George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 12 March 1778

To Henry Laurens

Valley Forge March 12th 1778


On sunday night I had the honor to receive your favors of the 1st & 5th Instant with their Inclosures.

I am happy to find that my past conduct respecting Citizens in the correspondence between Genl Howe & myself is approved by Congress. They may rest assured, that their rights are strongly impressed on my mind, and that in all my transactions every support in my power shall be given them. I know their importance, and in my expected negociations with Genl Howe, if possible, I will exempt Citizens from Captivity. However I cannot hope to effect it, as I cannot demand it as a matter of right, since Congress themselves in their Original resolve, directing a proposition to be made for the exchange of prisoners, mentioned that of Citizens, which implied a right of capturing them.1 They may also be assured, that Genl Lee will not be forgotten. He has all along been a principal object in dispute, and so far from doing any thing injurious to him, his right to be exchanged & releasement are intended to be placed upon the most explicit—unambiguous footing. Indeed from the spirit of Genl Howe’s Letters, collectively taken, since his Agreement to enlarge the Officers on parole, in the first instance, & his extension of it in the last to an exchange (tho they are not free from ambiguities) it may be inferred, that on sending in Lt Colo. Campbell & the Hessian Field Officers captured at Trenton, that an exchange of all officers will immediately commence.2 It seems to be a point with him, that it shall begin with them, as they have been longest in captivity. I have taken the liberty to inclose you Copies of three Letters, which have just passed between Genl Howe & myself more particularly concerning Genl Lee; in which I have pushed matters respecting him, as far as I thought it prudent at this time.3 Every precaution will certainly be used to prevent the Enemy gaining any advantage in the exchange of prisoners.

With great deference, I would take the liberty to observe, that Congress seem to have carried the preamble of their Resolve of the 26 Ulto, prohibiting the inlisting &c. Prisoners & deserters too far—and thro accident to have recited a fact that has never happened (at least to my knowledge) and which is injurious to us. Viz. that prisoners had been inlisted by us. If any have, it is what I never knew; However, be this as it may—if the Resolution has not been published, I could wish the preamble to be altered and only recite “that experience &c. in Deserters” only. The Resoluti⟨on⟩ itself may stand as it does comprehending a pr⟨o⟩hibition against the inlistment of both.4 My reasons for troubling Congress upon this occasion is, we have always complained against Genl Howe and still do for obliging or permitting the prisoners in his hands to inlist, as an unwarrantable procedure & wholly repugnant to the spirit, at least, of the Cartel.5 This preamble seems to admit the practice on our part, which would certainly justify it in him, and is such evidence, as must silence us in future should it stand, and afford him an opportunity for recrimination, though as I have suggested, I believe no prisoners have ever been inlisted by us—I am sure none have through compulsion.

I have the pleasure to transmit you an Extract of a Letter from Captn Barry, which will inform you of his successes.6 The two ships he burnt, after stripping them, and he was obliged, it seems, two days after the capture, to ground and abandon the Schooner after a long and severe engagement with some of the Enemy’s Frigates & smaller armed Vessels. It is said he saved her Guns & most of her tackle.

I also take the liberty to lay before Congress copies of Letters from Messieurs Champion—Wadsworth & Reed.7 From the uniformity of sentiment held forth by these Gentlemen, it is much to be feared, the measures lately adopted by the Commissioners at New Haven for regulating the prices of provision will have a disagreable effect upon our supplies of meat.8 How far it may be practicable to suspend their operation for a time, I cannot determine—but if it can be done, it appears we should experience many advantages from it. It is a matter of great importance, and as such is submitted to Congress for their consideration.9 If any thing can be done to procure supplies of provision, particularly of the salt kind, I should suppose & am persuaded it will not be omitted. 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; DfS, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. This letter and the enclosures regarding prisoner exchange were read in Congress on 16 Mar. (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 , 10:258). The LS is docketed in part, “refd bd War part refd to a special comt & part to.”

1GW probably is referring to the congressional resolution of 22 July 1776, which empowered “the commander in chief in each department” to negotiate exchanges, “one continental officer for one of the enemy of equal rank, either in the land or sea service, soldier for soldier, sailor for sailor, and one citizen for another citizen,” but Congress had used similar phrasing in a resolution of 22 Dec. 1775 (ibid., 5:599; 3:400).

2See William Howe to GW, 26 Nov. 1777 and 5 Feb. 1778.

4The text to which GW objected read, “whereas, experience hath proved that no confidence can be placed in prisoners of war or deserters from the enemy, who inlist into the continental army; but many losses and great mischiefs have frequently happened by them; therefore, Resolved, That no prisoners of war or deserters from the enemy be inlisted, drafted, or returned to serve in the continental army” (ibid., 10:203).

5GW had protested British efforts to enlist Americans held prisoner in his letter to Howe of 13 Jan. 1777, and he again mentioned the subject to Howe in a letter of 14 Nov. 1777. Congress had also cited the British enlistment of prisoners to justify its resolutions of 21 Jan. 1778 about prisoner exchange (ibid., 75). For the previous prisoner exchange “Cartel,” see GW to Howe, 30 July 1776, and Howe to GW, 1 Aug. 1776.

7See Henry Champion, Sr., to GW, 28 Feb., and Jeremiah Wadsworth to GW, 5 Mar., the latter printed in the source note to the former. The third enclosure was an extract from James Reed’s letter to George Clinton of 4 Mar. that read: “I could sincerely wish the regulation Act not to take place till Beef could be fat by Grass. As Meat kind is like to be scarce I think every encouragement ought to be given to Farmers to fill their Stalls with Cattle for early Beef” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

8In November 1777 Congress recommended that the “states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pensylvania, and Delaware . . . appoint commissioners to convene at New Haven, in Connecticut, on the 15 day of January next . . . in order to regulate and ascertain the price of labour, manufactures, internal produce, and commodities imported from foreign parts, military stores excepted” (ibid., 9:956–57). Commissioners subsequently met and agreed on measures to regulate the prices of various commodities, including beef and pork, which were submitted to the states for legislation (see Conn. Public Records description begins The Public Records of the State of Connecticut . . . with the Journal of the Council of Safety . . . and an Appendix. 18 vols. to date. Hartford, 1894—. description ends , 1:607–20). For the Connecticut act of 12 Feb. “for the Regulation of the Prices of Labor, Produce, Manufactures, and Commodities,” passed on 12 Feb. to take effect on 20 Mar., see ibid., 524–28).

9Congress, acting on a letter from Henry Champion to William Buchanan of 28 Feb., had on 9 Mar. considered a report recommending “to the Legislature of the State of Connecticut to suspend the Operation of their Act of Government Regulating the Price of Live Beef, untill the 15th Day of June next, or Repeal the same, as they shall judge most expedient,” but the resolution finally adopted on 11 Mar. merely referred Champion’s letter to the legislature “that it be submitted to their wisdom to devise a remedy for the evil complained of or feared, in such a way, and by such means, as they shall judge most for the public interest” (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 , 10:235, 244).

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