James Madison Papers
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To James Madison from William Jones, 18 August 1814

From William Jones

Navy Department Augt. 18. 1814


I have deemed it proper to submit to your inspection the enclosed letter from Commodore Bainbridge respecting the irregularity and serious evil arising from the loose and uncontroled manner in which communications by flags of truce with the ships of the enemy are conducted, and respectfully invite your attention to the subject with a view that some settled regulation may be adopted if you shall deem any such necessary.1

My attention has been frequently directed to this object by the representations of our Naval Officers who have better opportunities of noticing the abuses which are practised under the sanction of flags of truce, than those whose duty is on shore.

Last summer with the approbation of yourself and the Secretary of State I issued an order to the Commanding Naval Officer at Charleston S.C. (copy herewith enclosed) which I believe had a tendency to correct the abuse.2 On the 17th. June last the Secretary of State submitted to me the sketch of proposed instructions to the military Commanders, and asked my opinion, which you will find in the copy now enclosed,3 to which I will add the following. Where there is a Naval Commander in any port or Harbour in Europe the universal usage is to address all communications by marine flags to him and he has the exclusive direction and controul of the vessel or boat and crew by which the communications is made.

If the government has occasion to communicate with the Naval forces of the enemy it is invariably done through the Naval commander of the station.

A contrary practice in this country has led to much irregularity and evil and the humiliating circumstance of flags passing our Naval Commanders without their cognizance, has not passed without animadversion. The correct & obvious course is in my judgement that all communications with the military forces of the enemy should be under the exclusive direction of the military commanders—and all communications with the Naval forces of the enemy should be under the exclusive direction of the Naval Commanders. Even those from the Depmt of State would in my judgement be conducted to more advantage if its messenger was conveyed by a Boat officer & crew of the Navy.

Should a Naval Officer attempt to send a flag to the enemy through the camp or within the command of a military Officer, would not the flag be stopped? Are not the cases strictly analagous when flags by military authority pass daily through the squadrons or commands of our Naval Officers?

Were flags under the direction of Naval Officers I venture to affirm that such licentious intercourse as that recently held with the enemy by Mr Russell of Boston would not be permitted.4 I am very respectfully & Sincerely Sir your Obdt Servt.

W Jones

RC and enclosures (DLC); letterbook copy (DNA: RG 45, LSP). RC docketed by JM. Minor differences between the copies have not been noted. For enclosures, see nn. 1–3.

1Jones enclosed a 10 Aug. 1814 letter (2 pp.) to him from Capt. William Bainbridge, commander at the Charlestown Navy Yard, asking who was authorized to sanction flags of truce for communications with British navy ships. He noted that flags were routinely granted in that area “without the least reference to the naval commanding officer of the station” (DNA: RG 45, Captains’ Letters).

2The enclosed copy was of Jones’s 8 Nov. 1813 instructions (2 pp.) to Capt. John H. Dent, stating that “no officer or person in authority civil or military except the Commanding military General, or the commanding Naval officer, has any authority, under any pretext whatever, to have any communication with the Enemy.” No one other than necessary army or navy officers and crew was to be permitted in flag vessels, written messages to or from the British must be inspected and sealed by the commanding army or navy officer, and any other person attempting to communicate with the British was to be arrested.

3The enclosed copy of Jones’s 17 June 1814 reply (2 pp.) to James Monroe’s proposal to give army commanders “exclusive controul” over communications with British ships stated that commanding naval officers would not submit to such an arrangement, and that such intercourse ought actually to be directed by the naval commanders. The navy was better able than the army to prevent illicit interaction with British ships, Jones argued, and there was a high-ranking officer to carry out such duties at every major naval station.

4Jones referred to a mid-July 1814 foray from Boston Harbor to the British ship Nymphe, then in Provincetown Bay, undertaken without official permission by Benjamin Russell, editor of the Federalist Boston Columbian Centinel, and several associates. Once on board, Russell persuaded the British to release his relative, William R. Russell of Salem, along with several other local citizens held prisoner on the ship. The Americans also reportedly paid a $100 ransom for a captured vessel and provided the British with information on U.S. military and diplomatic topics (Boston Patriot, 13 July 1814; Massachusetts Dedham Gazette, 15 July 1814; Baltimore Patriot & Evening Advertiser, 18 July 1814).

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