George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 4 January 1780

To Samuel Huntington

Head Qrs Morris Town January 4th 1780


The following Gentlemen, Colonels Magaw, Mathews, Eli & Lt Colo. Ramsay have been permitted to come out of New York on parole, with some new propositions for an exchange of prisoners—the result of a conference between Major General Phillips & themselves. These they will have the honor of submitting to Congress, as I do not conceive myself authorised to take any steps in the business without their Orders.1

I cannot fix the precise operations which the proposed plan would have; but from such calculations as I have been able to make on the subject, from a comparative view of the propositions and the general state of the Convention Troops, Officers & Men, and of the other Officers prisoners on both sides, we should have to give the Enemy for the Exchange of ours in this quarter, for whom we admit ourselves accountable—Three Cols.—Eight Lieut. Cols.—Five Majors—Thirty one Captains—Forty Eight first Lieutenants—Twenty seven second Lieutenants & Ensigns and Twenty Staff, which are all the Officers prisoners of War that we have—and One Major General—One Brigadr—One Lieut. Colo.—Two Majors—Seventeen Captains Thirty seven first Lieutenants—Eleven second Lieutenants & Ensigns—Twenty Regimental Staff and about Seven or Eight Hundred Men, Non Commissioned Officers & privates of the Convention Troops, which seems to be a full calculation.2 Colo. Magaw and the other Gentlemen with him hope, from the conferences they had with General phillips and the ideas he expressed of forming the first division of the Convention Troops, out of the broken Corps, that the number of privates would be less, as the Officers attached to these Corps exceed the number they would h⟨ave⟩ on a general scale of proportion. If this should be the case, it will be so much the better. In the Estimate of Colonels, prisoners,3 Lt Governor Hamilton & a Colo. Alligood4 are included: Doctor Conelly is also in the list of Lt Cols. I do not know the state of Southern prisoners and therefore can form no accurate judgement what difference their being included may make; but I should conjecture it is against us—and would add Four or five Hundred privates to what the Enemy would have to receive. It is an unlucky circumstance that we are so much in the dark about their situation and the agreements that may have been entered into concerning them, by the Commanders in that Quarter. If we were in possession of these facts, the propriety of including or not including them in the proposed exchange might be better determined.

The relief of the Militia Officers not taken in Arms ought, if practicable, to be a consequence of the exchange, but I should think it best to avoid the relation established between them and Genl Burgoyne in the 9th proposition, especially as several Officers are to be released on parole by the 3d proposition, without any immediate equivalent. As I understand from the Gentlemen that wait on Congress, the exchange of the Militia Officers not taken in Arms, will not be made a point by the Enemy, so as to prevent the release of Our Other Officers without them; but they will not admit them to parole, without some specific equivalent’s being left in their hands or at least some engagements on the part of the public, for ensuring their return to captivity when ever they are called.

The present proposals on the part of the Enemy are more reasonable than any they have offered before, and I should hope that they may be improved into an agreement that will give the desired relief. I have taken the liberty to offer these remarks and shall be ready to execute whatever Congress may be pleased to direct; and as they will be fully possessed of the propositions, I shall be happy that any instructions they may think proper to honor me with, may be as particular as possible in delineating the Objects they have in view.

I would farther beg leave to suggest that if Congress approve the propositions, I think it will be adviseable for them to request the several States to give up all the Officers they have or claim as their prisoners, for the purpose of facilitating the exchange of Ours—and as it would be the means of lessening the number of privates the Enemy would otherwise receive. If the States consent to it, the names & rank of the Officers and the places they are at cannot be too soon communicated to me. Indeed I regret as I ever have, that there should be any State prisoners of War. The system has been productive at least of great incon⟨v⟩eniencies and discontents. I don’t know how it first obtained, but I am certain ⟨if⟩ it is practicable, that it cannot be too ⟨soon⟩ abolished.

