George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Burke and Henry Laurens, 15 March 1779

From Thomas Burke and Henry Laurens

Philadelphia March 15th 1779


The inclosed papers are referred to us by Congress, and we wish for the assistance of your Ideas to enable us to make a more perfect report. we request you therefore to take the trouble of committing to paper your Opinion on the proposed terms for the exchange of Prisoners in the Southern department, and also any thing which you think will conduce to that End without Contravening your general Arrangements or general policy and utility.1

We deem it inconvenient, in an in[a]dmissable degree, to permit an exchange of mere Citizens. The facility with which our Enemy can make Prisoners of our Citizens, the difficulty of our making Adequate reprisals, and many other circumstances incline us to this Opinion. It Seems even better to Suffer the Captivity of Such as unfortunately fall into their hands. for tho’ this is a calamity which greatly affects our Sensibility, yet it is far Short of what we Apprehend from Admitting Such exchange. We think it must Necessarily prove an incentive to the making a greater Number of prisoners of that Order, and that the Efforts for making them would be attended with an increase of ravage and horror which we are not in a Condition to prevent or chastise. We shall also be very glad to be informed by you whether any reinforcements of regular Troops can be spared to the Southern department and if in your Opinion any be Necessary. At the Same time we Suggest that North Carolina is making very Considerable Exertions for raising a reinforcement of Militia, both Cavalry and Infantry. We think you Concur with us in Opinion that Militia forces ought to be employd only in Cases where they cannot be dispensed with. We are Sir With the greatest respect and Esteem Your Obdtt Servants

Tho. Burke
Henry Laurens.

LS, in Burke’s writing, DLC:GW.

Thomas Burke (c.1747–1783), a physician, lawyer, and talented poet from Hillsborough, N.C., was first elected a North Carolina delegate to Congress on 20 Dec. 1776. He took his seat in February 1777 and attended Congress with occasional periods of absence until the spring of 1781, when he returned home and became governor of North Carolina. Born in County Galway, Ireland, Burke had studied medicine before immigrating to America about 1763. After practicing as a physician on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for a short time, Burke studied law and opened a legal practice in Norfolk, Virginia. He moved to Hillsborough, N.C., in 1772 and served in the second and third North Carolina provincial congresses in 1775 and the fourth provincial congress in 1776. As a member of the Continental Congress, Burke was generally supportive of GW. After witnessing the Battle of Brandywine on 11 Sept. 1777 and helping to rally some of the retreating troops, Burke attributed the American defeat not to GW’s tactics, but rather to the incompetence of his principal subordinates, particularly Maj. Gen. John Sullivan (see Burke to Richard Caswell, 17 Sept. 1777, in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 7:678–81). On 10 April 1778, Burke objected so strongly to the critical tone of a letter that Congress was preparing for GW that he walked out, making it impossible for Congress to continue in session for want of a quorum (see Burke’s Proposed Statement to Congress, 13 April 1778, in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 9:404–7, and Laurens to GW, 14 April 1778). Burke took office as governor of North Carolina on 26 June 1781 and was captured at Hillsborough, N.C., by Loyalist militia the following September. Held prisoner near Charleston, S.C., he escaped in January 1782 and resumed his duties as governor, serving until 26 April 1782 (see Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 9:365–66).

1The enclosed papers, which GW returned with his reply to Burke and Laurens of 18 March and are now in DNA:PCC, item 158, ff. 197–232, consisted of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s letters to the president of Congress, John Jay, of 23 Jan. and 6 and 12 Feb. 1779 concerning the military situation in South Carolina and Georgia. Lincoln’s letter of 6 Feb. also included eleven enclosures regarding his unsuccessful efforts to negotiate an exchange of the American prisoners recently captured by the British in Georgia, which he discusses in some detail in that letter. Having read all of these papers on 12 March, Congress referred them on that same date to a committee consisting of Burke, Laurens, and Meriwether Smith (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 , 13:307). For GW’s views regarding the issues involved in exchanging the prisoners in Georgia, and the committee’s report to Congress on 8 April, see GW to Burke and Laurens, 18 March, and n.4.

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