George Washington Papers

Proceedings of a Council of General Officers, 20–24 August 1778

Proceedings of a Council of General Officers

[White Plains, 20–24 August 1778]

At a meeting of the General Officers at Head Quarters White plains Augt 20th 1778

The Commander in Chief
Major Generals. Brigadier Generals
Gates Knox. Smallwood
Sterling Woodford. Muhlenberg
Lincoln. Wayne. Clinton
McDoughal Huntington. Parsons
Baron D’Kalb. Poor—Patterson

The commander in chief states to the council, that, by the articles of war, the highest corporal punishment allowed to be inflicted on offenders, by sentence of Courts martial is one hundred lashes—That there are no gradations of intermediate punishment between this and death1—That, in consequence, courts martial are obliged to adopt either the one, or the other, with respect to all crimes of a higher nature, from whence these inconveniences result, that they have it not in their power to distribute a proper proportion of punishment to the different degrees of guilt, which occur; and deeming a hundred lashes inadequate to a variety of cases, that come before them, think themselves bound in duty to decree the only greater penalty, they have in their choice, which being that of death, capital sentences become so numerous, that it is impossible to execute them, without degenerating into cruelty, and destroying in a great measure the effect, by the too great frequency of the example; that to avoid these disagreeable consequences a necessity too often arises of granting pardons, which not only occasions many atrocious criminals to escape, with impunity; but affords a strong encouragement to a repetition of crimes.

Having stated these things, his Excellency requests the sentiments of the Council on the expediency of punishment by hard and severe labor, instead of death, with such circumstances of rigor as may tend to make the terror and influence of the example the greater; and on the particular modes and degrees, they would think adviseable; in order, that, if any system of this kind can be devised, which promises to be effectual, for preventing crimes and obviating the necessity of capital punishments, it may be finally submitted to the consideration of Congress.2

At a Meeting of General Officers, held at White Plains, by Order of His Excellency The Commander in Chief, August 24th 1778. It was unanimously decided by them, that Severe hard Labour be recommended to The Honorable The Congress, to be the intermediate punishment between One Hundred Lashes, and Death: The Board also unanimously resolved, that repairs of The Roads, Fortifications, and such necessary public works, as The Commander in Chief—Quarter Master General, or Chief Engineer, think proper to direct, Shall be the Duty to be performed by such delinquents, and in such proportion, as either a General, or Regimental Court Martial, shall decide. The Board advise, that in the framing this Addition to the penalties inflicted by the present Articles of War, The Courts Martial, General, and Regimental, may have power to Order Severe hard labour, as a punishment in all cases whatsoever.

The Board further take the Liberty to recommend, that a prison be established in each Division, where all NonCommissioned Officers, & Soldiers, guilty of Drunkeness, and such enormities as frequently proceeds from Drunkeness, are to be confined for such a Term, as a General, or Regimental Court Martial shall decree; and for, & during that Term, suffered to receive no other sustenance, than Bread & Water.

Horatio Gates Stirling,
The Baron deKalb—
Alexr McDougall
Saml H: Parsons
W. Smallwood
Henry Knox
Enoch Poor
Jno. Paterson
J. Huntington

DS, in James McHenry’s and Horatio Gates’s writings, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169. The copy in item 152 was enclosed in GW’s letter to Henry Laurens of 31 August.

1GW is referring to article 3, section 18, of the articles of war (see 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 , 5:806).

2On the DS, McHenry’s writing stops at this point.

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