James Madison Papers

Report on Fish and Fuel for Naval Prisoners, [1 July] 1782

Report on Fish and Fuel for Naval Prisoners

MS (NA: PCC, No. 27, fols. 169–70). Written by JM and docketed by him: “Report on the Letter from the Secy at War respecting a supply to the Minine [Marine] prisoners of fish & fuel.” A second docket in an unknown hand reads: “Report of Mr Madison Mr Lowell Mr Scott Mr Wharton Mr Witherspoon On Report of Secy at War June 28h. 1782. Passed July 1st. 1782.”

[1 July 1782]

The Committee to whom was referred the letter of the 28 of June from the Secretary at war, with an extract of a letter from the Commissary of Prisoners1 report that the said extract be referred to the Commander in chief, and that he be authorised to take2 order thereon3 so far as he shall judge the indulgences applied for can be guarded from abuses;4

1On 12 June 1782 Abraham Skinner (d. 1826) of Pennsylvania, commissary general of prisoners, had written from Newburgh, N.Y., to Benjamin Lincoln, secretary at war, stating that the British commissary of prisoners at New York City favored permitting groups of American seamen held captive within his jurisdiction to supplement their meager supply of fresh food by fishing under guard in the waters near Sandy Hook. The British commissary also sought to buy wood within the American lines solely for use as fuel by American prisoners. If this were permitted, their supply of wood probably would be larger, for its price was much higher within the British perimeter. Reminding Lincoln of the deplorable condition of these men and of the slight likelihood of their exchange, because very few enemy seamen were held captive by the American army, Skinner strongly supported the proposals of his British counterpart (NA: PCC, No. 149, I, 433–35). In his letter of 28 June to Congress, Lincoln endorsed Skinner’s recommendations and suggested that Washington “be directed to take order in the matter” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 360). For the appalling conditions aboard British prison ships in New York Harbor, see Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Father Knickerbocker Rebels, pp. 165–71.

2After this word, JM wrote “such” and then partially erased it.

3Following “thereon,” JM deleted “as he shall.”

4After “abuses,” the words “particularly from a commercial intercourse with the Enemy” were deleted, either by the committee or by an amendment in Congress. Although Washington was “willing to allow the indulgence of Fishing Boats for the use of the marine prisoners, if no abuses are made of such indulgence,” he refused to agree to the proposal about fuel. In his view, whatever amount of wood was needed by the prisoners could be sent to them under passports from the British (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 , XXV, 197, n. 1, 417–18).

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