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From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 25 December 1779

To Samuel Huntington

Head Quarters Morristown 25th Decr 1779.

Sir

I have the honor to lay before your Excellency the representation of a certain Elizabeth Burgin late an inhabitant of New-York.1 From the testimony of different persons, and particularly many of our own officers who have returned from captivity, it would appear, that she has been indefatigable, for the relief of the prisoners, and in measures for facilitating their escape.2 In consequence of this conduct she incurred the suspicions of the enemy, and was finally compelled to make her escape, under the distressed circumstances which she describes. I could not forbear recommending to consideration a person who has risqued so much, and been so friendly to our officers and privates, especially as to this we must attribute her present situation.

From the sense I entertained of her services and sufferings, I have ventured to take the liberty of directing the commissary at Philadelphia to furnish her and her children with rations till the pleasure of Congress could be known.3 Congress will judge of its justice and propriety, and how much she may be intitled to further notice. I have the honor to be with the greatest respect Your Excellency’s most obt servt

Go: Washington

LS, in James McHenry’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 148; copy, DNA:PCC, item 152; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read GW’s letter on 31 Dec. and referred it and its enclosure to the Board of War (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 15:1424).

1See Elizabeth Burgin to James Caldwell, 19 Nov., printed as an enclosure to this letter.

Elizabeth Burgin (Bergen) apparently resided in New York City and was widowed prior to 1779. She left her home to avoid being taken into custody by British authorities who sought her for helping American prisoners escape. After spending some weeks in Elizabeth, N.J., while attempting to get her children and possessions from New York, Burgin went to Philadelphia shortly before GW’s appeal on her behalf.

Described in a report as “a person of good character and worthy of Credit,” Burgin provided testimony that informed the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council at its meeting on 23 Dec. about “officers lately serving at Elizabeth Town, in the State of New Jersey,” notably Col. Silvanus Seely, who had traded illegally “with the Enemy” (Pa. Col. Records, description begins Colonial Records of Pennsylvania. 16 vols. Harrisburg, 1840–53. description ends 12:206–7; see also Seely to GW, 11 Nov., n.6). Joseph Reed, president of the council, wrote New Jersey governor William Livingston on 24 Dec. seeking details on the alleged illegal activities (see Prince, Livingston Papers, description begins Carl E. Prince et al., eds. The Papers of William Livingston. 5 vols. Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J., 1979–88. description ends 3:281–82). In his reply to Reed on 28 Dec., Livingston expressed his intention “to develope the Mystery” because the accused had not explained their actions to his “Satisfaction” (Prince, Livingston Papers, description begins Carl E. Prince et al., eds. The Papers of William Livingston. 5 vols. Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J., 1979–88. description ends 3:284–85).

Burgin wrote GW from Philadelphia on 16 March 1780 to thank him for his assistance and to express a desire to find “Some Way of Buiseness” to support her family “Without Being Chargeable to Congress” (DLC:GW). A similar desire motivated a petition from Burgin to Congress written at Philadelphia on 2 July 1781: “The Petition of Elizabeth Burgin, Humbly Sheweth, That your Petitioner was a residenter of New York, where she possessed every thing comfortable about her, till the Summer 1779—When she was rendered so Obnoxious to the British Commanders, by her Exertions in the Service of the American Prisoners there, that she was at first—under the Necessity of concealing herself, & afterwards of flying in disguise to the People, an Attachment to whose cause, had reduced her to a Situation, so Unsuitable to her Sex & Age—What those Exertions are the Services she rendered her Country were, she leaves to be told by others: Mr. Franklin & General McDougall are not unacquinted with them, & His Excellency General Washington was sencible of them—that he addressed Congress in her Favour, and at the same Time gave her an Order to draw Rations for herself & three small Children, till the pleasure of Congress was known—The Letter was referred to the Board of War, who kindly permited her to Occupy part of the House where the Office is kept, & have in some other respects assisted her, but her chief Dependance being on getting her rations, Which from the scarcity of Provisions, she could not at all times obtain, she was often obliged to sell part of what little property she had left to remove the Misiry and Want of her hapless Family—As she wishes not to be Troublesome or expensive to the United States, she humbly conceives if the Hnbl. Congress would be pleased to direct her full Employment in cutting out the Linnen into Shirts, purch’d in this City for the Army, it would afford her a Maintainance, untill a happy change of Affairs will permit her to return with safety to her Native place” (DNA:PCC, item 42). Congress received Burgin’s petition on 3 July and referred it to the Board of War (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 20:718).

Congress subsequently read on 10 Aug. a report from the Board of War of the same date: “Mrs Elizabeth Bergen has applied to the Board for directions to the Town Major to furnish her with rations agreeable to the order of the Commander in Chief. This request the Board think it improper to comply with as the contract for provisions at this Post does not comprehend persons of this description. The Board however think something ought to be done for her relief, and her three children who are in a distressed situation, as it appears she has to the utmost of her abilities assisted the American officers prisoners in New York, not only with necessaries, but the means of making their escapes. The Board are of opinion twenty pounds hard money a year during the pleasure of Congress would be proper” (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 21:850). Congress referred this report to a three-member committee (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 21:851). That committee reported on 24 Aug. to Congress, which adopted a resolution on the same date that provided Burgin “by quarterly payments, the sum of fifty-three dollars and one-third of a dollar per annum, from the 13 day of July 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 21:908). Burgin received a pension from Congress at least through 1787.

2A letter from Capt. Robert Campble to Burgin, dated 15 Sept., supports GW’s contention. That letter reads: “I last evening took an oppertunity of waiting upon Mr Mattlock, Informed him of your Circumstances & particularly in the manner & for What you Was Oblidged to Leave new york also Informd him that you Intended makeing Application for a flag, From my Representation of your Character your polite & humane Conduct to the American prisoners in General & one in particular, He has promised to pay particular attention to your application & Grant you any thing in his power, if possible I shall wait upon you this evining & depend a Stone shall not be Left unturned by me to procure any thing you may want” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

3GW’s assistant secretary James McHenry wrote Burgin from Morristown on this date: “I am directed by his Excellency the General to inclose you his order on the commissary of Provisions at Philadelphia for rations for yourself and children. The General extremely regrets your situation and has written Congress in your favor, mentioning particularly your services and sufferings” (DNA:PCC, item 148). The enclosed order for rations has not been identified. Timothy Matlack, secretary of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council, wrote Reed from Morristown on 27 Dec., presumably in reference to McHenry’s letter to Burgin: “The enclosed letter for Mrs. Burgin is from Head Quarters, and contains an order for provisions to be delivered to her.

“His Excellency, Gen. Washington, has thought it proper to pay her this attention, and I must beg you will send Jimmy or Sneider with the Letter to her.

“No News this morning, but a Free Mason Procession intended this day, will probably delay the Court Martial” (Pa. Archives, description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends 1st ser., 8:60–61). For Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s court-martial, see GW to Reed, 4 Dec., and the notes to that document.

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