George Washington Papers

From George Washington to General William Howe, 13 January 1777

To General William Howe

Head Quarters Morris town 13 Jany 1777


I am directed by Congress to propose an Exchange of five of the Hessian Feild Officers taken at Trenton for Major General Lee, or if this proposal should not be acceded to, to demand his Liberty upon Parole, within certain Bounds, as has ever been granted to your Officers in our Custody.1 I am informed from good Authority that your Reason for keeping him hitherto in stricter confinement than usual, is that you do not look upon him in the light of a common prisoner of War, but as a deserter from the British Service, as his Resignation was never accepted of, and that you intend to try him by a Court Martial as such. I will not undertake to determine, how far this Doctrine may be justifiable among yourselves, but I must give you warning that Major General Lee is looked upon as an Officer belonging to and under the protection of the united independant States of America & that any Violence which you may commit upon his Life or Liberty will be severely retaliated upon the Lives or Liberties of the British Officers or those of their Foreign Allies at present in our hands.

I am sorry that I am again under the Necessity of remonstrating to you upon the Treatment which our prisoners continue to recieve in New York. Those who have lately been sent out, give the most shocking Accounts of their barbarous Usage, which their miserable emaciated Countenances confirm.2 How very different was their Appearance from that of your Soldiers who have lately been returned to you after a Captivity, of twelve Months And whether this difference in Appearance was owing to a difference of treatment I leave it to you or any impartial person to determine. I would beg that some certain Rule of Conduct towards prisoners may be settled, if you are determined to make Captivity as distressing as possible to those whose lot it is to fall into it, let me know it that we may be upon equal terms For your Conduct must and shall mark mine.3

If a real scarcity of the Articles of provision and fuel at this inclement Season is the Cause that our prisoners are debarred them, common humanity points out a mode, which is of suffering them to go home under parole not to serve during the War or until an equal Number are released by us for them.

Most of the prisoners who have returned home have informed me that they were offered better treatment provided they would enlist into your Service. This I believe is unprecedented, and what if true, makes it still more unnecessary for me to apologize for the freedom of Expression which I have used throughout this letter. But it would be criminal [in] me to be silent were such abuses, when made known to me, left unrepresented by me. I am with due Respect Sir yr very hble Servt.

Df, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DLC:GW; two copies, P.R.O., 30/55, Carleton Papers; copy, enclosed in GW to Hancock, 14 Jan. 1777, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, in John Laurens’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; copy, MHi: Miscellaneous Collections; copy (extract), M-Ar: Revolution Letters; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The text in square brackets is supplied from the Varick transcript.

William Howe ranked as a general only in America from 1 Jan. 1776. His permanent rank in the British army at this time was major general, which he had received on 25 May 1772. He was promoted to lieutenant general in the army on 29 Aug. 1777.

GW enclosed a copy of a deathbed affidavit given on 9 Jan. 1777 by Lt. Bartholomew Yates of the 1st Virginia Regiment recounting the brutal treatment Yates received at the hands of his British captors at the Battle of Princeton on 3 January. The actual enclosure has not been identified but copies of it are in DNA:PCC, item 53, and P.R.O., 30/55, Carleton Papers. The affidavit, attested to by Benjamin Rush and Anthony W. White, says that a “British Soldier came up to him [Yates] & Said to him ‘ah damn you, are you there.’ and Snapt his Musquet at him. Upon which Mr. Yates begged for Quarters, the Soldier loaded his Musquet deliberately and Shot him thro’ the Breast, and afterwards Stabed him in thirteen Places with his Bayonet. Some time after this the Same or another Soldier came up to him, who perceiving Some Signs of Life in him, [beat Yates] with the Club of his Musquet. Mr Yates is since dead of his Wounds” (P.R.O., 30/55, Carleton Papers). A similar version of Yates’s death appeared in both Purdie’s and Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette on 31 Jan. and was reprinted in the Connecticut Courant, and Hartford Weekly Intelligencer on 3 Mar. 1777.

1For Congress’s resolutions of 2 and 6 Jan. concerning the exchange of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee for the Hessian officers, see Hancock to Gw, 6–7 Jan. 1777 (see also JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 7:10, 16). The sixth officer, Hessian brigade commander Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall, died the day following the Battle of Trenton (see GW to Hancock, 12 Jan. 1777).

2For the background of American grievances about the treatment of American prisoners of war held on board British prison ships, see the Continental Congress Executive Committee’s second letter to GW of 9 Jan., and GW’s reply to the committee, 12 January.

3The draft contains additional text that has been struck out: “You might have thought it arragant in me to have talked at this Rate some little time ago, but the Chance of war has lately put it into my power to retaliate most severily upon those.”

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