George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Benjamin Lincoln, 25 September 1780

From Major General Benjamin Lincoln

Camp [Orangetown] September 25th 1780

My dear General

I take this early opportunity to inform your Excellency that in the late interview no exchanges took place; and that I see little prospect that any will be effected while the idea remains that officers only are to be the subject of it.1

In the course of conversation with General Philips (for nothing more took place between us relative to a general exchange of prisoners, as I early informed him that I was not authorised to go into that matter) I found that he supposed the reason why we declined the exchange of privates was that we were unwilling to throw into their hands in the middle of a campeign such a reinforcement as they would receive by an exchange of all the privates—to obviate this difficulty he mentioned that the exchange of privates might be postponed to some future day, say the first of December, sooner or later as should be agreed on—but so as not to act this campeign—This I hope will remove the objections which have existed against a general exchange of privates—I think policy, justice & humanity point to the propriety of exchanging them if not immediately yet at the close of the campeign—Your Excellency will permit me to offer the reasons on which I ground this opinion.

The men now prisoners of war (excuse the personality of my situation) are those who from an attachment to the liberties of America engaged in her cause from a reliance that they should not only find every support from their fellow-citizens in the important contest but that they should enjoy all the immunities and blessings peculiar to the soldier in the power of the people to grant—that an exchange when made a prisoner is one of the rights of a soldier none I think will deny—and that he may claim a release when just and reasonable terms can be had.

The long and distressing captivity which many of the prisoners have endured, the severe sufferings to which many of them are now reduced from nakedness and hunger, their constant attendants, and the want of almost every convenience & necessary of life, the miseries of which are augmented and embittered by the narrow limits of a loathsome jail, and their having no assurance that their sufferings will soon have an end—call for redress.

The prisoners pained with regret, are become sore—their minds are soured, and their friends and connections think them neglected by the public—this may prevent the recruiting our battalions and cause a disrelish for the service—every thing of the kind, I think, should be avoided, and never more necessary than at the present day, when it seems to be the general voice that our only safety and the freedom of America, (under the supreme Arbiter) depends on an army raised for the war—If we should refuse to exchange the privates on the proposals made of man for man, it must, I think, operate powerfully on the minds of those, who other wise might engage in the service, when they reflect how uncertain are the events of war, and that it may be their lot to become the prisoner and be destined to a miserable & perhaps to an endless captivity—And when the enemy shall have published their decleration of our refusal to accede to an equal & fair exchange, we may find it a matter of much difficulty to justify our selves to the world at large, who will naturally enough suspect us of injustice in not fulfilling our public engagements, as they will accuse us of wanting humanity in neglecting those very men who have stepped forth to assert our rights.

The daily decreasing of the number of the convention troops by deserting to the enemy, for which we have no compensation, and the great expence to which we are exposed for the support of them, and of our officers and men, prisoners of war with the enemy, must have their weight in urging to the propriety of an exchange.

To the foregoing reasons, in my humble opinion sufficient in themselves, permit me My Dear General, to annex an apprehension for our unfortunate prisoners now in New York—the enemy supposing themselves authorised by our refusal of an exchange, may, under the pretence of œconomising provisions, providing for their own safety, or some other plausible reason, have our prisoners removed to some distant & consequently disagreeable situation, where they may be subjected to less expence &C.—Should an event of this kind take place retaliation is hardly in our power, as all parts of the continent are equally agreeable to the British.

I hope sir on a review of the matter, as the objection of reinforcing the enemy this campaign is removed, a general exchange will be adopted; by which many of your officers & men, now suffering under the most miserable captivity, will be released, and once more have the honor of fighting under your Excellencys particular command in support of that independence of America which induced them to quit the sweets of a domestic life for the toils of a camp which no one will reenter with more cheerfulness than him who has the honor to be with the highest esteem Your Excellencys most obedient & most humble servant

B: Lincoln

ALS, DLC:GW; Df, MHi: Benjamin Lincoln Papers; copy, enclosed in GW to Samuel Huntington, 7 Oct. (Document XVI with Major John André’s Capture and Execution, 23 Sept.–7 Oct., editorial note), DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169.

Lincoln wrote New Hampshire delegate John Sullivan on 1 Oct. and asked that he give “particular attention to the matter of a general exchange of prisoners which I suppose will come in a day or two recommended from his Excellency General Washington” (Hammond, Sullivan Papers description begins Otis G. Hammond, ed. Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army. 3 vols. Concord, 1930-39. In Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, vols. 13–15. description ends , 3:190–91).

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