Philadelphia 27th Decr 1781
I have been honoured with the Resolve of Congress of the 20th Inst., directing me to make Inquiry into the powers and conduct of the Board of Directors to the Associated Loyalists in New York. I shall pursue such steps, as will be most likely to promote the ends which Congress have in view.
I have taken the liberty, of inclosing the Copies of two letters of the 23d and 24th Instant, from the Commissary General of Prisoners, setting forth, the debt that is due from us on account of Naval prisoners—the Number remaining in Captivity—their miserable situation, and the little probability there is of procuring their release for want of proper Subjects in our hands.
Before we proceed to an enquiry into the measures which ought to be adopted, to enable us to pay off our debt, and to effect the exchange of those who still remain in Captivity—a matter which it may take up some time to determine—Humanity and policy point out the necessity of administring to the present pressing wants of a Number of the most valuable subjects of the Republic—Had they been taken in Continental service, I should have thought myself Authorized in conjunction with the Minister of War to have applyed a remedy, but as the greater part of them were not, as appears by Mr Skinners representation I must await the decision of Congress upon the Subject.
Had a System some time past planned by Congress, and recommended to the several States, been adopted, and carried fully into execution, I mean that of Obliging all Captains of private Vessels, to deliver over their prisoners to the Continental Commissaries upon certain Conditions, I am persuaded that the Numbers taken, and brought in to the many ports of the United States, would have amounted to a sufficiency to have exchanged those taken from us: But instead of that, it is to be feared that few in proportion are secured, and that the few which are sent in, are so partially apply’d, that it creates great disgust in those remaining; The consequence of which is, that conceiving themselves neglected, and seeing no prospect of relief, many of them enter into the Enemy’s service, to the very great Injury of our trading interest—Congress will therefore I hope, see the necessity of renewing their former, or making some similar recommendation to the States.
In addition to the motives abovementioned, for wishing that the whole business of prisoners of War might be brought under one general Regulation, is another of no small consideration—which is, that it would probably put a stop to those mutual complaints of ill treatment which are frequently urged on either part.
For it is a fact, that for above two years we have had no reason to complain of the treatment of the Continental land prisoners in New York, neither have we been charged with any improper conduct towards those in our hands.
I consider the sufferings of the Seamen for some time past, as arising in a great measure from the want of that general regulation which has been spoken of; and without which there will constantly be a great number remaining in the hands of the Enemy. I have the honor to be with the greatest respect Your Excellency’s Most Obedient & very Humble Servt
DNA: Item 152, Letters from George Washington, PCC—Papers of the Continental Congress.