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John Mathews, for Committee of Congress, to Nathanael Greene, 30 April 1781

John Mathews, for Committee of Congress,
to Nathanael Greene

RC (William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan). JM had been appointed on 23 October 1780 as a member of the committee (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 206).

Philadelphia April 30. 1781.

Sir

The inclosed paper will give you the substance of the latest intelligence Congress have received from Europe. The countenance given by Russia to the united provinces must be productive of very happy effects, it encourages them to enter into the war with alacrity and to prosecute it with vigor.1 This of course raises up another powerful enemy against G: Britain and enables our generous Ally2 to give us more substantial aid, than he could otherwise have done. Our affairs at the Court of Madrid wear a more pleasing aspect than they have yet done and we have reason to expect a more earnest friendship from that monarch than he has yet manifested toward us.3

The troops and Ships destined for our aid were expected to sail in all the Month of March, the exact numbers of either we are not informed of, but we are encouraged to expect both will be respectable4

We are directed by Congress to communicate to you the complaints that have been made, of a number of the british Officers being suffered to remain in Charles Town on parole when the enemy extend this indulgence with a very sparing hand to our Officers, that you should enquire into the matter and rectify whatever improprieties may have arisen in conducting this business.5

It is also the wish of Congress that you would endeavour to negociate an exchange of prisoners and relieve as many of ours as you possibly can, from the horrors of so severe a Captivity as they experience6

You may possibly conceive some embarrassments will arise in negociating this business, least what may be done by you, might militate against the general exchange negociating by the commander in Chief; but as the powers of exchange in your department are by Congress fully lodged in your hands, we conceive it ought not to influence your conduct farther than military duty must enjoin.7 Policy in our opinion directs every thing to be done in this business that can be done without loss of time as the enemy have already engaged a very large number of our men, (from good authority we are informed between 5 and 600) and are daily engaging more in their service—inevitable necessity drives our unhappy men to quit the service of their country for one they detest, and the policy of the enemy places them in a situation that for ever precludes them from the least chance of returning, being all engaged for the west India service.8 The inclosed paper9 will show you the outrageous malice of the enemy against our Officers and the pressing necessity of something decisive being immediately done to prevent so diabolical a measure as is therein proposed to be adopted by them.

We are sir, with much Esteem & regard, Yr. most Obedt. servts. By Order of the Committee

Jno. Mathews Chairman

1The “inclosed paper” was probably the Pennsylvania Packet of 28 April 1781, which printed extracts of several letters written in Europe. These extracts stated that Russia would assist the “united provinces” (the Netherlands), now that they and Great Britain were at war. A letter of 22 February from William Carmichael at Madrid, read in Congress on 27 April, was of the same tenor (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 452; Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , IV, 265–66).

2King Louis XVI of France.

3The basis of this comment was Carmichael’s letter, mentioned in n. 1, and John Jay’s letter of 6 November, written in Madrid and read in Congress on 24 April. Jay reported that the Spanish court showed increased receptiveness toward advancing money to the American cause and making a treaty of alliance (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , IV, 112–50; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 437; see also Report on Instructions to Jay, 2 May 1781).

4On 22 March a French fleet, commanded by the Comte de Grasse and comprising twenty men-of-war and many troop ships, sailed from Brest and arrived off Martinique on 28 April. In a letter of 24 March, John Laurens, Congress’ special envoy to France, cautioned Washington not to count upon any of these ships and troops’ coming north to the American coast before July. In fact it was the thirtieth of August when Grasse first appeared off the Chesapeake capes (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , IV, 279, 318, 328, 355; Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , II, 84–85; W. M. James, British Navy in Adversity, pp. 258, 288).

5When Congress so “directed” is not evident from the journal. Nevertheless, on 28 April Congress named Mathews as chairman of a committee to report upon a “memorial from sundry officers, prisoners at Charleston” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 458). These officers, chiefly of the South Carolina and Georgia continental lines, had been captives since the surrender of the city in May 1780. They pointed out that, unlike the prisoners from North Carolina and especially from Virginia, their states were overrun by the enemy and hence neither their civilian friends nor the state governments could help them. For this reason they prayed Congress to establish in Charleston a credit, including some specie, against which they could draw for back pay owed to them, to meet their debts and buy “necessaries.” On behalf of the officers, this undated memorial was signed only by Colonel Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Brigadier General William Moultrie transmitted it to Congress with a covering letter dated 19 March 1781 (NA: PCC, No. 158, fols. 481, 485–87).

6The words “horrors” and “severe” were not exaggerations. In December 1780, in order to free a regiment from guard duty so that it could be sent as a reinforcement to Cornwallis’ army, Lieutenant Colonel Nisbet Balfour, the British commanding officer in Charleston, transferred many of the rank and file of the prisoners to damp, fetid, and overcrowded ships in the harbor (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, I, 307).

7When Greene was appointed to command the southern army, he expressed doubts about his authority to exchange prisoners of war. Thereupon, Congress on 30 October 1780 empowered him to “negotiate, from time to time, a cartel or exchange of prisoners, with the commanding officer of the British army in that department; provided such exchanges be not contrary to any general directions of Congress or the Commander in Chief” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XVIII, 996; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , V, 432–33). Mathews wrote Washington on 2 May 1781 that Greene had been directed to “take the most effectual measures to effect an exchange, as far as his powers extend, but it’s likely he will want some instructions from you” (ibid., VI, 77, 177). Early in May Greene and Cornwallis agreed upon an exchange of prisoners, and on the tenth of that month Greene sent to Congress a copy of the cartel (NA: PCC, No. 155, II, 67–69).

8In his letter of 10 May, mentioned in n. 7, Greene estimated that probably one-third of all Cornwallis’ rank and file had at one time been soldiers in the patriot army. Some of these were deserters. The others had been British prisoners of war who had donned the enemy’s uniform either to escape the hard conditions of captivity or to afford them an opportunity, through “desertion,” to rejoin the American forces. Following a suggestion from Lord Germain, at a loss to know how otherwise to replace the many British troops who had succumbed to illness in the West Indies, General Clinton asked Cornwallis in a letter of 5 March whether “many of the Prisoners … in Carolina might be induced to serve on board the King’s ships or in Privateers or enlist in the Regiments serving in the West Indies, or go as Volunteers upon Expeditions in that Quarter?” In a dispatch of 17 March Cornwallis assured Germain that, if the negotiations for an exchange of prisoners came to naught, he would adopt the West Indies suggestion the more eagerly because “the expence and inconvenience of keeping” the prisoners had become “intolerable” (Benjamin F. Stevens, ed., Campaign in Virginia, I, 332–33, 336, 354). By the terms of the cartel, mentioned in n. 7, Greene and Cornwallis each pledged not to ship prisoners from the North American mainland (NA: PCC, No. 172, fol. 140).

9In this copy of an extract of a letter of 30 March 1781 from Colonel Balfour (see n. 6) to General Moultrie, the writer warned, in view of the fact that the efforts to bring about a general exchange of prisoners had been unsuccessful, that he would carry out Cornwallis’ order to begin sending American captives to the West Indies on 15 April. Balfour also threatened “severe retaliation” against the patriot militia in his custody unless Brigadier General Francis Marion immediately stopped mistreating his captive Loyalist militia. The extract is in William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Referring to the prisoners who had been held in Charleston, the Pennsylvania Packet of 14 August 1781 commented, “It is a fact … that upwards of 500 American soldiers have been constrained by their sufferings to enlist in the British service, and are sent off to the West-Indies.”

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