The indulgence which Cols. Magaw—Mathews—Ely & Ramsay have received, is limited to a few days. This consideration as well ⟨as⟩ the importance of the business on wh⟨ich⟩ they are, will I am convinced give them ⟨the⟩ early attention of Congress.5 I have the honor to be with the greatest respect Yr Excellency’s Most Obedt sert

Go: Washington

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The text in angle brackets, where the LS is illegible, is taken from the draft. Congress read this letter on 13 Jan. (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 16:47–48).

1GW enclosed copies of five documents and letters relating to the proposals for opening a negotiation to settle on the terms of a prisoner exchange cartel. The first document, undated, contains the proposals that resulted from the conference between colonels John Ely, Robert Magaw, and George Mathews and Lt. Col. Nathaniel Ramsay on the American side and Maj. Gen. William Phillips on the British side. The document reads: “It is presumed proposals for an exchange may be opened to be finally agreed upon by the two commanders in chief of the British and American armies under reciprocal terms and mutual faith of equity, equal advantage and honour.

“First—To exchange in the first instance officers prisoners of war rank for rank, but should officers of similar rank not apply the exchanges to be made in dissimilar ranks according to a valuation as may be agreed to hereafter; Private soldiers prisoners of war to be exchanged against private soldiers prisoners of war in the same manner.

“Secondly. To exchange in the second instance the troops of Convention, officers and privates by corps alternately as may be fixed upon by lot, or otherwise between the commanders in chief of the respective armies according to a valuation of privates against officers as may hereafter be agreed to, that is to say, American officers for British and German officers of equal ranks as far as they will apply, corps by corps, and then dissimilar ranks according to a Tariff to be settled for that purpose, the exchange of privates of such corps to be settled in the same manner.

“Thirdly—That, upon such exchanges being agreed to, should a ballance in American officers prisoners of war remain on the part of the British, such officers to have liberty to reside with their friends upon parole untill exchanged, but supposing the balance to be against the British, and that the troops of Convention or others should not all be exchanged that, after leaving a certain number of officers, as may be directed by the British Commander in chief, with the remaining corps the rest to have liberty to go and reside with their friends in Europe or otherwise untill exchanged, and such officers so to be left may at the option of the British Commander in chief be releived from time to time by an equal number of officers of similar ranks—This indulgence of parole to be extended generally to such officers of both the British & American armies as may hereafter be made prisoners of war, and it is to be hoped that exchanges upon the plan now proposed may constantly take place and as immediately as circumstances will allow, but should any difficulties arise on any future proposals of exchanges, and that the exchanges be rejected by either party, the officers so on parole to be liable to be called into captivity at the orders of the British or American Commanders in chief, provided the Commander in chief so calling shall be prepared at the same time actually to deliver up such officers belonging to his army as had been permitted to go on their paroles, except such as may be in Europe, which necessarily requiring some time for their recall, an equal number of equal rank to be suffered to remain on parole untill the arrival of such officers from Europe.

“Fourthly—A Tariff or valuation to be framed for officers against privates, by which the estimation of officers against officers of dissimilar ranks will be settled, and it is apprehended it may not be an improper method to do this by opposing a certain number of privates against Serjeants and the lowest rank of officers, viz., Ensign or Second Lieutenant and so on to the highest ranks.

“Fifthly—That should it fortunately happen that an exchange takes place, such part of the troops of Convention as come within it to be marched immediately to Elizabeth-town by the most convenient route, or to such other place as the two Commanders in chief may appoint, there to be met by an equality of American prisoners of war and the exchange to take place direc⟨t⟩ly upon the mutual faith and honour of the two Commanders in chief.

“Sixthly—That all officers prisoners of war on both sides be exchanged according to the rank they held when taken, and the officer⟨s⟩ of the troops of Convention according to the rank they held at the treaty of Saratoga.

