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 26th of March 1780


In addition to the official report of our proceedings at Amboy, which your Excellency will perc[e]ive have terminated in the manner you expected,1 we have the honor to give you an account of the steps we took, in consequence of the second part of your instructions, relative to a private conversation.2 But before we enter upon this, we think it our duty to inform you, that we have every reason to be persuaded, Sir Henry Clinton has no power to treat of the subject of prisoners on national ground; and that he will of course avoid an exchange altogether, whatever immediate interest he may have in it, rather than go into a measure of this nature. The more effectually to try the temper of the enemy on this head we endeavoured by methods which could not be drawn into consequence to impress The British Commissioners with a belief, that we should give them very great advantages in a present exchange, if a Cartel could be framed on our principles to provide durably for the relief of prisoners—We found by the determined manner in which they rejected the proposition under whatever shape it came that they not only had no authority to accept and could obtain none, but that their policy and feelings were strongly opposed to the idea.

After having made the fullest experiment of the intentions of The British Commissioners, and being convinced that we must otherwise separate without doing anything, and after having put an end to the commission, we proposed agreeable to your instructions, a private conference on the terms of a particular exchange, to be submitted to the two Commanders in Chief. This was readily agreed to by The Gentlemen on the other side.

We thought it adviseable previous to any thing else to sound their intentions with respect to a settlement of accounts; and gave them to understand that in whole or in part, it would necessarily be connected with the exchange of any considerable portion of The Convention troops. They did not think it expedient to evade the subject entirely; but we easily discovered they were not a little averse to doing any thing material on this article.

The first point taken up was to class the different descriptions of prisoners, the unexceptionable—those totally objected to—and the doubtful, whose cases demanded further inquiry. Your Excellency will find the result in the inclosed returns No. 1 and 2.3

We next agreed upon a distribution of The Convention troops. No. 3. will show in what manner the first and second divisions were disposed4—no arrangement was made of the third, as the exchange could not reach it.

We then entered upon a discussion of the mode of exchange—In this we were so unfortunate as to differ. The British Gentlemen made the proposals contained in No. 4;5 and in return we offered them the plan No. 5.6 The principal difference between us was, that we insisted upon ultimately comprehending all the prisoners of war in the exchange; and they wished to postpone all whose specific ranks and situations were not at the time ascertained to a future and remote discussion. This would have thrown into their hands two or three hundred private men more than they were entitled to by the spirit of the original proposals, and we should have remaining on ours a number of characters in whose liberation, they were little if at all interested. Our proposition appeared to us equitable and we did not think ourselves at liberty to depart from it; they would not recede from their’s and in consequence of the disagreement declined proceeding in the conference. We urged in vain that as it was merely private and not final, the not being able to unite in one point was no reason for discontinuing a conversation, which would at any rate be so far useful that it would serve to enlighten both parties on the sentiments of each other and might eventually produce a compromise. They persisted in declining it, saying that it could answer no purpose unless there was a perfect agreement in every stage.

The conversation under the form first assumed ended here; but we afterwards fell into a sort of confidential explanation on the subject of accounts. The Gentlemen declared it to be their opinion that nothing formal or of any great extent would ever be done in this matter. The objection went not only to an actual settlement or payment, but to an acknowlegement of debt or stipulation for a future settlement—Among other motives against it, they seemed to apprehend, that any such step would be an implied justification of the suspension of the treaty of Saratoga. They observed however that a particular sum without declaring its object might be advanced in provision or specie. But we could not get them to go further in this idea than to make the following offers—of £25000 Currency if the exchange were made to extend to one half of the second division—of £20.000 Sterling if to the whole of the second division, but without in this last instance giving us credit in a future exchange for the balance of prisoners in our favour. In either case if the amount was paid in provisions, they were to be delivered under pretence of being designed for the convention troops, and the debts of our officers for board &c. were to be settled, and deducted from the stipulated sum. We assured them, we were persuaded these offers would not be accepted but that they would be mentioned to your Excellency. We ventured also to give it as our opinion, that if they would advance £20.000 Sterling on condition of exchanging one half of the second division, it might possibly be accepted—But this they thought would by no means answer.

By the best calculations we are able to make, which cannot be entirely accurate as there are ranks not defined—according to our proposals No. 5 the enemy would receive about 1000—rank and file, according to their No. 4 about 1200—on the principle of advancing £25000 Currency about the same number, on that of £20.000 Stg to comprehend the two divisions 1600—Your Excellency will judge how far either of the enemy’s proposals is admissible or whether any medium can be devised.7

We beg leave to observe that we think it improbable the enemy will at this time be brought to more favourable terms. They appeared to have come to their ultimatum. General Philips is no doubt anxious to be exchanged, and has probably no inconsiderable influence in the measures now taken; but he seems to make it a point of delicacy and honor, as he stands at the head of the second division, not to be exchanged without including at least one half of the division in the same advantage. The scruple is natural and may be sincere. But notwithstanding this and though it should be determined to accede to either of the present propositions, we should imagine it would not be inexpedient just to attempt a compromise at some intermediate point.

We were under an absolute necessity of comprehending the Southern prisoners as the enemy would listen to nothing without it; but we have done it in such a manner by limiting the operation to a known period, as will make no material difference in the number of privates to be given in exchange. We imagine this difference will not exceed an hundred; and as we know on every other account, your Excellency interests yourself as much in their release as in that of the prisoners in this quarter, we flatter ourselves you will not disapprove what has been done respecting them.

In the course of conversation it was mentioned by General Philips that as The Commission was at an end, it would be necessary to obtain General Clinton’s concurrence to whatever might be finally concerted; and for this purpose he thought a flag vessel with a passport from us would be the most expeditious & eligible mode. He also expressed a wish to be permitted to go himself to Sir Henry, which he said would be of importance in any case, essential if a question of money should be involved. We promised to impart his request.

We are bound to inform Your Excellency that there was a reciprocal pledge of honor that no part of these conversations should become matter of official record or publication; and we have entire confidence that this communication will never appear in any form inconsistent with our engagements. We have the honor to be With perfect respect Yr Excellency’s Most Obedt & humble servants

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

P.S. We omitted mentioning that the mode talked of for conducting any further transactions on these subjects, was by letter between the Commanding Officers—by an interview between the two Commissaries of prisoners or others without the formality of a regular commission.8

LS, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 167.

Maj. Gen. William Phillips had written Lord George Germain secretly from New York on 25 March: “In a number of attempts to release the troops of convention the matter has broken off under several descriptions. At one time the American Congress would not exchange the troops in corps, at another they were willing to exchange private soldiers to a certain number but it was never understood what number or in what manner. Interested as I have been, it has led me to hold conversations with a number of American officers, proving to them that the troops of convention stood under a particular description and that exchanging the officers without the men against American officers, prisoners of war, could not be considered as equal, the American officers going into an immediate activity of service and the convention officers not doing so as the regiments to which they belonged would still be in captivity; and however eligible and convenient for the officers themselves, it would be of no advantage to the King’s service. I have intended that these conversations should reach General Washington and the American Congress . … In consequence of this or whatever reason it may be, I do now think the American Congress intend to make no further objections to exchanging the troops of convention by corps.

“The late commission at Amboy it is certain broke up very soon upon its public ground but the commissioners remained for several days after engaged in a sort of private conversation, and a variety of essential business was transacted such as balancing the accounts of prisoners of war between the commissaries-general of prisoners, settling some disputed points between them, extending upon liberal principles the suffering officers visiting their friends upon parole etc., but the conversation took a more particular turn as it related to the exchange of prisoners of war and the troops of convention wherein it seemed to be agreed on, as our mutual private opinions, that such a measure might be pursued without the formality of commissioners meeting and settling it by letters between the two commanders-in-chief.

“I found by closely attending to what the other party said that the want of specie operated strongly among the Americans against an exchange, as thus: there are a considerable number of American officers, prisoners of war on Long Island, who have been so for more than twelve months; they are boarded at farmers’ houses at a rate of two dollars per week subject to the payment of any arrear of such debts previous to their being exchanged. Now I conceive, my lord, there is an utter impossibility in these officers doing this of themselves and I apprehend the American Congress are not only unable but unwilling to do it for them. The amount of these debts I understand to be about twelve thousand pounds.

