George Washington Papers

To George Washington from General Henry Clinton, 29 September 1779

From General Henry Clinton

New York, Septr 29th 1779.


Upon receiving Your Letter of the 14th Ultimo,1 I transmitted the papers that accompanied it to His Excellency Lieut. General Knyphausen, who has sent me Col: Wurmb’s answer thereto; and in justice to that Gentleman, who is an Officer of distinguished merit, I have the honor to enclose the same, together with a translation thereof, for your perusal, by which You will perceive that his conduct has been much misrepresented.2 I have the honor to be Your Excellency’s Most obedt humble Servt

H. Clinton

LS, DLC:GW; copy, P.R.O.: 30/55, Carleton Papers.

1GW’s letter to Clinton on this subject is dated 25 August. The copy has “24th Ultimo.”

2The translation of Col. Ludwig von Wurmb’s letter to Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, dated 7 Sept. at “Spiting Devil,” N.Y., reads: “In consequence of Your Excellency’s orders to make my report upon the enemy’s complaints against me, I have the honor to relate the true state of the matter thus:

“I was informed of the arrival of a Flag at my post, and thereupon rode out to receive it. I found a man there in a blue coat with white cuffs, and an other very indifferently dress’d. One of them had a white handkerchief tied to a little stick, and there was neither a Trumpeter, nor a Drummer, and still less any military escort with them. I asked for their dispatches, and they gave me a paper, signed, as they said, by one of their Generals, which contained nothing, but a permit to one of these men, to go down to the British lines at King’s bridge, in order to ask, whether a certain woman would be allowed to go to New York.

“According to the general custom of war a Flag of Truce (:if meaning to appear unsuspected:) ought to be accompanied by a Trumpeter, or Drummer, and a military escort, and to approach the enemy’s lines on more important business only, than the present futile pretence was. I therefore could not possibly take the two above mentioned men for a flag of truce, but on the contrary by appearances must look upon them as spies, and the more so, as I could not barely accept of a pass, which in my opinion any body may frame, to serve him as a cover in making such enquiries, as he may be in want of—And supposing even the pass to have been really given by the General of the enemy, it was certainly very exceptionable, for being delivered in such an uncustomary, irregular, and suspected manner. For if the General really intended to send a flag, he ought, no doubt, to have sent, and instructed it conformable to the custom of War.

“These circumstances determined me, earnestly to deprecate such flags in future; to which I added, that, if any should again presume to approach my post, without being accompanied by a Trumpeter, or a Drummer, and a military escort, I must order them to be fired upon. In the present case I put the two men under arrest, and made report of it to His Excellency Lieut. Genl Knyphausen, whose orders I received, and let the men go back next morning.

“It may be, that in the conversation with these people some hard expressions were used against the hostile General Clinton, if he thinks it an affront to be called a Rebel-General—I am sorry, if he found himself hit by it. In the mean time on my part I thought, that he deserved that Character, and in future must take better care, not to give his Flags of Truce such a suspected and irregular appearance, and that he must more deliberately consider, on what occasions he ought to send them to an enemy’s post.

“For the rest I am surprized to find, the American Officer has so very little sense of the politeness shewn to him afterwards, when he had owned himself, that a gross mistake had been committed on his side, for which he said in excuse, that he had not known better, nor had he received any other instructions from his Generals—I must conclude, he never was treated with any degree of politeness before, and so must have look’d upon it as something very extraordinary of course.

“I appeal to the enemy’s officers themselves, that ever came to my post with flags—they may say, how I treated them. If they came in a due and regular manner, they were always received with all possible politeness according to the circumstances—The arresting of the present flag, and the threats, which they must hear, how suspected flags ought to be treated, and would be treated by me in future, was a natural consequence of their own conduct, and can not possibly be imputed to any body but themselves” (DLC:GW; the LS, in German, is also in DLC:GW).

For an account of this affair from the perspective of the American officer involved, see William Heath to GW, 25 Aug. (second letter), n.3.

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