George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Elias Boudinot, 2 March 1778

From Elias Boudinot

Camp Valey Forge March 2 1778

Dr Sir,

Having been detained in New York on the business committed to me by your Excellency, much longer than could have been expected, think it my Duty to take the earliest opportunity of Communicating a Report of my Proceedings and the Reasons of my Conduct.

On my Arrival in Jersey I wrote to Sir Henry Clinton for permission to pass to New York, for the purpose of visiting our Prisoners &ca as per paper No. 9—and received an Answer through Mr Loring which is in No. 101—When arrived at the City, was received with great Politeness and Civility, and put under no other restraint than being informed, that they trusted to my prudence for a proper behaviour.

My business here being to inquire and find out the real State of our unfortunate Brethern, and not to negotiate any general Principles I thought it prudent in the first Place, to make it a point to know the Tempers and Characters of the particular Persons I had to do with, and then endeavour to improve it to the advantage of our miserable Prisoners—Having for several Days visited the different Places of their confinement, and made every Inquiry in my Power, I beg leave to report to your Excellency the result of the whole—That I found the Hospitals in tollerable good Order, neat and clean and the Sick much better taken care off than I expected—That the Sugar House appeared comfortable and Warm, having a Stove in each Story and Shutters to the Windows2—The Prisoners also being well Cloathed and each of them having a good Blanket, may stand through the Winter very well, especially as they are not crouded, being now reduced in the whole to about 400, two hundred of whom, are in the Sugar House; the rest being in the different Hospitals3—Some of the Privates appear to be a sett of sad Villains, who rob each other of their Cloaths and Blanketts, and many of them sell their own Shoes, Blanketts, and even Shirts for Rum.

That the Provissions for the Privates are Issued in the proportion mentioned in Paper No. 5.4

That in the Provoost, I was greatly distressed, with the wretched Situation of so many of the human Species—That on meeting all the Prisoners of War together in a Room, in Company with Mr Loring I heard their Complaints and took Notes of the Accusations on which they were severally confined in order to found a Representation to Major Genl Robertson in their favour—They repeated to me instances of the most shocking barbarity in presence of the keeper of the Provoost, whom they charged as the Author—As the beating and knocking down Officers of Rank and distinction on the most triffling Occasion, locking them up in Dark, damp Dungeons, for asking more Water than usual in Warm Weather; or for not going to bed immediately on being ordered by the Serjeant5—Officers have been locked up in the Dungeon for examination, and left there without farther inquiry, or any Charge brought against them for many months—That besides Prisoners of War, there are many inhabitants here, as Committee Men, Commissioners, Oppressors of the Friends of Government &ca &ca who are wretched beyond description—That Inhabitants and Persons in Civil Departments when taken, are sent to the Provoost without distinction, and at present there seems to be no redemption for them.

That on my stating the Case of each of these unhappy men as contained in Paper No. 26 and delivering it to General Robertson, he very humanely agreed to the discharge of all the Officers (excepting seven) on their Parole; and gave me the strongest assurances that he would not allow of Such a Power in the Serjeant of the Provoost, but would put a stop to it immediately—That the Officers on Long Island, are boarded out amongst the inhabitants, in the most convenient manner, and appear to be very comfortable and Healthy. They amount to about 250.7

They have been compleatly cloathed and money advanced to them for other Necessaries, to the amount of about £30 per man.

That there have been issued to the Officers and Privates Cloathing as per Return No. 11.8

That on a rough Calculation I am now in advance, and indebted upwards of £22.000—for the Cloathing Board &ca which is daily accumulating at the Rate of 500 Dollars a Week for Board only.9

That to answer the pressing necessities of our Prisoners I have been obliged to stretch my Credit to the Utmost—That not being able to obtain the least Aid from the State of Jersey, have been put to the greatest difficulty to make remittances not being able to procure above 300 Barrells of Flour, for want of means of Transportation; and altho’ I have employed the best men I could meet with for the purpose, can get nothing done effectually without my personal attendance.

