George Washington Papers
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From George Washington to William Livingston, 12 April 1779

To William Livingston

Head Quarters [Middlebrook] 12th April 1779.

Dear Sir

A writ having been served upon an Officer of the Maryland line by one Dickinson for impressing a small quantity of Forage by order of Lieut. Colo. Adams, he drew up the inclosed state, to shew me the necessity which he was under of having recourse to that method of procuring the Forage and the offers which he afterwards made to satisfy the owner.1 I confess it is extremely difficult to draw a line and leave any thing to the discretion of an Officer where a positive law exists; but there are cases, in which it is almost impossible for an Officer to go thro’ all the forms required; and if Colo. Adams’s representation is to be relied on, his situation was of that kind. The Officers complain that there is too general a disposition, to refuse Forage, prevailing among the Inhabitants, and they think it extremely hard to be subjected to the expence and trouble of civil suits when the exigencies of the service absolutely oblige them to impress by their own authority. I make no doubt but they may sometimes exert their power in an unjustifiable manner, but it may also be presumed that the inhabitants may be in their turn to blame—by obstinately refusing to part with what they can spare unless regularly compelled.

I am determined upon my part ever to discountenance and check any thing that looks like a wanton and unnecessary violation of the law by the Military, and it is to be wished that the Gentlemen in the Civil departments would, upon applications being made to them for redress, endeavour to investigate the causes of complaint, and if the Officers appear to have really acted upon the necessity of the case, advise an amicable compromise, rather than a suit. I have the honor &.

Df, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1A nineteenth-century copy by William B. Sprague of Lt. Col. Peter Adams’s representation to GW is dated 25 May, but the original, a copy of which GW apparently enclosed in this letter to Livingston, probably was dated c.12 April. The Sprague copy reads: “At the request of Lieut. Skinner I have drawn up a statement of facts relative to his impressing forage for Teams hauling the ⟨illegible⟩ & baggage of a detachment of Troops on their march from Fish-kill to this place under my command—to wit.

“On the seventeenth day of the month ⟨assd⟩, after marching near twenty miles across the mountains, we halted at a place called Suckesunny where I was informed the Quarter Master General had placed a person to procure forage for the Troops who were marching thro’ that part of the country to Middle Brook, to whom I directed Mr Skinner (who I had appointed to act as Quarter Master to the detachment) to apply he was told there was no public grain there, as Gen. Smallwoods brigade had marched thro’ there the day before & had taken all he was able to procure, in any short distance of that place, it was at that time late in the evening & it would be impossible for him to spare any before the evening of the next day, at the same time acquainted Mr Skinner that there was a Mr Dickinson, just in our rear, who had grain in his mill, but would not spare any. Mr Skinner apply’d to me for directions. I ordered him to apply to Mr Dickinson for the grain, & to receipt with him for the quantity, & I would counter sign it in the morning—Mr Dickinson refused to spare any part of the grain—I then ordered him to impress as much as he judged would be sufficient for that night & the next morning, the Teams not having had any for two days before. Mr Skinner impressed 6 or 7 bushels for which Dickinson refused to take a receipt, I informed Mr Dickinson, that if he wanted the grain that I would give him an order on the forage-master who was present, to replace the like quantity we had taken, who assured him he would in two or three days. I also told Mr Dickinson that if he would send his cart to Morristown I would there procure as much grain as we had taken, & make him ample satisfaction for his trouble (the distance was 12 miles) he gave me for answer, no, that he thought himself insulted, & that I had made an infringement on the laws of the state, which subjected the offender to pay damages to the amount of forty or fifty pounds, which he was determined to have, & refused to compromise the matter otherwise than by a course of Law.

“There, Sir, are a true state of the facts for which Lieut. Skinner has subjected himself to have a civil process served on him, & to be kept in the custody of the Sheriff these six weeks, & obliged in order to extricate himself to pay 50 pounds fine, & 6 pounds Cash of Suit.

“These are Cases that are exceedingly alarming. I having had the command of the detachment thought myself obliged to take all possible care, & to make all necessary provision for them—Mr Skinner’s conduct is highly commendable—as the necessity of the case justifies the measure in its fullest extent, he acted in conformity with my order issued for that purpose—In doing of which I thought I was serving my country, & injuring no individual, however contrary to the laws of this State.

“The situation of our Officers are truly humiliating, they in doing their duty as Military Officers are subjecting themselves to a civil process in the State thro’ which they may happen to pass.

“And for not doing this duty as such are arraigned before a military tribunal, & there to undergo a painful trial, & is condemned, & discharged from a service wherein they in doing their duty can acquir no honor.

“You’ll pardon me my dear Sir, for this little digression or giving my opinion in a matter unasked, my conduct seems to be call’d in question—Mr Skinner acted under my direction & my orders as commanding officer was sufficient to have exculpated him from the penalties of the law, or any imputation of having made any infringement on the line of civil authority, or usurped a power to act beyond the line of his duty” (DLC:GW).

For details of the accusations by Jonathan Dickerson against Lt. James John Skinner and Lt. Col. Peter Adams, see Livingston to GW, 18 Feb., and n.3 to that document. See also Livingston’s reply to GW of this date.

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