boudinot explained the reasons for his order to Fergusson: “my Agent at Philadelphia purchased or rather agreed for a parcell of Blanketts for the Prisoners, but was obliged to give them up again, on the most peremptory orders from General Howe that he would not suffer it—Several of our unhappy Prisoners have died merely from the want of Blanketts and other Cloathing, and I know not where to get a single Blankett or Suit of Cloaths for their relief—I have wrote in, giving the Enemy Notice, that they will not be suffered to purchase any kind of Provisions with us after the 1st day of February, at least to the westward of Jersey, the reason of this Exception, is the Liberty we have of purchasing Cloaths at New York” (DNA:PCC, item 78). After conferring with Boudinot, the Board of War submitted a report to Congress on 21 Jan. detailing the alleged mistreatment of American prisoners held in New York and Philadelphia, and Congress reacted promptly on the same date, demanding a number of retaliatory measures against British prisoners in American hands (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 , 10:74–82). See also GW to Horatio Gates, 26 Jan., and GW’s reply to Howe of 30 January.

2The enclosed sheet, dated 19 Jan. at Philadelphia, reads: “Quantity of Provisions issued to one Man perr Week at two Thirds Allowance according to the victualling Regulations agreeable to which the Prisoners in Philadelphia are victualled. of all Species[:] 4 [lb.] 10⅔ [oz.] Bread[,] 2 [lb.] 10⅔ [oz.] Pork[,] 2 Pints Pease[,] 4 Ounces Butter[,] 5⅓ Ounces Oatmeal[;] or without the smaller Species[:] 4 [lb.] 10⅔ [oz.] Bread[,] 3 [lb.] 8 [oz.] Pork” (DLC:GW).

3For GW’s order, see Tench Tilghman to Thomas Bradford, 18 Jan., printed in William Patterson to GW, 18 Jan., n.1. See also GW’s justification of his refusal to permit an additional British quartermaster in his reply to Howe of 30 January.

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