That finding the Officers running into unnecessary Expences for mere Ornament and finery, by which the Debt would greatly accumulate, and the difficulty of making remittances increased, I put a Stop to it by orders as pr No. 6.10

That from the Enemies returns of Prisoners (which I rather think to be large) there are 50 Officers at Home on Parole—235 on long Island, 8 in New York—46 deserted their Paroles—282 Privates at Home on Parole—1821 Privates in dispute and 451 in the Sugar House and Hospitals.

That on attending the Provission Store and examining the Provission then issuing, found the meat tolerably good, the Biscuit musty and indifferent, but the same as issued to the British Soldiers. That the Provissions are divided by persons chosen by the Prisoners from among themselves, and if not embezzelled in the Carriage from the Store, must be received by them in the Proportion allowed—This might be prevented by a Subaltern Officer on his Parole, attending the issuing and Carting—That I have allowed the Privates an addition of two Pounds of Beef, and as much Bread per Week, making up in the whole, a full Ration pr Man pr Day—also as much Wood as is necessary for their Comfort, which has saved the Lives of many, this Winter, who otherwise must have perished.

That altho’ the above appears now to be the State of the Prisoners in New York, from my personal Observation while visiting the several Departments; yet I think it my Duty nevertheless to add to this Report, which I received from the unanimous representation of both Officers and Privates—Vizt That this Alteration has taken place within a short time past, in a great measure by the Industry and attention of Mr Pintard our Agent in New York, who has employed special Nurses in the Hospitals, added to the supplies for the Sick, and done every thing in his Power for the relief of the unhappy Sufferers (Vid. Dr Mallets Letters on the Subject of Nurses No. 8)11 But Mr Pintard being forbid going to the Provoost, his Care cannot extend to those confined there, except as to sending them Provissions, and fire Wood.

That on applying to General Robertson, for carrying into Execution the Agreement relative to the Exchange of Prisoners on Parole, as far as the officers sent into New York would apply; and particularly for liberating Major Genl Lee, in Exchange for Major General Prescott who had arrived in New York several Weeks past; received for Answer, that General Robertson knew of no such Agreement having never received any Information or instructions from Sir William Howe on that subject.12

That having repeated my Applications for the relief of the seven remaining Officers in the Provoost, I could not succeed, and as the objections agt the liberation of Smock Whitlocke and Skinner are rather triffling and they being exactly in the same predicament, with the Officers lately taken on Staten Island, it is but Justice due to these unhappy Men, immediately to confine those officers Prisoners with us, on the same Principles13—That the officers on Long Island conceive it would be greatly to the public Advantage to perfect a general Exchange, even at a considerable Loss, as the great Number of our brave country men who daily fall a sacrifice to the severity of their Captivity, calls loudly for speedy relief. The Principal Officers also assure me, that the Privates in dispute were sent out by General Howe, in consequence of their earnest Application.

That having had several Conversations with General Robertson on the Subject of the Prisoners, he urged the Settlement of the past Board, due from our Officers, as it has not been paid by Genl Howe—He admits the Propriety of the mutual Accounts being speedily liquidated and the Ballance paid, as by that means the inhabitants will be induced to treat them with greater kindness—That on Letters arriving from Genl Howe, relative to the orders issued by us, for preventing their purchasing Provissions with us West of New Jersey,14 General Robertson thought that Genl Howe must have misunderstood the matter; and therefore desired me to state the Facts, which I did a Copy whereof is in Paper No. 415—General Robertson approved of a fair Barter of Cloathing for Provissions so that it was not abused to the fitting out our men for a Campaign and proposed (to obviate the difficulty) the leaving the Blankets of every exchanged Soldier, with our Agent for the use of the Prisoners remaining behind—That with these Letters from Genl Howe order⟨s⟩ also came for sending Genl Lee by the first man of War to Philadelphi⟨a⟩ to give his Parole to Genl Howe in Person—I objected to the impropriety of a Winter Passage, when a Journey by Land was so much shorter and easier, but as this could not be done without farther Orders, General Robertson wrote to Genl Howe on the occasion and General Lee being anxious and uneasy, begs your Excellencys interference as speedily as possible.16

That after finishing the Business of the Military Prisoners, I waited on Commodore Hotham, and informed him that Mr Pintard having obtained Provissions and Cloathing for the Sea Prisoners had been refused the liberty of sending them on board of the Prison Ship notwithstanding the pressing necessities of those suffering People. He informed me that he could not know Mr Pintard, or any other Person but his own Commissary, and that he would not suffer any Cloaths purchased in New-York to go on board without Lord Howes express orders, but that any Provissions sent to the Commissary appointed by him, should be distributed17 I applied then for the enlargement of the Sea Officers on Parole, but he answered that this could not be done, as no Sea Prisoners were ever admitted to that Indulgence.

Having obtained permission I visited Captain Manley on board the Preston, who appears dejected with his long and close Confinement That on earnestly soliciting his Exchange for Captain Furneaux of the Syren, was informed that it could not be done without orders from Lord Howe.18

That there are 58 Officers and 62 Sea Men on board the Prison Ships, who suffer greatly and die daily vid. Letter No. 719—That on my Arrival at New York I was distressed to find, that the most unfair and ungenerous partial Exchanges had been and was then carrying on from the State of Connecticut. Mr Joseph Webb was then there the second time by Virtue of a Flag of Truce from Govr Trumbull Copy whereof is No. 1.20

That on finding a Number of Officers and privates exchanged by Mr Webb, contrary to their due order, I put a Stop to it and directed the oldest in Captivity to take their place.21 That the difficulties arising from this Practise, not only as to the Confusion it causes in my department, but also in the Jealousies and uneasiness raised among the other Officers, call for immediate relief.

That it has been proposed for the purpose of healing all past breaches, and putting the affairs of Prisoners on a proper footing, by expediting a general Exchange, that Persons appointed by your Excellency and General Howe shall meet together near Philadelphia and make a final Settlement of all disputes relative to Prisoners and negotiate a Cartel in future.

I cannot close this Report, without taking Notice of the Candour and Politeness with which I have been treated by Genl Robertson, Mr Loring and the Gentlemen with whom I had public Business in New York.

Permit me also to assure your Excellency, that notwithstanding I have unexpectedly taken up so much time in this Business yet that I have not wasted a moment that could be avoided: the many delays necessarily attendant on Services of this kind especially with Gentlemen who have so many other Avocations, would have given me more uneasiness, had I not known that no Employment could have given you more satisfaction than relieving the distresses of our miserable Captives—How far I have succeeded, the list of Prisoners entirely relieved (No. 3)22 and the Prisoners themselves will best determine.

In order farther to satisfy you on this Head, as well as to possess you with every Transaction on this occasion—I enclose a Journal of them kept to assist my own memory while in the City.23

If I have been so happy as to merit your Excellencys approbation, shall think my Attention, Labour and fatigue amply repaid. I have the honor to be with great respect & Esteem Your Excellencys Most Obed. humble ser.

E. B.

P.S. I had almost forgot to mention that having received the fullest assurances from our Officers, that a poor Woman had saved the Lives of a number of our Prisoners by exerting herself in serving them far beyond her Abilities, and that she was now in a suffering Condition for want of Provission, I thought it prudent to send her a Present of 5 Barrels of Flour.24

Copy, NjP: Thorne-Boudinot Collection. An extended “Copy of the Substance” of this letter, enclosed by Boudinot to Horatio Gates, 10 Mar. 1778, is in DNA:PCC, item 78.

1Boudinot’s letter to Henry Clinton has not been identified. Joshua Loring replied to Boudinot on 20 Jan. “that not having a wish to keep any thing a secret from the World” respecting the prisoners’ treatment, Clinton would grant the request for a pass (NjP: Thorne-Boudinot Papers; see also Boudinot, Life of Boudinot description begins J.J. Boudinot, ed. The Life, Public Services, Addresses, and Letters of Elias Boudinot, LL.D., President of the Continental Congress. 2 vols. Boston, 1896. description ends , 1:88–89).