“Seventhly. That the American officers prisoners of war taken by the British forces in Georgia and South Carolina be suffered to go out on their paroles, after being mustered & certified to by a British officer or Commissary, and the principal American officers prisoner of war there; that [they] be immediately exchanged for British and German officers who have been made prisoners of war in those parts; The American private soldiers prisoners of war to be exchanged as far as they apply against privates of the British army made prisoners of war in those parts in the same manner, the remaining American private soldiers prisoners of war to be exchanged against such private soldiers prisoners of War of the British army as may be in other parts of America, and the remaining officers to be exchanged against British officers prisoners of war, should there be any left in other parts of America to apply, and then finally against an equal number of the troops of Convention according to the terms mentioned in the foregoing articles; and as the suffering the American officers, made prisoners of war in those parts, to go to their families upon parole proceeds from liberal motives and an unwillingness to order them to this part of America, it is to be expected that no delay be made in the final exchange of them against the troops of Convention, to prevent which it is proposed that Genl Washington should send such powers to the American officers there as may render the mustering the officers absolute, and that on the certificates and receipts of American officers prisoners of war, who have thus been suffered to go on parole, being sent to the American commanding officer at Albermarle barracks in Virginia, that officer shall be empowered to direct an exchange of a proportionate number of the troops of Convention who will immediately march according to the route & manner already described to New York: to effect this more certainly an officer of the troops of Convention might go from Virginia to Georgia and return with the proper certificates—Should there by any accident be any mistakes in such certificates they are to be rectified so soon as discovered.

“Eightly—That on these exchanges being agread to by the two Commanders in chief and their taking place & Major General De Reidesel to be exchanged with the first division of the troops of Convention, Major Genl Phillips at the head of the second division, then Lieutenant Genl Burgoyn⟨e⟩ & after him the third division. By this it is to be observed that the troops of Convention are to be formed into three divisions for exchanges, not meaning, however to stop the progress of exchanges, but to allow of the divisions being exchanged in parts as far as numbers will apply.

“Ninthly—Rather than defeat so humane a purpose as that now in contemplation it is to be wished that the discussion concerning the exchange of officers of the militia not taken in arms, and the troops taken at the Cedars, may be put off for the present. That the officers of militia not taken in arms have the same benefit of parole with that of Lieut. Genl Burgoyne.

“The following tariff it is imagined may be adopted by the Commanders in Chief of the British & American armies, it having been calculated with every attention to mutual advantage, equity, and honour.

Proposed tariff.
Lieutenant General 1044.
Major General  372
Brigadier General  200
Colonel  100
Lieutt Colonel   72
Major   28
Captain   16
First Lieutenant    6
Second Lt & Ensign    4
Sergeant    2
Corporal, drummer; fifer[,] }    1
private soldier, Volunteer
Adjutants & Quarter masters to regts and corps to be exchanged as First Lieutts supposing they bear no other commission, otherwise by the commissions they bear in their respective corps.    6
Surgeons to regts and corps    6
Mates Do     Do    4.
Chaplains to be always given up on both sides without exchange. The Staff of the armies, comprehending Adjutant and Quartermaster Generals, with their deputies and Assistants, Aides de Camp and Majors of Brigade, to be exchanged according to the rank they hold in the army —
Surgeons of the Genl hospital to be exchanged as Captains   16
Deputy Commissaries General to be exchanged as Captains   16
Deputy Paymasters General to be exchanged as Captains   16
Their deputies and Assistants as First Lieutenants    6”
(DNA:PCC, item 152).

The second document, also undated, displays the value of the number of American “Prisoners with the Enemy” based on the proposed tariff, except that it values some lieutenants at five points and some lieutenants (presumably second lieutenants) at four points. It shows 3 brigadier generals, 12 colonels, 7 lieutenant colonels, 8 majors, 40 captains, 136 lieutenants, 43 lieutenants and ensigns, and 13 “Staff” valued at five points each, for a total value of 4,085 points.

