George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Pierre Van Cortlandt, 2 December 1776

From Pierre Van Cortlandt

[Fishkill, N.Y., c.2 December 1776]

Sir—Agreeable to the directions of the Committee of Safety, I do myself the honour to send your Excellency the enclosed resolutions, and to assure you that it is with extreme pain that they find themselves under the necessity of passing them.1 The singular wantonness and cruelty of the persons concerned in burning the public and private buildings at the White Plains, which even a barbarous enemy had left uninjured, has excited a general indignation, and made many careless about the event of our cause who may have reason to apprehend as great evils from the licentiousness of their friends, as from the hostilities of the enemy.

Other complaints have been offered against the rapine of the soldiers, who are accused of plundering a people, who from the unavoidable miseries of war would, when most tenderly treated, be objects of compassion.

The committee are too well satisfied of your Excellency’s benevolence and justice to think that any thing of this kind which comes to your knowledge, will escape the punishment which you are empowered to inflict, but which unhappily is, in many cases, far short of what the crime merits. To this they impute the frequency of offences, and have therefore troubled your Excellency with the request that you will be pleased to concur with them in representing to the Honourable the Congress, the necessity of making it capital for any officer or soldier to pillage the inhabitants, or without your Excellency’s command to ravage the country which they can with pleasure declare they have the highest reason to believe will never be given, but when the interest of the community should require it.2 To this they flatter themselves, their past resolutions have shown that they are not unwilling to venture every proper sacrifice—in the mean time, think it their duty to declare that the presence of the army does not supersede the laws of the country, and pray your Excellency’s assistance in enabling them to execute them upon those who are immediately under your command. I have the honr. to be, &c.

N.Y. Prov. Congress Journals description begins Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety, and Council of Safety of the State of New-York, 1775–1776–1777. 2 vols. Albany, 1842. (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records). description ends , 1:729. The New York committee of safety on 2 Dec. read, approved, and ordered to be engrossed this draft of a letter to GW, which Robert R. Livingston had prepared earlier in the day at the direction of the committee of safety (ibid.).

1The committee of safety resolved on this date: “Whereas this Committee have been informed that sundry of the inhabitants of this State have been unjustly plundered of their property by the troops of the Continental army; and that the public and private buildings at the White Plains, in the county of Westchester, have been wantonly and wickedly burned by, as this Convention are informed, an officer and a party under his command, without orders from his superior officer: Therefore, Resolved, first, That the laws of the country are not suspended or superseded by the military code or the presence of the army. Second, That in all cases where both the party offending and the party injured are not enlisted in the Continental army, that the offenders are amendable to the laws of the country. Third, That by the laws of this State, the burning of dwelling houses is felony without the benefit of the clergy and punishable with death. Fourth, That a letter be written to General Washington, requesting that the officer directing the burning of the court house and dwelling houses at the White Plains, be delivered to this Committee or the Convention of this State, in order to his being tried by the laws of the State, and if guilty, punished thereby. Fifth, That the Honourable Continental Congress be informed of these resolutions and requested to make such alterations in the military law, as more effectually to prevent the robbery and plunder of the inhabitants of those States in which the armies are, and to General Washington, asking his concurrence in such request. Sixth, That this State will make every sacrifice necessary for the safety of the general cause of America. At the same time, that they will use their utmost endeavours to repress any wanton or needless destruction of their country or violation of the rights of its inhabitants” (ibid.). For the court-martials that tried Maj. Jonathan Williams Austin for his role in the burning of White Plains on the evening of 5 Nov., see General Orders, 8 Nov., and note 1, and Charles Lee to GW, 12 Nov., and note 3.

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