2“The Sugar House stood in Liberty-street, south of the Middle Dutch Church, a dark stone building, with small deep, port-hole looking windows, rising tier above tier, exhibiting a dungeon-like aspect. It was five stories high; and each story was divided into two dreary apartments. . . . There was a strong, jail-like door opening on Liberty-street, and another on the southeast, descending into a dismal cellar, also used as a prison. There was a walk nearly broad enough for a cart to travel around it, where, night and day, two British or Hessian guards walked their weary rounds. The yard was surrounded by a close board fence, nine feet high” (Onderdonk, Suffolk and Kings Counties description begins Henry Onderdonk, Jr. Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties; with an Account of the Battle of Long Island, and the British Prisons and Prison-Ships at New-York. New York, 1849. description ends , 207–8).

3Boudinot wrote in his journal for 4 Feb., “191 Prisoners in Sugar House; in two Hospitals 102 & 109” (Jordan, “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City,” description begins Helen Jordan. “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City, February, 1778.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 24 (1900): 453–66. description ends 454).

4This enclosure has not been identified. In his “Copy of the Substance” of this letter, Boudinot wrote “That the Provisions for the Privates, are issued at the rate of two thirds of a ration per Man.”

5The provost building was the second city jail, on the northeast edge of City Hall Park, and according to the later recollections of John Pintard, the deputy provost was a “Serjeant Keefe” (“The Old Jail,” New-York Mirror, 10 Sept 1831). Dr. Elias Cornelius, a prisoner at the provost, recorded the sergeant’s name as “Keith” (Cornelius Journal description begins Journal of Dr. Elias Cornelius, a Revolutionary Surgeon. Graphic Description of His Sufferings While a Prisoner in Provost Jail, New York, 1777 and 1778, with Biographical Sketch. Washington, D.C., 1903. description ends , 6). According to the journal account that Boudinot kept of his visit, the sergeant “acknowledged” the mistreatment, “alledging Provocation” (Jordan, “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City,” description begins Helen Jordan. “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City, February, 1778.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 24 (1900): 453–66. description ends 457–58; see also Boudinot, Life of Boudinot description begins J.J. Boudinot, ed. The Life, Public Services, Addresses, and Letters of Elias Boudinot, LL.D., President of the Continental Congress. 2 vols. Boston, 1896. description ends , 95–96).

6This document discusses the cases of eighteen named prisoners—Lt. Col. Ethan Allen; Maj. Brinton Paine; Captains John Flahaven, (Ozias) Bissell, Abraham C. Van Dyke, Nathaniel Van Zandt, Nathaniel FitzRandolph, (Barnes) Smock and (James) Whitlock; Lieutenants John Mercer, (Abraham?) Skinner, William Sitcher, and “Foster”; I. M. N. Kelly; Ens. John Oakley (Okely); volunteers Wynant Van Zandt, and (Thomas?) Kennedy; and Thomas Canfield, a commissioner for selling Loyalist property—and “several” unnamed “Committee Men.” With regard to the latter, Boudinot argued that “It is rather hard that Men duly appointed to civil Office should be punished so severely for the proper Exercise of it, as it must be of service to every Man to support some Government. . . . If publick officers in the Civill department on both sides of the Question are all to be made close Prisoners without redemption, it will rather anihilate all Government whatever and the Gaols everywhere must be filled with unhappy Men” (Sterling, “American Prisoners of War,” description begins David L. Sterling, ed. “American Prisoners of War in New York: A Report by Elias Boudinot.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 13 (1956): 376–93. description ends 387–90).

7At this place on the “Copy of the Substance,” Boudinot added in the margin, “many of those have lately been Exchanged & some gone home on parole.”

8A return of clothing issued by Lewis Pintard to Continental prisoners in New York shows that 249 shoes, 484 stockings, 204 blankets, 157 blanket watch coats, 100 shirts, and 8 mattresses were issued to officers at various locations, almost all from 22 Nov. through 1 Dec. 1777, and that 412 blankets, 630 blanket watch coats, 549 vests, 576 breeches, 1,153 shirts, 826 stockings, 547 shoes, and 184 hats were issued to privates at various locations from 5 Dec. 1777 through 26 Jan. 1778. A note on the back, apparently in Boudinot’s writing, adds, “Besides the within, each officer has recd a compleat Suit of Cloaths, with Shirts &c to amount of £30” (DNA:PCC, item 78; see also Sterling, “American Prisoners of War,” description begins David L. Sterling, ed. “American Prisoners of War in New York: A Report by Elias Boudinot.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 13 (1956): 376–93. description ends 391).

9In an estimate written about this time, Boudinot put the cost of the clothing issued by Pintard at £4,363, added £7,500 for “Cloathing & necessaries for 250 Officers at £30 each,” £2,400 for “3 Months Board, at 2 Dollars per week which I am bound to pay,” and £8,320 for “Board due for 200 Officers previous to the above Engagement” (see “Estimate of Expenditures & Debts due from the Com. Genl of Prisoners,” n.d. but probably enclosed with Boudinot’s letter to Gates of 10 March, DNA:PCC, item 78).

10These orders have not been identified.

11These letters from British surgeon Jonathan Mallet have not been identified.

12For GW’s agreement with Gen. William Howe to allow imprisoned officers to be released upon parole, see GW to Howe, 14–15 and 28 Nov. 1777, and Howe to GW, 26 Nov. 1777.

13Barnes (Barnard, Barney) Smock (1738–1829), a captain in the 1st Regiment of Monmouth County, N.J., militia, was taken prisoner on 27 Jan. 1777 in Monmouth. James Whitlock was commissioned a second lieutenant of the 1st Regiment of the Monmouth County militia on 18 June 1776 and apparently was promoted to first lieutenant before he was taken prisoner on 13 Feb. 1777 near the lighthouse at Navesink Highlands, N.J.; he was not exchanged until 22 Dec. 1780. The only Lieutenant Skinner identified as a prisoner at New York at this time is Abraham Skinner, who had been captured at Germantown three months previous, but the document cited in note 6 states that Lieutenant Skinner had been held for thirteen months. The “officers lately taken on Staten Island” were the Loyalist officers captured by an American raid of 27 Nov. 1777 (see Philemon Dickinson to GW, 28 Nov. 1777, and William Livingston to GW, 26 Dec. 1777, and note 3 to that document). In stating the cases of Smock and Whitlock to the British, Boudinot said that they were “accused of entering into our Service after taking the Oath of Allegiance last Winter to the King of Great Britain” and argued in their defense that “They acknowledge the fact, declaring their faithful adhesion to the[ir oaths] as long as protected, but when the English Army left the Jerseys, they took the Benefit of General Washington’s Proclamation. If this is a Crime, it was equally in the first Instance after submitting to our Government. The accusation against the Officer Prisoners from Staten Island is exactly on the same Scale, but General W[ashington] immediately ordered their release upon Parole.” Lieutenant Skinner, Boudinot claimed, “knows of no Accusation against him, and has been long confined without any being suggested” (Sterling, “American Prisoners of War,” description begins David L. Sterling, ed. “American Prisoners of War in New York: A Report by Elias Boudinot.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 13 (1956): 376–93. description ends 389).

14For the order in question, contained in a letter from Boudinot to Henry Hugh Fergusson, 10 Jan., see William Howe to GW, 19 Jan., n.1.

15This document, which describes Boudinot’s negotiations with various British officials about the supply of prisoners held by both sides, is printed in Sterling, “American Prisoners of War,” description begins David L. Sterling, ed. “American Prisoners of War in New York: A Report by Elias Boudinot.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 13 (1956): 376–93. description ends 392–93.