Against this, the document presents the value of British prisoners based on the proposed tariff and debits their value from the total American number. Held at unnamed locations were one colonel, eight lieutenant colonels, five majors, thirty-one captains, forty-eight lieutenants (two-thirds valued at six points and one-third valued at four points), twenty-seven ensigns, and twenty persons of unspecified rank (valued at six points each), with a total value of 1,796 points. In Virginia were two colonels, two majors, two captains, and four lieutenants with a total value of 308 points. The document then tallies the value of the Convention Army prisoners. Phillips and Capt. George Preston Vallancey, the only officers listed by name on the document, were together valued at 388 points. Phillips’s aides were valued at thirty-four points. Another major general (presumably James Hamilton) and his aides were together valued at 400 points. The document lists the numbers of the other Convention Army prisoners as 1 major, 12 captains, 21 lieutenants, 7 second lieutenants, 2 surgeons, 3 surgeons’ mates, 56 sergeants, and 454 privates, valued at 964 points. The total value of all Convention Army prisoners is given as 1,786 points. As presented on the document, the tariff value of all British prisoners subtracted from the tariff value of all American prisoners left a deficit in favor of the British of 195 points (DNA:PCC, item 152).

The third enclosure was a copy of a letter from Phillips to Gen. Henry Clinton, British commander in chief, dated 20 Dec. 1779 at New York: “I had the honor to report to you, Sir, my having received a letter from the American Colonel Mathews, expressing a desire of having a conversation with me respecting Exchanges and giving as his opinion that so humane a purpose might be attained upon terms of equal advantage to both the British and American Armies.

“Having received your Excellency’s permission to converse with Col. Mathews or any other American Officer, I have to inform you, Sir, that I have had frequent meetings with several of those Gentlemen prisoners of War, and the result has been our presuming to commit to writing: some proposals towards a general exchange in which the prisoners of war on both sides and the Troops of Convention are included.

“We have attempted to do this upon the most liberal principles, and have endeavoured by all possible means to put away every exceptionable matter which might create delay or set aside the Operation of a business in which humanity is so materially connected.

“We have taken the liberty to draw up some memorandums to serve as a basis for a negotiation, and we have been so impressed with the rectitude of our way of thinking on the Occasion that we have ventured to sign our names to the paper, meaning to have it presented on my part to your Excellency and on theirs to General Washington, meaning, also, that the completion of so fortunate & so happy a purpose may be concluded between your Excellency and General Washington by each of you granting powers to an Officer or Officers from the British and American Armies to meet and settle finally the matter so that a General exchange may immediate⟨l⟩y follow.

“Should you, Sir, receive favorably the paper I have the honor to present you, I am to request as a part of this transaction that your Excellency will permit four American Officers prisoners of war, Coll Mathews, Col. Maygaw, Lieut. Col. Ramsay & Lieut. Col. Ely to go to genl Washington to make on their parts this proposal for a general Exchange, they signing a parole to return to New York on the twenty eighth day from their setting out from hence, they supposing it may require that time to settle a business of such serious consequence, they meaning however to return as much sooner as possible.

“I take leave to offer myself still further in the prosecution of this matter and not conceiving it at all derogatory to my situation or parole will, with great pleasure, should your Excellency so approve become one of the Officers on the part of the British to meet in commission those American Officers whom General Washington shall send on his part.

“I cannot help permitting myself to express the great satisfaction I feel at having been thus far instrumental to what I am sure has been ever a principle object with your Excellency, and if I should under your Excellency’s orders be able to compleat this humane purpose, I shall esteem it among the most fortunate events of my life, it will compensate for the misfortune ⟨I⟩ have suffered & render me perfectly happy” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

The fourth enclosure was a copy of Clinton’s reply to Phillips, dated 24 Dec. 1779 at New York: “As I consented to your conversing with Gentlemen from amongst the American Prisoners of War, on the very interesting subject of an Exchange of prisoners; so I now give you my approbation of your proceedings, and my thanks for the Earnestness of your labours in this business.

“I observe that with a steady attention to our purpose you have with temper and liberality set aside any subject of litigation which might obstruct the desireable relief from Captivity which is in view.

