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    A distressed General George Washington seeks counsel on a potentially peace-killing crisis

    George Washington Autograph Letter Signed. One and one-third pages, 7.25" x 11.5", Newburgh [New York], June 5, 1782. Writing to Major General Benjamin Lincoln and including a rare mention of their recent Yorktown victory, Washington seeks advice on a decision that could unravel the recent peace with the British.

    During the tense months following the Battle of Yorktown and prior to the Treaty of Paris, raids and counterattacks were rampant along the New York frontier. Washington established the Continental Army's headquarters at Newburgh in March 1782 and waited for a formal peace settlement. While waiting, one incident endangered the fragile peace talks between the Americans and British. In March 1782, American Captain Joshua Huddy was captured by Tories and imprisoned in New York City. Days later, an imprisoned Tory named Philip White was killed fifty miles away in Monmouth County, New Jersey, while in American custody. When news of White's death reached the New York City Tories, Captain Richard Lippincott took Huddy to a deserted New Jersey beach and hanged him, pinning a note to him which read, "UP GOES HUDDY FOR PHILIP WHITE." The public was enraged and wrote letters to General Washington demanding retaliation.

    Recognizing an explosive situation, