George Washington Papers

To George Washington from the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners, 26 March 1780

From the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners

Morris Town March 26th 1780

To His Excellency George Washington Esqr. General and Commander in Chief of the Forces of The United States of America.

We The Commissioners appointed by Your Excellency “to treat, confer, determine and conclude upon a General Cartel for the exchange and accommodation of prisoners of war—including the troops of The Convention of Saratoga and all matters whatsoever which might be properly contained therein”1 beg leave to report.

That persuant to Your Excellency’s instructions, we met Major General Philips The Honorable Lt Col. Gordon and Lt Col. Norton, commissioners on the part of His Excellency General Sir Henry Clinton, at Amboy, the 9th instant, and the day following had an interview with them on the subject for which we were respectively deputed.

That we found the powers of The British Commissioners liable to the same objections which had frustrated all former endeavours to settle a general Cartel; and were compelled, as well from the express tenor of our own powers as from the indispensable nature of the objections themselves to decline a negotiation for which on their side there was no sufficient authority.2 Your Excellency will perceive by the annexed copy of Sir Henry Clinton’s commission, that he acknowleges no power from His Britannic Majesty as the basis of the proposed treaty,3 and the subjoined minutes of the proceedings will show substantially what passed in the conference upon this subject.4 We omitted there an objection which we occasionally made in the course of conversation to the caption of The British powers.

We think it unnecessary to detail here the reasons assigned for our objections, as we deem them too evident to need elucidation and as most of them have been stated, on former occasions, in the strongest and clearest manner by Your Excellency’s commissioners. But we cannot forbear remarking how extraordinary it must appear that such repeated attempts have been made to establish a Treaty the ostensible operation of which is to extend through the war, while its real one must at best be limited to the continuance of a particular officer in command, having no other support than his personal faith and personal influence.

While we lament that our commission has not had an issue answerable to its humane intention and to Your Excellency’s wishes, we shall be happy to find our conduct meets your approbation.5

Ar. St Clair Mr Gl
Ed. Carrington Lt Colo. Arty
Alex. Hamilton L. Col.

LS, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed with GW to Samuel Huntington, 31 March, DNA:PCC, item 167.

1See GW to the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners, 7 March. For related documents generated prior to this prisoner exchange negotiation, see Alexander Hamilton to GW, 17 March, n.2.

2The commissioners and GW wanted negotiations to be based on the authority of the British government (see Hamilton to GW, 17 March, and n.5 to that document).

3The enclosed commission dated 25 Dec. 1779 was rendered by “His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton, Knight of the most Honorable Order of the Bath, General & Commander in Chief of all His Majesty’s Forces within the Colonies laying on the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to West Florida Inclusive” (DLC:GW).

4A copy of these prisoner exchange negotiation minutes, dated 10–14 March, is printed as an enclosure to this letter.

5William Smith, royal chief justice of New York, assisted the British commissioners—Maj. Gen. William Phillips, Lt. Col. Cosmo Gordon, and Lt. Col. Chapple Norton—prior to the negotiation. Smith wrote in his memoirs for 2, 3, and 8 March: “[Thursday] 2 … General Philipse sends the Proposals for a General Cartel, and desires my Aid in reducing them to a Compact.”

“Friday 3 … Inclosed a Draft of the Cartel in a short Letter to General Philips. … I am most doubtful of the Article which intitles Militia Men not taken in Arms to go out on like Parole with General Burgoyne. This Ease may give them Vigor in Council and that may force the lower Sort to Arms. In a Note on the Margin I call his Attention to it. …

“General Philips sends Mr. Collier, his Aid de Camp, with his Credentials to settle a Cartel. It is final, but full of Blanks. … This filling up the Date while Sir Henry is known to be absent puzzles General Philips. There is a Necessity for his owning that it was trusted to him to be filled up. It may be doubted whether that will not excite to cavil. But the Error is incurable if they do make this an Objection.

“Wednesday 8 … Met Major General Phillips at Captain Smyth’s (Sir H. Clinton’s Secretary) on the Alteration to be made in the Credentials for the Exchange, for which the Commissioners are to meet to Morrow at Amboy. It appeared necessary, from its Recital of an Agreement with Washington with Blanks for a Date, the Time of it being made, to eraze a considerable Part of it and suppose an Agreement to be future. After all it is so. Then the Credentials themselves may have a Date prior to his Sailing. Philips is anxious under the Apprehension of Cavils that may defer the Exchange and waited 3 Hours for my coming Home this Morning before he resolved upon taking this Liberty with Sir H. Clinton’s Instrument subsigillo. I advised his having a Certified Copy ready to deliver at the first Meeting, reading himself the Original hastily that the Erasures might not strike the Attention of the Rebel Commissioners, nor the Diversity of the Hands writing which are, however, nearly similar” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 237–39).

Expectations of this negotiation from an American perspective are expressed in a letter written at Westfield, N.J., presumably on 9 or 10 March, by John Beatty, commissary general of prisoners, to Col. Samuel Blachley Webb, a Continental army prisoner long waiting for an exchange. Beatty’s letter reads: “I am thus far on my Road from Morristown to Amboy where Commissioners are met on the Business of Exchange … Each party appear sanguine in their expectations on this subject; but so frequent disap[p]ointments has learned me to doubt everything—the propositions are indeed new & bordering nearer to principles of equity & mutual advantage, & I confess I should be ready to believe they would be established; were not a liquidation of accounts to be confounded with their Negotiations & which I fear will marr the whole; as you may rest satisfied the Enemy will carefully avoid a settlement of accts which in their consequences must involve them in a heavy debt & the transfer of a large sum of money. Were not this the case, I should flatter myself with announcing shortly to you, an acct of your Exchange—but I go down diffident & wish I may return believing” (Ford, Webb Correspondence and Journals description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb. 3 vols. New York, 1893–94. description ends , 2:254–55).

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