George Washington Papers

To George Washington from the Board of War, 18 October 1780

From the Board of War

War Office [Philadelphia] Octr 18th 1780


When Capt. Joel was committed to our Charge we thought it proper to examine him & among a Variety of Matter of an unimportant Nature1 he informed us of there being a Major General in the Service of America who was in British pay. As we conceived this to be a Tale calculated to magnify his Importance or to extract Money from the public we contented ourselves with mentioning the Circumstance to several Members of Congress who did not think it worth regarding as it was not to be supposed that did such a Thing exist it could have come to the Knowledge of a Person so insignificant as Capt. Joel. When General Arnold’s Treason was developed it was supposed that Capt. Joel would give himself Credit for having given the necessary Hints previous to the actual Discovery.2 But on being interrogated after Arnold’s Villainy appeared he said it was another Major General & on our farther & pressing Enquiry he gave up the Name of the General who he said was Majr Genl Howe & alledged that he heard his Name mentioned as a Friend to the British Cause at Col. Fanning’s Table.3 He farther informed that [ ] a Commissary or Forage Master suffered himself frequently to be taken Prisoner by the British & acted as an Emissary under their Directions & that he had mentioned the Matter so far as related to himself to Genl Howe—Whatever may be thought of the Weight of the Information we conceive it our Duty to write to your Excellency on the Subject that being possessed of the whole Affair you may take such Measures as you shall deem proper. We have endeavored to get the Information in Writing from Capt. Joel but have not been able to obtain it—Mr Joel’s Character has not appeared in a favourable Point of View in the Instances falling under our Notice—He appears to be of quick Parts, daring, unprincipled & so intemperately loquacious that he talks in all Companies about his Affairs & particularly mentions the Information he has given the Board concealing however the Name of the General. We shall be happy to hear speedily from your Excellency on the Subject that if it is deemed necessary Mr Joel may be farther examined or secured as an Evidence in the Matter which will be kept secret so far as depends upon us until you are pleased to order otherwise. We have the Honour to be with the highest Respect & Esteem your very obed. Servants

Richard Peters
By Order & in Behalf of the Board

P.S. Since writing the above Mr Joel has been farther interrogated by a Member of the Board & he says that he heard Col. Fanning tell W. Smith Esqr. in New York that he (Col. Fanning) had sent out an American Commissary who suffered himself to be captivated frequently by the British with a Letter to Major Genl Howe & that he (Col. F.) had no Doubt of his complying with the Terms of it as more splendid Advantages were offered him than any he could obtain in the American Service. Mr Joel farther said that he communicated this Conversation to Genl Howe who informed Thomas Smith (Bror of W. Smith) then present thereof. Upon being pressed to give his Information in Writing he at first evaded & finally refused it as he said he would not become an Accuser; but promised to leave it sealed up for the Board when he went to Sea which he expected would be in a short time.4

ALS, DLC:GW. Board of War secretary Richard Peters wrote “(Private)” on the cover.

3Maj. Gen. Robert Howe’s name was mentioned as a British sympathizer (see Document V, n.2, with Major John André’s Capture and Execution, 23 Sept.–7 Oct., editorial note).

4GW replied to the Board of War from headquarters at Preakness on 25 Oct.: “I am honored with your letter of the 18th. The enemy seem to be practicing the arts of corruption so extensively that I think we cannot be too much upon our guard against its effects nor ought we to neglect any clues that may Lead to discoveries; but on the other hand, we ought to be equally circumspect in admitting suspicions or proceeding upon them, without sufficient evidence. It will be the policy of the enemy to distract us as much as possible by sowing jealousies, and if we swallow the bait, no characters will be safe, there will be nothing but mutual distrust. In the present case, from every thing I have heard of your informant, I should suspect him of the worst intentions—and notwithstanding what we are told about the motives which obliged him to leave the enemy, I still think it probable he came out as a spy—and that the assigned causes are either altogether fictitious, or being real were made the inducement with him for undertaking the errand to avoid punishment, as well as obtain a reward—The kind of information he is willing to give may be received; but in my opinion, it would be a very improper foundation for an inquiry, unless the circumstances of it have much more weight than the character of the Witness” (Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW).

William Smith, royal chief justice of New York, related erroneous intelligence in his memoirs for 14 Oct.: “Reported on the other Side of the Lines that General Knox has privately withdrawn himself from the Rebel Army, and that Stirling, Howe, and Parsons are suspected and confined” (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 , 340).

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