George Washington Papers

From George Washington to General William Howe, 14–15 November 1777

To General William Howe

Head Qurs [Whitemarsh, Pa.] Novr 14[–15]th 1777


I am sorry to find by the tenor of your Letter of the 6th Instant, that we still unhappily differ in our ideas of those just & reasonable terms upon which a general Exchange of prisoners might take place and that an event so desireable is probably yet at a distance. This being the case, that releif to the unhappy, where it is practicable, may as long be delayed, I am induced to accede to your proposition made through Lt Colo. Frazer “That the Officers, who are prisoners of War on both sides should be released, and have liberty to return among their Friends on parole.”1 I shall expect your Answer as soon as possible upon this subject, after which I shall immediately give the necessary Orders for the return of your Officers to such places as you appoint. At the same time I wish, that their exchange may appear to you, as it does to me, the more eligible Mode of release. Notwithstanding what I have said, if the interpretation I have given your Letter does not correspond with your own meaning, and you are disposed to proceed to an Exchange of All the prisoners in your possession for an equal number of those in my hands, without regard to the dispute subsisting between us, I shall be happy to adopt the measure. I therefore request an explanation of the Third paragraph of your Letter where you say “Those at present Prisoners with me are ready to be delivered on the shortest notice and it rests solely with you to justify me in doing it.”

In respect to the charge against Mr Boudinot the inclosed paper will shew he has not failed to represent to Mr Loring the wants of the prisoners in our hands.2 That these may be supplied, I shall upon your application grant passports to such persons (not above the rank of Regimental Quarter Masters) as you may send out with Necessaries for them.

You call upon me to redress the Grievances of several of your Officers and Men, who you are pleased to say “you are well informed are most injuriously & unjustifiably loaded with Irons.” If there is a single instance of a prisoner of War being in Irons, I am ignorant of it, nor can I find on the most minute inquiry, that there is the least foundation for the charge. On the contrary, I have every reason to beleive that your Officers and Men who are prisoners with us, are experiencing a very different Treatment. I wish you to particularize the cases you allude to, that releif may be had if the complaints are well founded, and the character & conduct of the persons shall not forbid it.

Now we are upon the subject of greivances, I am constrained to observe, that I have a variety of Accounts, not only from prisoners who have made their escape, but from persons who have left philadelphia, that our private Soldiers in your hands are treated in a manner shocking to humanity; and that many of them must have perished through hunger had it not been for the charitable contributions of the Inhabitants. It is added in aggravation, that this treatment is to oblige them to inlist in the Corps you are raising. The Friends of these unhappy men call daily upon me for their releif, and the people at large insist on retaliating upon those in our possession. Justice demands it. However before I would proceed to a measure my feelings recoil at I thought it right to mention the facts to you, and I would propose, that I may be allowed to send a suitable person into the City, under the usual restrictions, to examine into the truth of them. I must also remonstrate against the maltreatment & confinement of Our Officers. This I am informed is not only the case of those in philadelphia, but of many in New York. Whatever plausible pretences may be urged to authorize the condition of the Former, It is certain but few circumstances can arise to justify that of the latter. I appeal to you to redress these several wrongs, and you will remember whatever hardships the prisoners with us may be subjected to, will be chargeable on you. At the same time it is but justice to observe, that many of the cruelties exercised towards prisoners, are said to proceed from the inhumanity of Mr Cunningham provost Martial, without your knowledge or approbation.3 I am Sir with due respect Yr Most Obedt Servt

G. Washington

P.S. Just as I was about to close my Letter, Two persons Men of Reputation came from Philadelphia. I transmit you their Depositions respecting the treatment they received while they were your prisoners.4 I will not comment upon the subject. It is too painful.

Df, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in GW to Henry Laurens, 23 Nov., DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; copy, ICHi; two copies, P.R.O., 30/55, Carleton Papers; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. On 1 Dec. Congress referred this letter to the Board of War, which on 6 Dec. Congress referred this letter to the Board of War, which on 6 Dec. reported on GW’s correspondence with Howe about prisoners (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 , 9:970, 983, 1006–8). Since GW enclosed with this letter a copy of a deposition dated 15 Nov., it apparently was not completed until that date (see n.4).

1Although this quotation from Persifor Frazer’s letter to GW of 9 Oct. is not exact in regard to wording, it is true to the substance of what Frazer wrote.

3William Cunningham came to New York from Ireland in 1774. During the early stages of the Revolutionary War, Cunningham fled to Boston, where General Gage appointed him provost marshal. Moving with the army to New York, he remained provost marshal at that city until the war’s end. Cunningham returned to England after the war, where he was rumored to have been executed for forgery in August 1792 (see “The Life, Confession, and Last Dying Words of Capt. William Cunningham . . .” in American Apollo, 1 [1792], pt. 2, 68–69; see also the Virginia Gazette and Alexandria Advertiser, 9 Feb. 1792).

4GW enclosed a copy of a deposition of Joseph Cloyd and William Dewees, Jr., dated 15 Nov., which reads: “Be it remember’d that on the fifteenth day of Novr A.D. 1777 personally appear’d before me Thomas Wharton Esqr. President of the state of Pensylvania Joseph Cloyd of full Age who being duly Sworn on the Holy Evangels of Almighty God deposeth and saith, that he was taken Prisoner in Company with William Dewees Junior on friday the 24th day of Octor last on the Ridge Road by the British light Horse as he was going to his House.

“That he was taken to Head Quarters at Philadelphia with the said William Dewees, where they were confined in the Generals Guard & remained there three days & an half without one morsel of any kind of Provision, from thence they were removed to the new Goal, where they had liberty to walk in the yard—that during the first six days of their Captivity he did not receive one mouthfull of Provision, but what was brought by his wife who came into the city on the fourth day—On the sixth day of their imprisonment, they drew three Biscuit per man & about One Quarter of a pound of Pork—they did not draw again till five days after when they again drew Bread & meat, about enough to serve a man for one meal—they were then removed to the old Goal, where they remained so long as to make up three Weeks in the whole during which time, they drew about the same quantity of Provision four times more—that they must have perished had not his Wife supplied them after the four first days—That the Prisoners of War are treated much in the same manner many of them rather worse—that he saw one man (a Prisoner of War) who lay five days without tasting any thing, & when meat was at last served to him he devoured it raw & died in half an hour.

“That had not the Inhabitants bro’t in Broth & other necessaries, most of the Prisoners must have perished That the present scarcity of Provisions, now prevents this relief in a great measure—he has seen many of the unhappy sufferers, picking up Grass from the yard & eating of it to save their Lives—that for the three last days his wife not being able to get any Provisions he sent her to Joseph Galloway Esqr. in order to get their discharge to prevent their starving—the answer was that unless they would take the oaths of allegiance, they must remain there—on which to save his Life he took the Oath & was discharged—that several Deserters from the American Army came in whilst he was there, who were also confined in the Provost Guard . . . William Dewees Junr being also duly sworn, Declares on his Oath, that the several Facts set forth in the foregoing Affidavit are just & true” (DNA:PCC, item 152). GW enclosed a copy of the deposition in his letter to Henry Laurens of 23 Nov. (see source note).

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