“Another idea has suggested itself to me which I have drawn also from the private conversations beforementioned, that there will be a difficulty in supplying the troops of convention with provisions, for wheat flour has of some time been left out in the distribution in Virginia and Indian meal substituted for it. … From this, my lord, I believe before any exchange of the troops of convention can take place it will be necessary to send to Virginia four or five hundred thousand rations of provisions, which, under the idea of supplying the troops of convention, the Americans will in course apply to such present purposes as they may prefer, or in the place of this to give them a certain sum of money upon the same account; and I imagine I may say almost to a certainty that, including the whole of what I have described to your lordship, a sum not exceeding twenty-five thousand pounds will fully answer all the purposes I have mentioned and bring about an exchange of perhaps the whole of the troops of convention . …

“I have thus offered to your lordship’s consideration what I apprehend to be the real state of facts regarding the operations of a general exchange and I submit it, taking the liberty of making a few observations, to the decision of your lordship’s judgment, requesting of you, my lord, to recollect that, having no interference with Sir Henry Clinton nor any power of conferring with him upon this subject by writing, my ideas are purely my own and given under the most perfect respect to the commander-in-chief, to whom I shall report every circumstance and who I am sure will pardon my having taken the advantage of a packet which sails tomorrow to inform your lordship of these circumstances that otherwise could not reach you of many weeks” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 18:68–72). Phillips corresponded further on aspects of his private conversations with the American commissioners when he wrote Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair on 20 and 22 March (see Smith, St. Clair Papers description begins William Henry Smith, ed. The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair: Soldier of the Revolutionary War; President of the Continental Congress; and Governor of the North-Western Territory with his Correspondence and other Papers. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1882. description ends , 1:505–10; see also GW to St. Clair, 2 April and notes 1 and 7 to that document).

Germain replied to Phillips from London on 3 May: “His Majesty saw with regret that the last commission for settling an exchange of the convention troops had proved as ineffectual as the former, but it was a great relief to His Majesty’s concern for the unhappy situation of those brave men to find you had penetrated into the real causes that obstructed an exchange and had good grounds to believe it might be effected by a private negotiation. The proposals agreed upon by yourself and Mr Washington’s officers to be submitted to your respective commanders appear to be equitable and fit to be adopted except in respect to the tariff where the general officers are much too highly rated, particularly the lieutenant-general which exceeds all proportion to that of major-general and is evidently calculated for the advantage of the Americans who have no officers of that rank and consequently cannot suffer by it, whereas they have one of ours already in their power. This article, therefore, I never can advise His Majesty to approve nor is there the shadow of justice in requiring it as the gradation of rank between a major-general and a lieutenant-general is not greater than between a brigadier-general and a major-general. The proportion, therefore, ought to be the same, and with that alteration I have acquainted Sir Henry Clinton that the King approves his ratifying the articles . … With respect to the inducements you mention as necessary to be held out to obtain the Congress’s consent to the tariff, I should hope Sir Henry Clinton will by his success in Carolina render them unnecessary as it may be expected he will have both officers and men of theirs sufficient to set against ours; but should that not be the case, I could never agree to sending money or provisions to the rebel posts in Virginia under any pretence as I know their want of provisions is the only thing which prevents them from renewing their attempts against Canada and that such would be the purpose to which whatever they might receive would be applied, and to the same service would the specie money be appropriated, as for that only can they now purchase provisions. …

“After having thus so fully observed upon the contents of these papers, I have the satisfaction to acquaint you that His Majesty very much approves of your endeavours to bring about so desirable an event as the release of the convention troops; and I have informed Sir Henry Clinton that it is the King’s wish if a general exchange cannot be effected, or until it can, that he should proceed in carrying on the exchange upon the footing you propose and which you say the Congress will readily come into, of officer against officer and private against private, leaving only the number of officers you have mentioned with the privates which may remain” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 18:85–86). GW addressed the next British initiative to negotiate a prisoner exchange agreement when he wrote Samuel Huntington on 10 July (DNA:PCC, item 152) and Abraham Skinner on 12 July (DLC:GW, ser. 9).

1See the first letter from the Commissioners for the Exchange of Prisoners to GW, this date.

3The commissioners apparently are referring to copies of documents in Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton’s writing originally prepared and dated 16 March at Perth Amboy, N.J., by John Beatty, commissary general of prisoners for the United States, and Joshua Loring, British commissary general of prisoners (all documents in DLC:GW). Enclosure “No. 1” presumably is an item titled “A General State of American Officers Prisoners with the British,” in which prisoners are categorized in a table as either unexceptionable, exceptionable, or “quere”—that is, subject to questions that prevented their inclusion in either of the first two groups. Listed as “Unexceptionable” are 3 brigadier generals, 12 colonels, 8 lieutenant colonels, 10 majors, 44 captains, 152 lieutenants, and 44 ensigns, for a total of 273 officers. Listed as “Exceptionable” are 1 brigadier general, 2 colonels, 2 lieutenant colonels, 3 majors, 4 captains, 8 lieutenants, and 2 ensigns, for a total of 22 officers. Listed as “Quere” are 1 major, 1 captain, and 6 lieutenants. A separate page lists the “Exceptionable” officers by name, with a remark that reads: “Said to be not taken in Arms & Subject to future discussion.” This page adds a brigade major not included in the table. Another page lists the questioned, or “Quere,” officers by name and adds another brigade major not included in the table. Details on the “Exceptionable” and “Quere” officers may be found in another item with headings and explanations that read: “A List of Prisoners claimed by the Enemy as Officers, and Objected to, as holding no Military Rank … A List of Prisoners Claimed by the Enemy as Officers holding the Rank, which is set opposite their Names—The Commissioners at Amboy 16th March 1780 Objected, but allowed they held some Military Rank & they were therefore Set down on the Quere List … Besides the aforegoing there are several Persons taken out of their Beds whom the Enemy will not Consent to Exchange for any Body but the Officers of their Rank. There are also a Number of Persons taken in Whale Boats with Capts. Commissions from different States which the Enemy will not Consent to Exchange without their Value (by Tariff).”

Two likely related enclosures, both copied in Hamilton’s writing and originally signed by Beatty and Loring at Perth Amboy, are also in DLC:GW. One document, dated 18 March, is titled “List of American Officers Prisoners of War allowed to be Unexceptionable” and presents each officer by rank and name in tabular form. The other document, dated 20 March, is titled “List of American Officers who broke Parole allowed to be Unexceptionable” and presents each officer in tabular form by rank, name, and corps. A final notation reads: “Allowed to have broke Parole, Lt Andw Forrest Excepted.”

The enclosure marked “No. 2” on its docket is a copy of a document in Hamilton’s writing titled “List of British Officers Prisoners of War March 16th 1780” that Beatty and Loring had signed at Perth Amboy on 18 March. The list presents each prisoner by rank, name, corps, and “Where Quartered” (locations) in tabular form and shows 1 colonel, 8 lieutenant colonels, 5 majors, 24 captains, 41 lieutenants, and 27 ensigns. These imprisoned British officers are categorized as “Unexceptionable” on the docket. A separate copied item, also in Hamilton’s writing and originally signed by Beatty and Loring at Perth Amboy on 16 March, is titled “A General State of British Officers prisoners with the Americans” and presents a table with the numbers of “Unexceptionable” officers totalling 106 and the “Exceptionable” officers being only 2 captains and 2 lieutenants. A separate page names these 4 officers and adds the remark: “To be Subject to a future discussion.”

A likely related undated enclosure, again in Hamilton’s writing, is a return headed “Ballance of unexceptionable Characters Prisoners of War in favour of the enemy” (DLC:GW, filed with documents dated 26 March 1780; see also Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 2:300–301). The document aggregates officers held as prisoners and assigns tariffs, or points, to each rank: brigadier generals, 200; colonels, 100; majors, 28; captains, 16; 1st lieutenants, 6; 2d lieutenants or ensigns, 4; and regimental quarter-masters or adjutants, 6. Specific scores were given for a few selected persons, most notably 402 for “Major General Philips & suite.”

4This enclosure has not been identified.

