George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Captain George Dawson, 25 January 1781

To Captain George Dawson

Head Quarters New Windsor Jany 25. 81


Through a variety of channels representations of too serious a nature to be disregarded, have come to us that the American naval prisoners in the harbour of New York are suffering all the extremities of distress from a two crowded and in all respects disagreeable and unwholesome situation on board the prison-ships—and from the want of food and other necessaries. The picture given us of their sufferings is truly calamitous and deplorable; If just, it is the obvious interest of both parties (to omit the plea of humanity) that the causes should be without delay inquired into and removed; if false it is equally desirable that effectual measures should be taken to obviate misapprehension. This can only be done by permitting an officer of Confidence on both sides to visit the prisoners in their respective confinements—and examine into their true condition. This will either at once satisfy you that by some abuse of trust in the persons immediately charged with the care of the prisoners their treatment is really [s]uch as has been described to us and requires a change; or it will convince us1 that the clamours are ill grounded. A disposition to aggravate the miseries of captivity is too illiberal, to be imputed to any but those subordinate characters, who in every service are too often remiss or unprincipled. This reflection assures me that you will acquiesce in the mode2 proposed for ascertaining the truth and detecting delinquency) on one side or falshood on the other.

The di[s]cussions and asperities which have had too much place on the subject of prisoners are so irksome in themselves and have had so many ill-consequences, that it is infinitely to be wished there may be no room given to revive them. The mode I have suggested appears to me calculated to bring the present case to a fair direct and satisfactory issue—I am not sensible of any inconveniences it can be attended with, and I therefore hope for your concurrence. I shall be glad as soon as possible to hear from you on the subject.3 I have the hono⟨ur⟩ to be Sir Your most Obedt humble servant.

Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The draft is addressed to “The Officer Commanding The British Fleet in the Harbour of New York.” The recipient’s copy, which has not been found, was enclosed in GW to Henry Clinton, this date. GW enclosed a copy of this letter in his first letter to Samuel Huntington on 13 February.

George Dawson had been promoted from lieutenant in the Royal Navy to commander in May 1776. He became a captain in September of the following year. He was dismissed from the naval service in 1783.

1Hamilton initially wrote “me” on the draft. He then struck out that word and wrote “us” above the line.

2Hamilton first wrote “you will chearfully acquiesce in the reasonable mode” on the draft. He then struck out “chearfully” and “reasonable” to leave the final phrase.

3The final twenty-one words on the draft replaced Hamilton’s original conclusion: “I sincerely hope an acq[i]escence on your part will prevent all altercations and put the matter upon a proper equitable and humane footing.”

Dawson replied to GW on 2 February.

Index Entries