George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 21 April 1782

Baskenridge 21 April 1782


As it is probable that our report of this date may after having been transmitted to Congress come before the public eye, we have thought it best to give in a distinct letter the information which it may be unnecessary or improper to publish.

Your Excellency will perceive that we had no proper opportunity of bringing forward distinctly the [affair] of Mr Laurens. By pushing it abruptly into notice, we might have obstructed but could not have forwarded your views for his release. Had our general propositions been acceded to, his exchange would have followed necessarily. Had they acceded to those terms which would have satisfied us in consenting to particular [charges], that of Mr Laurens would have been brought forward among the foremost. In our conversation with them, they appeared solicitous to know whether we were empowered to give him in exchange for Lord Cornwallis, and offered on the part of Sir Henry Clinton that any proposition upon the subject should be transmitted to the British ministry, [who] had alone the right to dispose of him as being a [state prisoner]. We answered that our powers extended to every [object] of exchange. And we flatter ourselves that the impressions communicated to their minds were such, that had they been permited to act, not only the general business, but all particular matters would have been concluded in a satisfactory manner.

The board of directors, whose power your Excellency instructed us to enquire into, are we find appointed by the British ministry, with whom they correspond. The ostensible design is to secure a proper treatment of such of their adherents as may fall into our power, for which purpose they have the right of exchanging the prisoner[s] made by their people, and have a commissary of prisoners of their own; but are said to be restrained from treating their prisoners in a manner different from those taken by the King’s Troops. The plans formed by them for expeditions are submitted to the Commander in Chief, who also issues the commissions to their Officers, but upon their recommendation. Although they act independently of the Commander in Chief yet they are subordinate to his authority when he thinks proper to exercise it. But he is the more cautious in this exercise, because they are not upon good terms together and any interference would furnish them matter of complaint to the superiors of both. We are thoroughly convinced that this board and their powers are more odious and more disagreeable to the British army than [thus]. The disgust against them among the military is general, but they have numerous adherents among the disaffected. Mutual jealousy and sincere hatred have arisen and are likely to continue and increase. We are convinced that the late murder of Captain Huddy was by their authority, and we have been assured by the Commissioners that they are thoroughly convinced it was without the knowledge of the General. By urging this matter, your Excellency will have an opportunity of adding [much] fuel to the fire kindled between them. Should the perpetrators of the deed be delivered up (even[ if] pardoned afterwards) the lesser agents will no longer confide in the greater, who will in their turn foster the most rancorous animosity: And should a British Officer be executed in consequence of a refusal to deliver up or punish the guilty, the resentments of the army will be proportionably inflamed. The dissentions we have had the honor to mention are by no means confined to the board of directors and their loyal refugees, but extend also to the several provincial corps, who are apprehensive of being drafted into other regiments and sent to the West Indies—an apprehenison which will probably be realized.Tthe inhabitants are pretty generally disgusted with the manner of conducting the war and have formed an opinion that, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary, they will be deserted by the British upon the first unfavorable turn of their affairs. Of consequence they have a disposition to desert the royal cause entirely, and prepare for [a change] by converting their property into money[ and] sending it out of the lines. This disposition we have encouraged, as by that means [while] we derive strength and resources, the enemy will lose them tho’ imperceptibly yet effectually, and the commerce which has hitherto been carried on to such extent, corrupting the people on the borders, will be greatly diminished. Indeed this commerce is already at a very low ebb in one respect, although in another it still flourishes. We are well informed that the quantity of goods in New York is smaller than is generally supposed, and that none are expected from Europe this season, as those formerly imported are sold at a loss, which is the reason of the present illicit trade with them. We are sorry to say that this trade is carried on now to a great extent, and under colour of the laws of this state—The army and navy in New York are upon very bad terms together, the army the [blame] the navy—the navy the army—the board of directors and their disciples blame both. The refugee corps, in the midst of this conflict of opinions, are in a state of despondency, arising in a great degree from doubts of the treatment they will receive from us. We really believe that their apprehensions from us form the only bond by which most of them are now connected with the enemy. It is unnecessary to add that if hopes of pardon could be extended to this class of people, they would seize the earliest opportunity of abandoning the cause they have espoused. How far this measure might be proper we will not presume to say, but we consider them as very important and that it is not without some reason they boast, that but for them the British army would not be able to hold any footing in the Country.

We complied with your Excellency’s sentiments in preventing as much as possible a communication with New York—but the communications which have taken place have not been useless. There are many things which it is imprudent to submit to paper, and which Colo. Smith will inform you of. Expecting that our business [would ]sooner have terminated, and [finding] that Captain Russell, one of the Secretaries of Sir Henry Clinton had come out with his commissioners, we thought it best to detain Colo. Smith until we could make our report, and we must take the liberty of refering your Excellency to him for information on many particulars. We have good reason to believe that the enemy mean to object against paying for the support of the convention prisoners after [their] detention, and that possibly they mean to dispute also paying for the prisoners of York Town. We are thoroughly convinced that if a settlement cannot be obtained under the present circumstances it can never be obtained. The British Commissioners repeatedly hinted that they considered the present meeting as introductory to some other in which the business might be completed, and anxiously inquired our opinion whether your Excellency would not write to sir Henry Clinton. We gave it as our opinion that you would not—that you had tried the methods of reason and argument, and that nothing was left but coercion, the [exercise] of which would probably induce an application from General Clinton. We were cautious throughout not to [mingle] any threats in our proceedings or conversation, conceiving it better that the enemy should feel from power than from menaces—besides, that the apprehension is greater when it is general, than when confined to any particular evil.

Captain [Summers], who is particularly mentioned in your Exce[llency’s] instructions, is as the Commissary of prisoners informed us, at liberty [we] thought them mentioned of any particular matters would have been injurious in the state of things at which the negotiation broke off.

We had, as you will perceive, mentioned the collecting our seamen at a point in the first communication, and explaned ourselves fully in conversation. But the power from Admiral Digby was deficient and before the matter could come regularly into view, General Clinton thought proper to put an end to all further investigation. We have the honor to be with the greatest respect Your Excellency’s most obedient & humble servants

H. Knox

Gouv. Morris

MHi: Henry Knox Papers.

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