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To George Washington from the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners, 15 December 1778

From the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners

Camp [Middlebrook, N.J.] Decr 15th 1778

Report of Lieutenant Colonels, Robert Hanson Harrison & Alexander Hamilton Commissioners &ca—To His Excellency General Washington—

We, the Commissioners appointed by Your Excellency for the purposes specified in the powers to us given on the 30th of November last—Beg leave to Report—

That in pursuance of Your instructions, we repaired to Amboy on Monday the 7th instant at 11 oClock; where we continued till friday evening the 11th before we were met by the Commissioners on the part of His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton, who had been detained ’till that time by impediments of Weather.

That the next day we had an interview with them on the business of our commission; in which they immediately objected to our powers, as not extending to the purposes they had in view—declared the object of our meeting had been misunderstood, and after a short conversation, put an end to the conference.

That their intention, as communicated to us, was—that the exchange of each of their Officers should necessarily involve the exchange of a certain number of their privates also; and consequently that the whole of our Officers, prisoners in their hands, should be exchanged for a part only of the Officers of the Convention troops, with a proportion of private men to discharge the balance in their favour; whereas the line of conduct prescribed to us, both by the resolution of Congress and your Excellency’s powers founded thereon was, “that Officers of equal rank should be first exchanged, after which if it should be necessary, an equivalent of inferior for superior Officers; and if agreably to that equivalent all the Officers of the Enemy should be exchanged, and a balance of prisoners remain in their hands, then an equivalent of privates was to be settled, according to the customary proportion or such proportion as might be agreed on”.

That the British Commissioners in the course of the conference having urged certain inconveniences, which in their opinion would result from the separation of all the Officers of the Convention troops from the men, by a general exchange, in order effectually to obviate that objection, we thought ourselves authorised by our instructions to make them an offer, which we accordingly made, to exchange whatever part of the Convention Officers, they might think proper for an equal number of our Officers in their possession of equal rank, as far as the relative state of numbers would permit. This proposal, however, they totally declined.

That after the interview, we received a Letter from the British Commissioners containing reasons, which they had before assigned verbally—for their refusal to conduct the negotiation on the terms proposed in our instructions; a copy of which letter and of our answer, we beg leave to subjoin for your Excellency’s perusal.1

This put an end to the business of our meeting and we have taken the earliest opportunity to return to Camp and report our proceedings to Your Excellency; which we hope will meet with your approbation.

Rob: H: Harrison

Alexr Hamilton

Copy, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; copy (extract), DNA: RG 360, Miscellaneous.

1The enclosed copy of a letter from the British commissioners, Col. Charles O’Hara and Col. West Hyde, dated at Amboy, N.J., on 12 Dec., reads: “We cannot sufficiently lament that the purposes of our meeting, you will pardon us for observing, have been defeated by a less Generous and Extensive construction of the Resolves of the Congress of the 19th Novr than the view in which We had considered them.

“Every feeling of Honour, Justice and Humanity make it impossible to acquiesce in a proposal, which might lead to Separate the Officers from the private Soldiers, by exchanging the former, and leaving the latter still in Captivity—Companions in their more fortunate hours, they must be equally Sharers of affliction. Such Cruel and Unprecedented distinctions, between Men who have equally a claim upon the favour & protection of their Country, We are certain your own feelings, as Officers & Men, would condemn—You will consequently not be surprised at the impossibility of our acquiescing in the partial mode of Exchange proposed.

“We beg leave therefore to acquaint You, that We intend returning to New York to morrow to make our Report to Sir Henry Clinton—Let Us flatter ourselves that some expedient may be immediately embraced by both Parties, upon Such Honourable, Humane & Disinterested Principles as may give the most speedy and Ample Relief to Every Order of Unfortunate Men concerned” (DLC:GW).

Harrison and Hamilton replied from Amboy on the same date: “We have read the Letter with which you were pleased to favour us this afternoon.

“We join with you in lamenting that the purpose of our meeting has been frustrated; and we assure you, that it is to us matter of equal concern and surprise to find, that there should be a difference in our respective constructions of the Resolve to which you refer. Persuaded as we were, that the terms of that Resolve were too simple and precise to admit of more than one interpretation; we did not even suspect it possible to differ about it’s meaning; and the Objects of our meeting having been delineated, in a manner which appeared to us perfectly clear & explicit, we had no expectation of the difficulty which has occurred in carrying them into execution.

“You will not be surprised that this should have been the case, when you recur to the circumstances that produced our meeting—We beg leave to recal them to your view. Sir Henry Clinton in his Letter of the 10th of Novr proposed to General Washington an exchange of our Officers prisoners in his hands for Officers & Men of the Convention troops—General Washington replied that he did not think himself authorised to accede to the proposal, but would refer it to Congress, and communicate their decision. In a subsequent letter of the 27th, he transmitted the Resolve in question as an ‘Answer—to the proposition contained in Sir Henry’s Letter of the 10th’; at the same time announcing our appointment as Commissioners ‘to negotiate an exchange on the principles therein mentioned’—The language of the Resolve was literally this—to exchange ‘the Officers in the service of the United States, prisoners in the actual possession of the Enemy or out on parole for the Officers and Men of the Troops of the Convention, according to their rank & number: Officers of equal rank to be first exchanged, after which, if it shall be necessary an equivalent of inferior for superior Officers, and if agreably to such equivalent All the Officers of the Enemy shall be exchanged and a balance of prisoners remain in their hands, then an Equivalent of privates shall be settled according to the customary proportion or such proportion as may be agreed on’. Sir Henry Clinton in his Letter of the 2d Instant acknowledged the receipt of the foregoing and consented ‘in consequence’ to a meeting of Commissioners as the time and place appointed.

“This, Gentlemen, You will be sensible could not be considered by us otherwise than as an acquiescence with the terms of the Resolve; and we appeal to your own candor for their perspicuity and natural import. It could not therefore but appear strange, that at first sight of our powers, without any comment or explanation, though they were expressed not only in the spirit but in the letter of the Resolve; You at once objected to them and declared the purpose of our meeting had been misunderstood. As the one was only a transcript of the other, we conceived from the manner in which the objection was raised, that it applied not to any construction given to the Resolve; but to the Resolve itself.

“How far the feelings of honor, justice and humanity may be repugnant to a compliance with the proposal which has been made, You only can determine for yourselves; though we think it a question which might have merited an earlier consideration. We believe however it is not very customary to exchange Officers for privates, when there is a sufficient number of Officers on both sides to exchange for each other; but that this is rather a secondary expedient, made use of only when there are Officers on one side and none on the other. In the present War the practice of exchanging Officers for private men, in any case whatever, has not yet been known; and if exchanges conducted without reference to this principle have heretofore been thought consistent with justice and humanity, we can perceive no sufficient reason why a different opinion should be entertained at this time.

“With respect to any inconveniences which you think might attend the exchanging all the Officers of the Convention troops—we take the liberty to repeat what we mentioned in our interview this morning—that we are willing to exchange as many of them as you may judge proper for Others of equal rank as far as numbers will extend.

“We beg leave to assure you, that we should be happy to be afforded an Opportunity of concurring with you to the utmost of our power in measures for extending relief, as far as the circumstances of the parties will permit, to every order of captivity, on principles of humanity and mutual advantage” (DLC:GW).

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