5The enclosure marked “No. 4” on the docket is headed “A Proposition” and dated 18 March. It reads: “That the Exchange of the first division of the Troops of Convention according to the proposed plan given in shall have immediate operation with the Exchanges of Officers for Officers prisoners of War, and that the Exchange of the Second division of the Troops of Convention according to the proposed plan given in shall, also, have immediate operation so far as the Estimate of American Officers, Prisoners of War, according to the Tarif settled, shall apply; And those American Officers prisoners of War in South Carolina and Georgia who may be now in possession of the British Army and were actually prisoners on the 31st day of December 1779 are to be comprehended in the Estimate already mentioned.

“That, however, the said American Officers prisoners of War in South Carolina and Georgia be applied in the first instance to the immediate Exchange of Lieutenant Governor Hamilton, according to a Rank which may be settled for him, and, also of the Major and other Officers of the Army or Militia who may be with him in Virginia, and who were made Prisoners of War by a Capitulation with the American Colonel Clarke. …

“That Canadians and others belonging to the Government of Canada, being entirely dependant upon General Haldimand the Commander in Chief in Canada, all matters relating to them must be discussed between the American Commissaries and those of the British in Canada, and whenever any matters relating to prisoners of War with their Ranks appear properly certified from Canada they will in course form motives of Conveniency and humanity to both parties be considered in Exchanges, as has been the Case in a variety of Instances by the British Commander in Chief of the Southern Army” (DLC:GW; see also Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 2:289–91).

6The enclosure marked “No. 5” on the docket is a draft in Hamilton’s writing dated 19 March. It in part reads: “Major General St Clair Lt Col. Carrington and Lt Col. Hamilton give it as their opinion as the result of the conversation held upon the subject that the most likely plan for effecting the exchange in contemplation is to confine it to the unexceptionable characters on both sides first exchanging all the prisoners of war and then the troops of convention for the balance, according to the distribution which has been made of them into divisions—In this is meant to be included Lt Governor Hamilton, a Major and some other officers made prisoners of war by a capitulation with Colonel Clarke.

“They think it may be an impediment to the business to involve the prisoners in South Carolina and Georgia at any rate from the great uncertainty in which both parties are of their number and descriptions; but if this be made a point they are willing to propose it under the following form only—that it shall extend solely to the officers in captivity in that quarter on the 31st of December last, who sh[a]ll remain unexchanged—that all officers prisoners of war to the United States, whose specific ranks and circumstances are not now ascertained and who are not therefore comprehended in the above description of unexceptionable characters—shall stand against whatever balance there may be of the aforesaid Southern prisoners in favour of the British according to such ranks and by such compositions as may hereafter be agreed upon after a more full inquiry into the nature of their respective appointments in the British service & the situations in which they were taken—It is of course understood that this settlement is to be made on liberal and equitable terms—and to reflect only such as were in captivity at the forementioned period of the 31st of Decr last—That if there be still a balance of officers in favour of the British, it shall be applied as far as it will go towards an exchange of the remainder of the 2d division of the troops of Convention—It is intended to comprehend in this arrangement those Canadian officers who have been sent in on their paroles and are not yet accounted for—The circumstances of their belonging to the Northern department can be no objection to this; as frequent exchanges have been made here from time to time of prisoners sent from Canada and in a recent instance during the present interview, credit has been given by the American Commissary for a list of such prisoners said to be delivered by a flag vessel from Halifax” (DLC:GW; see also Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 2:291–92).

7The commissioners again wrote GW from Morristown on 10 April: “We beg leave to inform Your Excellency, that in the private report of our proceedings at Amboy dated the 26th March—we omitted mentioning, (though it is to be inferred) that in the conversation which passed on the subject of accounts, it was explicitly declared by us, that if any particular sum should be accepted agreeable to the ideas of The British Gentlemen, it was not in any manner to be construed to affect the general question of accounts, or imply a renunciation of the demands, which these states have against Great Britain on the score of prisoners, but was to be considered merely as a condition to the present exchange, though the sum advanced would be of course credited in a final settlement” (LS, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in GW’s second letter to Samuel Huntington, 17 April, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169). GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman wrote “26th March” on the LS.

8GW’s warrant book for 5 April indicates a payment of $475.30 to Lt. Col. Edward Carrington “for Expenses paid by him on the late meeting of Commissioners at Amboy” (Revolutionary War Warrant Book 5, 1780–1783, DLC:GW, ser. 5).

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