George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Samuel Huntington, 6 January 1781

From Samuel Huntington

Philadelphia January 6. 1781


Your Excellency will receive herewith enclosed, the Copy of a report of Committee and consequent resolve of Congress; with Copies of Letters from Mr Abraham Skinner & Mr David Sproat, and Memorial from George Lyman & others Prisoners in the Provost at New York.

By these Despatches you will see the cruel Treatment exercised by the Enemy towards the Prisoners in their Hands, and that in the Opinion of Congress an Exercise of the Law of retaliation is become necessary.

Driven by Necessity; from the unwarrantable & inhuman Practices of the Enemy, Congress have adopted the Measures directed in the foregoing resolve, which your Excellency will please to observe so far forth as they relate to your Province.1

I have also enclosed two Acts of Congress of the 2d & 3d Instant; by the former your Excellency will be informed of the Mode in which Colonel Armand may be permitted to recruit his Corps, and by the Latter of the resignation of Doctor Shippen.2 I have the Honor to be with the highest regard your Excellency’s most obedient & most humble Servant

Sam. Huntington President

LS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA:PCC, item 15. GW acknowledged this letter when he wrote Huntington on 15 January.

1Huntington enclosed congressional resolutions dated 5 Jan.: “The Committee to whom was referred the letter of Abraham Skinner Comy Genl of prisoners delivered in a report as follows.

“That notwithstanding every effort of Congress to obtain for our people prisoners in the hands of the enemy that treatment which humanity alone should have dictated, the british commanders unmindful of the tenderness exercised toward their men prisoners in our hands and regardless of the practice of civilized nations have persisted in treating our people prisoners in their hands with every species of insult, outrage and cruelty. Officers & men are indiscriminately thrown into the hold of prison ships and into loathsome dungeons and there deprived of fuel and the common necessaries of life by which means many of the citizens of these States have been compelled to enter into their service to avoid those distresses which a conduct so contrary to the law of nations have brought upon them. Our seamen taken upon the American coast have been sent to Great Britain and other parts beyond sea to prevent their being exchanged or to force them to take arms against their country.

“That in the opinion of the committee an exercise of the law of retaliation has become necessary as a justice due to those citizens of America whom the fortune of war has thrown into the power of our enemy.

“Whereupon, Resolved, That copies of the letter of Mr. A. Skinner and the other papers referred be transmitted to the commander in chief and that he be directed to enquire into the manner in which our people who are prisoners are treated by the enemy and that he give immediate orders to the commanding officers at the different posts to take particular care that the British prisoners receive the same allowance and treatment in every respect as our people who are prisoners receive from the enemy.

“Resolved, That it be recommended to the respective executives to take effectual measures for carrying into execution the act of Congress of the 13th Jany 1780 respecting prisoners taken by the citizens, troops or ships of particular States.

“That the board of Admiralty issue orders not to exchange any british sea officer or seaman until the enemy shall have returned to some of their garrisons in America such seamen as they have taken upon the American coast & have sent to Great Britain or other parts beyond sea, & that the board of war & board of Admiralty give orders for continuing the treatment of prisoners as herein directed until they receive orders to the contrary from Congress or the commander in chief” (DLC:GW; see also JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 19:27–28).

The enclosed copy of a letter from Abraham Skinner, commissary general of prisoners, to Thomas Bradford, dated 26 Dec. 1780, reads: “I am much indebted for your particular attention in forwarding on the Prisoners from Philadelphia and for your attention to our money matters.

“I find no difficulty in negociating my business with Loring in the land exchanges and I wish I could say as much of our friend Sproat, whose conduct I cannot account for he denys having any hand in sending our poor fellows home in the Yarmouth, and tho he acknowledges a ballance due to Philadelphia yet he absolutely refused to make the remittance. This I thought so unreasonable that I could not help abusing him and insisted on his sending the Philadelphians out, which he promised to do; but as he is a creature without power I fear he will not be able to accomplish it.

“From what I can learn there is another Vessel preparing to take another parcel of our Captains and Mates (now on board the Prison Ship to England) and the only reason they assign for it is, because they were taken in armed Vessels.

“I think it high time that something should be done. Pray dont attemp letting a Capt. in the naval line or any one under his rank have a parole, nor dont on any account send on a Man untill they send out some, for believe me there is not the least faith to be put in those People and they really act with as much villainy as you can suppose. There may be enough who will begin to find fault with this rigorous treatment but my God was you to see the manner in which our Officers & Men are confined in their Prison Ships, you would almost forget the rules of decency towards those People” (DLC:GW; see also Matthias Ogden to GW, 13 Nov., n.1).

The enclosed copy of a letter from David Sproat, British commissary general of naval prisoners, to Captain Griffin, dated at New York City on 30 Dec., reads: “you have too long been a witness of the distress and misery attending on imprisonment you will therefore use your endeavours to get as many released as possible—Altho you are greatly indebted—a number of our people are withheld from us, at Hartford in Connecticut—at East town in Pensylvania and at Philadelphia, which for the good of the whole had better be sent in I mention this to you because I believe you to be a man of humanity” (DLC:GW).

The enclosed copy of the memorial from George Lyman and six other “Masters of Whale boats” to Congress, dated at the “Provost condemned Room” in New York City on 28 Dec., reads: “This is the fourth day of our being at this place, have drew no kind of subsistance except water, we have not yet been informed the cause of such treatment—if it is for retaliation we will endeavour to bear it, yet think ourselves improper subjects to bears such hardships, noone but those who experience can form an Idea of the diasgreeableness of the place—We are exposed to the North west blasts with out the least obstruction to the cold except the grates—Humbly sollicit something may be immediately done for us—consider the long imprisonment we have bore, and most of that time destitute of any thing to make us comfortable—We have disposed of cloathing to prisoners exchanged with the prospect of having necessaries sent to us from Jerseys, but have never received any thing for them, being informed that the commandant at Elizabeth town would not suffer any such necessaries to be sent us.

“The severity of weather in this place will not admit of many words—beg the honorable Congress will consider our hard fate and relieve us from such scenes of distress” (DLC:GW).

2In the enclosed act of 2 Jan., Congress authorized GW to permit Colonel Armand to take up to six volunteers for his partisan corps from the Continental infantry regiments when the strength of the regiments would allow such a deduction (see DLC:GW; see also JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 19:9). In the enclosed act of 3 Jan., Congress accepted the resignation of William Shippen, Jr., as director general of the hospital department (see DLC:GW; see also Shippen to GW, 4 Jan.).

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