“The ground work of a Cartel with which you present me I have perused, and deriving from its appearance of equity a hope of its being compleated, I give my freest consent to those Gentlemen whom you name departing on their parole to return in twenty eight days.

“You have prevented my wishes in offering yourself as commissioner, should a Negotiation take place; And I accept your services, thinking with you that it will incur nothing derogatory to your situation or parole” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

The fifth enclosure was a copy of a letter from Phillips to Magaw, Mathews, Ely, and Ramsay, dated 25 Dec. 1779 at New York: “It is with the greatest satisfaction that I have delivered to you his Excellency Genl Sir Henry Clinton’s permission for Your going to Genl Washington, the humane purpose which carries you there will in every event do credit to your feelings as Men and as Officers.

“I cannot help supposing that your negotiation will meet with success, and as the proposals for an exchange are founded upon so large a base, I apprehend the superstructure may very easily be compleated; and if I am to be connected with the future proceedings you may depend I shall exert every endeavour for an attainment in which I am concerned with so many suffering persons.

“I am convinced Genl Washington will view our transaction in the clear and fair light it merits and I am persuaded Your Congress will, also, see this matter as you, Gentlemen, will offer it to them.

“To observe upon this proposed exchange politically, surely, the great contest between Great Britain and America will scarcely feel the event, excepting in the instances of humanity and liberality which this business, if it succeeds, will produce; I need not observe militarily upon it as Genl Washington’s knowledge of the subject and his good sense will give it its true explanation—The prisoners of war are out of the question in any argument, and the two divisions proposed to be exchanged of the Troops of Convention taken in the fullest Idea will give us very few privates, and of those many of them will be to be discharged from the service, and above two thirds, if not all of the rest sent, at the opening of the spring, to Canada.

“I am sure it is unnecessary to expatiate particularly upon the sad alternative, supposing this matter breaks off; you will immediately perceive, reflecting upon it, that it must be attended with a recall into Capitivity of all the American prisoners of War, and most probably a General Assembly of them, from every part of America on Long Island. This will in course be followed by my returning with Major Genl De Reidesel to the troops of Convention, and you must be convinced with me that the present prisoners of War, or otherwise, of both parties, as well as those who may be made so in future, will become wretched sufferers during the continuance of the present unhappy War.

“I cannot help testifying even in this Letter the respect in which I hold the conduct of his Majesty’s Commander in Chief in America who has, again, most generously offered himself, willing to join with Genl Washington in a plan for a General exchange; should it fail I am persuaded you will agree with me that it will be scarcely possible to renew again any proposals of terms, and I am free to declare to you, Gentlemen, that, for myself, I had rather perish in the ⟨W⟩ilds of Virginia than become a party to any indignity which might arise upon such an occasion, and in giving there my sentiments I know I shall be joined by every Officer & soldier in the Kings service prisoners of war and Troops of Convention.

“I cannot close this letter without acknowledging the fairness of your proceedings with me on this interesting occasion, and how much you have pursued, with a steady adherence to your own cause, the dictates of humanity and liberal minds” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

For the letter of Ely, Magaw, Mathews, and Ramsay to GW regarding the origination of these proposals, see Phillips to GW, 29 Dec. 1779, n.1.

2These numbers appear on the document “State made on Mr Beatty’s Return,” dated 4 Jan. and written by Harrison (DLC:GW). Harrison seems to have derived his numbers from a document titled “A General State of British & American Prisoners. Decr 29th 1779,” sent him by commissary of prisoners John Beatty on 4 Jan. (both in DLC:GW).

3On the draft, the words “to us” appear after this word.

4The British commissioners appointed to negotiate the prisoner exchange later disputed the inclusion of “Colo. Alligood” in the exchange calculations; his existence, they claimed, was “doubtful and uncertain” (Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 2:290).

5For the action of Congress on this letter, see Huntington to GW, 14 Jan., and n.1 to that document.

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