George Washington Papers

From George Washington to General Henry Clinton, 16 October 1780

To General Henry Clinton

Head Quarters [Preakness] Octor 16th 1780


I have received your two letters of the 9th and 13th.1

On the same principle upon which that of the 9th is founded, it has been my endeavour to conduct the correspondence between us on the terms which politeness and the nature of the intercourse demanded. In the affair to which you allude, I persuade myself all the attentions were observed, which the peculiarity of the circumstances would justify.

In my letter of the 6th Ulto I barely made an inquiry about the persons who are the subject of it:2 I stated no particular report much less the one you mention of a supposed plot for the destruction of Charles Town, which I cannot but believe will on investigation appear as ill founded, as it does to me in the present situation of things, improbable. I wish I could agree in opinion with you on the spirit which actuates your Officers in Southern command; but I must conceive the inclosed intercepted letters of Lord Cornwallis and Lord Rawdon breathe a very different temper. They not only profess a flagrant breach of the capitulation of Charles Town and a violation of the laws of nations; but under whatever forced description the unhappy objects of the severity are placed, it is in a form and carried to an extreme at which humanity revolts.3 I flatter myself you will interpose your authority and influence to prevent a prosecution of measures, which cannot fail to aggravate the rigors of War and involve the most disagreeable consequences.

Major General Phillips in his letter in consequence of your orders proposes an interview between himself and General Lincoln or some other Officer for the settlement of the intended exchanges, but as the business is I apprehend too simple and too desireable on both sides to admit of difficulty, I think the meeting of the Commissaries will answer every purpose—I shall extend the instructions given to mine to your last proposition in favour of Major Generals Phillips and Reidesel with their families.4 I am Sir Your Most Obedient humble servant

Go: Washington

LS, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, P.R.O.: 30/55, Carleton Papers; Df, DLC:GW; copy (docketed “No. 3”), DLC:GW; copy, P.R.O.: 30/11/3, Cornwallis Papers; copy, P.R.O.: 30/11/98, Cornwallis Papers; copy, P.R.O.: C.O. 5/101; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1See Clinton to GW, 9 Oct., found at GW to Clinton, 6 Oct., n.3; and Clinton to GW, 13 Oct., found at William Phillips to GW, same date (first letter), n.2.

3GW refers to the letter from Lt. Col. Francis Rawdon-Hastings to Col. Henry Rugeley dated 1 July, and that of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis to Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour dated August (see Horatio Gates to GW, 3 Sept., n.10, and Thomas Jefferson to GW, 26 Sept., n.1). For the capture of Charleston and British surrender terms, see Duportail to GW, 17 May.

4See William Phillips to GW, 13 Oct. (two letters [letter 1; letter 2]), and GW to Abraham Skinner, 14 and 22 October.

Clinton replied to GW from New York on 23 Oct.: “I have received Your Letter of the 16th Instant, inclosing Copies of an Extract of a Letter from the Earl Cornwallis to Lieutenant Colonel Nesbitt Balfour, and of a Letter from Lord Rawdon to Major Rugely.

“I must always consider an Extract from a Letter as a partial, and not always a candid Description of a Correspondence. But admitting the Authenticity of these papers, I am to Suppose that Lieutenant General the Earl Cornwallis had determined to punish with a just Severity certain Persons, who, after subscribing to and taking a Test Oath of Allegiance & Service to His Majesty, had committed Crimes in Violation of such Test Oath so taken and subscribed to by them. And it seems to me both natural and proper that Loyal Subjects, who have been injured and oppressed on Account of their Zeal for the King’s Service Should receive Compensation in such Cases by a Discrimination between them and the avowed Enemies to the British Government.

“I perceive no Reason why a Militia Man who has joined the King’s Army, and is afterwards taken in that of the Enemy, should be discriminated from other Deserters. I need not point out to you, Sir, the right the Laws of Arms give over such Offenders. And this will serve as the only necessary Remark I have occasion to make on what is called a Letter from Lord Rawdon, which concerns only Deserters. For the Stile or Terms in which it may be written he is in the first Instance answerable only to the King’s Lieutenant General Commanding in the Southern District, finally to me.

“It has been my invariable Line of Conduct always to soften so far as possible, never to aggravate the Rigours of War. Such has been, also, the Desire of every General Officer in His Majesty’s Service acting in this unhappy War. But proper Punishments upon guilty Persons may become sometimes necessary. By guilty Persons I profess to mean those who shall have been convicted upon the clearest Grounds, and justest Principles of real not supposed Crimes. A Conduct so founded leaves me in no Apprehension of becoming involved in any disagreeable Consequences.

“I desire to conclude this Subject by informing You, Sir, that I esteem myself accountable for my public Conduct to His Majesty the King, to my Country, and my own Conscience. The latter being a principal Mover of all my Actions will, I flatter myself, approve me to His Majesty and the Government I serve, consequently to the World. The King’s General Officers serving on Expeditions, or in different Districts under me, act from my Orders; and I will observe respecting them generally, as I did in a late Letter particularly concerning Lord Cornwallis’s Conduct, such as his Lordship would assuredly govern himself by towards the Conspirators at Charles Town, that I am well acquainted with the Humanity of the General and other Officers of the King’s Army, & cannot entertain the least Apprehension that they will stain the lustre of the King’s Arms by Acts of Cruelty; they are incapable of straining the Laws to take away the Lives or Liberties of the Innocent. If any forced Construction be put upon the Laws it will be in favor of accused Persons, and every Plea their Friends can offer for them will be humanely heard & respected.

“I will imagine this Letter may be considered as a full Answer to the Subjects your Letter of the 16th treats of; both as it relates to them in the present Instance, or in any future One” (LS, DLC:GW; Df, P.R.O.: 30/55, Carleton Papers; copy, P.R.O.: 30/11/3, Cornwallis Papers; copy, P.R.O.: 30/11/98, Cornwallis Papers; copy, P.R.O.: C.O. 5/101; GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman docketed the LS: “no answer requisite”). William Smith, royal chief justice of New York, wrote in his memoirs for 26 Oct. that he liked Clinton’s letter for “its Manifestation of Resentment. It shews an unwillingness to recieve any more of his Complaints” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs [1971] description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs from 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 of William Smith. . .. New York, 1971. description ends , 342).

Index Entries