16See GW to William Howe, 9 March, and Howe to GW, 10 March. On the “Copy of the Substance,” Boudinot’s marginal note reads: “since Mr B.’s return, he has obtained Liberty for Genl Lee to come on by Land from New York, in consequence of Mr B.’s application to Genl Howe for that Purpose.”

17Boudinot’s journal of his stay in New York indicates that the commissary of naval prisoners was (Titus) Levy (Jordan, “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City,” description begins Helen Jordan. “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City, February, 1778.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 24 (1900): 453–66. description ends 464).

18British naval captain Tobias Furneaux (1735–1781), known for commanding a ship on James Cook’s second voyage of circumnavigation, 1772–75, had been captured by Rhode Island militia on 7 Nov. 1777, after running H.M.S. Syren aground off Point Judith. Capt. John Manley was exchanged for Furneaux by late April 1778 (see Mackenzie Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:271; see also Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 9:630). The H.M.S. Preston was the flagship of Commodore William Hotham at New York.

19The enclosed letter has not been identified.

20This enclosure has not been identified. For discussion of Joseph Webb’s earlier visit to New York City, see Webb to GW, 30 January.

21Boudinot wrote in his journal for 5 Feb.: “Mr. Loring informed me that Mr. W[ebb] came to exchange Prisoners & would take off all from Connecticut; that Col. Lawrence was to be exchanged for Col. Holden; Col. DeLancey for Col. Ely and 13 soldiers brought in for so many taken lately in the Sound. All this I objected to. Agreed to let Col. Lawrence go on Parole for Col. Holden, and also Col. DeLancey for Col. Magaw, & directed 13 soldiers longest in captivity to be discharged for those sent in. Mr. Loring promises if Col. DeLancey is let out for a Lieut. Col., he will accept of a Lieut. Col. for a Col. Have desired that no Exchange may take place but according to order, unless special reason” (Jordan, “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City,” description begins Helen Jordan. “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City, February, 1778.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 24 (1900): 453–66. description ends 455–56).

22This list has not been identified.

23A manuscript of this journal is in the Boudinot Papers at PHi. For a published transcript, see Jordan, “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City.” description begins Helen Jordan. “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City, February, 1778.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 24 (1900): 453–66. description ends

24The “Poor Woman” may have been the woman who aided Dr. Elias Cornelius and twelve other American prisoners on 23 Aug. 1777. Cornelius recorded in his journal that while the prisoners were being marched to New York, “we were not allowed to stop even to get a drink of water till we came to within four miles of New York, when a poor woman seeing our condition, came out and entreated our guards to stop that she might give us some water; the guard consented and the good woman (as I may call her, for I beleive she was the means of saving the life of one of our men who was just sinking with the heat) ran into the house and brought us several pails of beer and three or four loaves of bread and two or three pounds of Cheese, and to some of us she gave some money; the name of this woman was Clemons, a native of Boston, and she was about 30 years of age. She kept a small shop at the righthand side of the road near Kings bridge” (Cornelius Journal description begins Journal of Dr. Elias Cornelius, a Revolutionary Surgeon. Graphic Description of His Sufferings While a Prisoner in Provost Jail, New York, 1777 and 1778, with Biographical Sketch. Washington, D.C., 1903. description ends , 5–6). Another possibility is Sarah Smith, widow of John Smith, who was commended to Congress by former prisoner Chaplain Robert Keith in December 1779. Keith reported that after many benefactions Smith was jailed and after her release was reduced to asking him for flour, but he recollected that she left New York in the latter part of 1777, after being ordered to depart by the authorities and disposing of her remaining property for the prisoners (transcript of Keith’s testimony, 19 Dec. 1779, DNA:PCC, item 131). Another woman reportedly banished from New York (in 1780) for aiding American prisoners was Mrs. Deborah Franklin (see Onderdonk, Suffolk and Kings Counties description begins Henry Onderdonk, Jr. Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties; with an Account of the Battle of Long Island, and the British Prisons and Prison-Ships at New-York. New York, 1849. description ends , 248).

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