George Washington Papers
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From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 31 March 1780

To Samuel Huntington

Head Quarters Morris Town 31st March 1780.

Sir

I have the honor to inclose the Report of the proceedings of the Commissioners appointed to meet at Amboy the 9th instant, for the purpose of settling a General Cartel, by which, Congress will perceive that the present attempt has been as unsuccessful as all the former, and from the same cause.1

In January, I was honored with a letter from the Minister of France, informing me of his having received advice from Europe, that the Court of London, on account of the difficulty they found in procuring Men, had instructed their Commander in Chief here, to treat with us on a national footing, rather than fail to obtain a reinforcement to their Army by the release of their prisoners in our hands. He added, that he had communicated this intelligence to Congress, and that Congress had requested him to transmit it to me, as a matter which ought materially to influence the measures we were about to take on the subject of an Exchange.2

Though I was strongly persuaded beforehand, that there was a mistake in His Excellency’s information, and that the advantages to be reaped by the enemy from the proposed Exchange would not be a sufficient inducement to a step of the nature it imported—which I took the liberty to signify to him,3 yet I thought it my duty to make the experiment, as well from motives of respect to the communication, as from the possibility of its being well founded. I therefore directed our Commissioners to take every method to ascertain the Enemy’s views on this head, and, if the British Commissioners did not come with national powers, to decline doing any thing with them in an official capacity; but after satisfying themselves that nothing was to be effected on a larger scale, they were instructed to enter into private Conversation on the terms of a particular Exchange.4 Their letter No. 2 will shew what was done in consequence.5 Congress will perceive that their proposal was not accepted by the Gentlemen on the other side, who insisted on the exchange being at all events extended to one half of the second division of the Convention troops. This was a departure from the plan concerted between General Phillips and Colonels Magaw, Matthews &ca.6

If Congress think that humanity requires or policy permits us to accede to the enemy’s ultimatum, I shall be happy to execute their orders; but it is a point of so much delicacy and importance, that I cannot forbear earnestly requesting I may be excused from deciding in it. On one hand—the acquisition of so many Men will be of great moment to the enemy, if they meet with success to the Southward; on the other, I see not how we shall be able to maintain our Officers in captivity and the expence is no trifling consideration. I think it necessary to observe—that if the Enemy’s proposal should be accepted, it may be June before the prisoners are delivered—but perhaps it will be judged advisable to delay a determination, ’till the probable issue of southern Affairs is a little unfolded. I have the honor to be with very great Respect and Esteem Yr Excellency’s Most obt Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read GW’s letter on 6 April and referred it to a committee composed of delegates John Morin Scott, William Churchill Houston, and William Ellery (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 , 16:333).

The committee never agreed on a final report, but Houston prepared a proposal, dated 10 July, recommending an exchange for multiple reasons: “That the Support of said [Convention Army] Troops is productive of very heavy Expenses, and in the Opinion of your Committee, considering the Uncertainty of Retribution, more hurtful to the Community than their Service in the Field, if exchanged, would probably be.

“That it might be attended with unfavourable Consequences to suffer the Enemy to have a free Intercourse by Flags of Truce to supply the said Troops with necessaries.

“That great Numbers of the said Troops escape from Time to Time, many of whom make their way to the Enemy in New-York and elsewhere so that not more than Half the original Number now remain; and the United States lose the Benefit of their Exchange.” Houston then submitted a resolution that empowered GW “to negociate an Exchange of the Troops of the Convention of Saratoga, at such Time, in such Manner and on such Terms as he may think proper.

“That in any Negociation upon this Subject it be an Instruction to obtain Payment as far as possible, of the monies due for Provisions and Fuel furnished to the said Troops on Account of the United States; and, if the same cannot be fully obtained, to procure, if possible, an Assurance that all Differences upon that Subject will hereafter be submitted to proper Discussion and Settlement, that an impartial Decision thereof may be had.

“Provided always, That Nothing respecting the said Accounts be made an Ultimatum in any Treaty of Exchange” (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 , 15:417–19). Congress discharged the committee and referred the matter to another committee on 13 Oct. (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 , 18:919). The second committee presented resolutions calling upon GW “to effect an exchange of all continental prisoners of war and now in possession of the enemy, and of the hostages given in Canada, as well as of all officers on parole and officers violators of parole, and militia actually taken in arms and remaining prisoners of war, for an equal number of the Convention troops and other prisoners in our hands, rank for rank; and where similar rank will not apply, to pursue the exchange on the footing of composition according to the valuation or tariff agreed on by the commissioners at Amboy in March last” (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 , 18:1028–30). Congress approved these resolutions on 7 Nov. (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 , 18:1030–31; see also Huntington to GW, 12 Nov., DLC:GW).

1The enclosure was a copy of the first letter from the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners to GW, 26 March. For additional information on this subject, see Minutes of Prisoner Exchange Negotiations, 10–14 March, printed as an enclosure to the first letter from the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners to GW, 26 March.

6For this prisoner exchange plan, see GW to Huntington, 4 Jan., and n.1 to that document.

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