George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Joseph Reed, 19 October 1780

Hd Qrs Passaic Falls Octr 19th 1780.


With respect to prisoners of War mentioned in yr Excellency’s Letter of the 3d Instt—I beg leave to observe that it has been my wish from the beginning of the contest to the present day, that no distinction should exist with respect to them—that the whole should be considered on one general & liberal scale as belonging to the States, and not to this or that State—be exchanged according to their rank & the order of their captivity—and that all military prisoners taken from the Enemy, no matter whose or by whom, should be deemed as belonging to the public at large and be applied generally for the release of those in the Enemy’s hands. This has been my wish because it appeared to be just & the only principle which could give general satisfaction. In conformity to it, all exchanges in the course of the War resting safely with me & made by my direction, have been conducted—and it has been my constant direction where the point depended wholly on me, that the prisoners with the Enemy were to be exchanged agreable to it. particular cases however may arise when it may be proper to depart from the principle; but these can be but rare—and the principle where the business was entirely with me, has never been deviated from in a single instance.

As to the case of Lt Colo. Simcoe & Lt Colo. Conolly—the former was captured by the Jersey Militia before the Resolution passed which you inclose—was confined by the State who also made his exchange; the exchange of the latter was directed in consequence of a requisition by the State of Maryland who claimed him, to the Honble the Board of War, who thought their claim was first. This State claimed it on the examples & practise of some other states in like cases, who had made exchanges without the interference or consulting any but their own authority. When I received the Board’s Letter upon the subject—I informed them (tho I directed the exchange for the reasons I have mentioned and the considerations subjoined) "that previous to their Letter I had supposed that Citizens or Inhabitants captured by the Enemy were the Objects to whom the Act meant a preference should be given, and that all Officers in captivity were to stand upon a common footing to be released on the principle of priority of capture." But as the terms of the act were not entirely explicit & the opinion of the Board was in favor of the Claim, the sentiments I entertained of Lt Colo. Ramsay’s merit and indeed the recollection of the day of his capture his conduct upon the occasion and the whole circumstances by which he was placed in a situation that exposed him to more than a common risk of falling or being taken determined me not to oppose the measure. I have upon the present occasion attended minutely to the Act—and I am fully persuaded from a recurrence to some of my correspondences on the subject of it—long previous to its being passed, that my ideas of it were right and that the construction and operation I supposed it should have, was the true one. The Draft of it I find was in my possession for consideration, so far back as the summer 79, as a Regulation intended for placing the business of prisoners & their exchanges upon a different footing from what it then was—and I returned it with this observation, that the Regulations appeared judicious and proper—such as I had a long time wished to see take place—adding that it appeared to be the intention to make a distinction between prisoners & prisoners of War, which was no doubt a proper & necessary one. Under the first I meant to comprehend Citizens & Civil characters not usually considered or made prisoners of exchange, but whom nevertheless the Enemy were seizing & taking whenever they could in order to release their Officers in our hands. Under the last—Officers & Soldiers of the army or militia actually taken in arms. It was the practice of the States to exchange the former for military prisoners—and particular Officers out of the order of their captivity for Officers they had taken, that excited the clamour & dissatisfaction among the Officers in general who were prisoners. I think there should be no preference under the idea of state Captures with respect to the exchanges of military prisoners the terms of the act seem to require it—I think it was the intention—and if it should have a different operation it does not remove, at least but in a very remote & partial degree the causes which were complained of & which appear evidently on examination from the introduction to have been the mischiefs intended to be remedied; but on the contrary it would sanction partial or State exchanges of Officers and only change the mode of carrying the business into execution, by placing it in the hands of the Continental Commissary instead of the Commissaries of the Individual States.

And I am to observe further that the Resolution of Congress by which I am authorized to go into exchanges now in contemplation to be carried into effect, points out and directs priority of capture as a governing principle. I have been thus particular for your satisfaction. I will now proceed to the case of Major Murray. I recollect the Board of War informed me last fall, that his brother had applied to them for his exchange for Major Stein who had been captured by a Vessel belonging to him and in consequence of his having turned over a very considerable number of prisoners taken by her for public benefit and the exchange of prisoners in general. The Board thought it reasonable [&] so did I & from the peculiar circumstances of the case—That our prisoners would readily agree to the measure & even promote it as an act required by generosity & policy and gave my consent to it. The Enemy however would not go into the exchange. The Commissary shall be directed to attend to the case. I think the other prisoners contained in the list should not be exchanged but for those on Long Island in course, as the order of their captivity and rank apply; but I should suppose the whole will actually, or by far the greater part of them, be sunk in exchanges for Pennsylva Officers on that very principle, which will be far more eligible, as many of them I imagine (I have not a list of the prionsers by me) must stand as early in point of capture as any in the hands of [the Enemy].

DLC: Papers of George Washington.

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