James Madison Papers

Report on German Prisoners of War, [5 June] 1782

Report on German Prisoners of War

MS (NA: PCC, No. 28, fols. 67, 75–76). The report and the words, “Rept. of Committee on the German Prisoners,” written parallel with the right-hand margin of the cover, are in JM’s hand. The cover also bears the docket, not by JM: “Report of Comee. respectg. german prisoners Debated May 15. 1782. June 5. 1782. Referred, except the last clause, to the Comr. in chief Secry at War and Super. finance to take Order, any resolution to the contrary notwithstandg. The last clause referred to the Superintendt. of finance & Secy at War to take Order so soon as order is taken on the former part.”

Editorial Note

In a letter of 27 April 1782 to the secretary at war, Washington reported that “not a single recruit has arrived, (to my knowledge), from any State except Rhode Island, in consequence of the Requisitions of Congress in December last.” This alarming fact and the enemy’s failure to provide money for the support of prisoners in American hands led him to recommend as “highly expedient that measures should be adopted, at this moment, for taking the German Prisoners of War into our Service.” In Washington’s opinion the German captives would “make exceedingly cheap & valuable Recruits, and being able-bodied & disciplined Men will give a Strength & solidity to our Regts. which they will not otherwise acquire this Campaign” (NA: PCC, 149, I, 309–11).

Washington’s proposal was also supported by precedent. Influenced in part by a determination to retaliate against the enemy’s effort to entice “our troops to desert our service,” Congress as early as 14 and 27 August 1776 offered all “Hessians and other foreigners” who would “quit the British service” a land bounty of between fifty and one thousand acres, depending upon the rank of the deserter, and the opportunity to become a citizen of “any of these states” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , V, 653–54, 707–8). Congress also had adopted Washington’s proposal of 9 August 1778 by permitting Pulaski’s Partisan Corps and Armand’s Legion to enlist German prisoners as well as deserters from the British army (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XII, 305; XIII, 357; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , X, 291; XI, 642–44; Harrison to Virginia Delegates, 11 January, n. 5; Virginia Delegates to Harrison, 4 June 1782, n. 8).

The committee, under Elias Boudinot’s chairmanship, to which Congress on 4 May had referred Washington’s letter of 27 April, framed its recommendations of 15 May 1782 in consultation with Morris and Lincoln. The preface of the report mentioned the enemy’s practice of being cruel to American prisoners “with an apparent design of forcing them” to enlist under the British flag, the “considerable number of the German Prisoners” who had “expressed an earnest desire” to serve in the American army or “to become citizens of these states,” and the commander-in-chief’s highly satisfactory experience with those German captives who had been formed into a separate corps. For these reasons the committee advised Congress to adopt Washington’s proposal by directing Lincoln, in concert with Morris, to offer the German captives a three-years’ term of service in the continental army in exchange for their release from internment, a money and land bounty, wages, and the probability of acquiring citizenship, “provided that they do not act contrary to the Laws of any State in which such prisoners may become free Citizens.” On 15 May, after amending these proposals, Congress referred them to John Morin Scott, JM, and John Rutledge (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 274–76, 276, n. 1). Although the amendments appear not to be extant, their general tenor probably is indicated by the differences between the reports of the two committees.

[5 June 1782]

Whereas the events of war have put into the possession of these U. S. great numbers of prisoners taken at different periods in the service of the King of G.B.1

And whereas the British Commander in cheif2 hath3 not as yet concurred in any measures either for liquidateg & dischargeg4 the arrears due to the U. S. for the past subsistance of the sd. prisoners5 or providing for their future subsistance: And Whereas a considerable proportion of the said Prisoners consists of Germans by nation, many of whom from a dislike to the service into which they have been involuntarily hired, and from a prospect of amending their condition, have expressed a desire of entering some of them into the military service of the U. S. and others into a reasonable period of common service,6 with a view of eventually becoming Citizens & settlers within the said States: And Whereas the indulgence of the said Prisoners in their respective desires will tend to counteract the unjust & cruel designs of the Enemy and to aid the States in filling up the quotas of troops respectively required of them.7

Resolved (See paper annexed. A.—8

The Committee to whom was referred the report relative the German prisoners &. submit the following resolutions9


That the Secretary at War be authorised & directed to take immediate measures for enlisting into the Army of the U. S. for the term of 3 years or of the War, at the option of the party enlisting, so many of the German prisoners of War to the said U. S.10 as shall voluntarily agree thereto, and take the oath of fidelity prescribed by the Articles of war:11

That the said Secretary be authorised to allow to each recruit so enlisted a bounty of Eight12 Dollars to be advanced from time to time on his application by the Superintendant of Finance; and to stipulate in behalf of the U. States, to all such recruits the same pay & other provisions and on the like conditions, as13 have been stipulated to other Soldiers enlisted for the same terms into the service of the U. S.

That all recruits so enlisted be placed by the said Secretary to the credit of the several States in proportion to the quotas of troops respectively required of them by Congress; in the same manner as if the recruits had been raised by & received from them in pursuance of such requisition.

That the said recruits as fast as they shall be enlisted shall be marched to such place as the Commander in chief shall direct; and shall be arranged in the army in such manner as he shall judge most conducive to the public Service.

That the Superintendt. of Finance & Secrety. at War take order for disposing of the services of such of the said Prisoners as shall desire it for such period14 as they shall deem reasonable not exceeding three years, and on such conditions as will secure to the same, a comfortable15 maintenance and be most conducive to the public interest.16

1After these initials, the words “of which it appears by authentic returns that there now remain in captivity” were deleted.

2General Sir Guy Carleton.

3Following this word, “refused as well” was deleted, and “not as yet concurred in any measures either” was interlineated.

4The odd spelling resulted when JM replaced “to” with “for,” and then added only a “g” to each infinitive.

5After “prisoners” JM at first wrote “as to make the necessary provision.” He then crossed out the first five of these words, interlineated “or,” and altered the sixth word to “providing.”

6This clause, with its word “common” probably connoting “public,” replaces the Boudinot committee’s “hiring themselves out to the Inhabitants for a temporary service” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 275). JM may also have wished to suggest “indenturing” as well as “hiring.” For what was deemed “a reasonable period,” see the final paragraph of text.

7Preceding “States,” “respective” was crossed out. JM originally wrote “fulfilling” rather than “filling up.” In a letter of 27 April (see editorial note), Washington had recommended that, since the Germans who entered the service might eventually be concentrated into a separate corps, they “ought to be recruited for the Continent and not carried to the credit of the States quotas.”

8The resolutions were written on a separate page. In the upper right-hand margin is the notation “paper A.,” not in JM’s hand.

9This introductory sentence, written by JM, is clearly superfluous and does not appear in the printed journal. The committee also decided to leave the opening paragraph as it was written. Lined out in the journal and deleted with an ink cross in the manuscript is the following paragraph, also in JM’s hand:

“It being represented to Congress that a number of the Germans prisoners of war to the U. S. are desirous of becoming Citizens of the said States, and are moreover willing, on condition of being provided with future settlements in this Country, to aid in its defence by entering into the Military service of the U. S; and it being expedient that such enlistmen[ts] should be made with as little delay as possible & in such mode as will secure to the respective States a due proportion of the benefit thereof—.”

10Following “U. S.,” the words “not exceeding” are deleted.

11JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , V, 790.

12Obviously an insert, this figure may have been added after the committee reported to Congress.

13JM substituted the next three words for a deleted “were allowed.”

14This word replaced a deleted “time.”

15JM originally wrote “proper” rather than “comfortable.”

16This paragraph clarifies the meaning of “reasonable period of common service” in the second paragraph of this report. See n. 6, above.

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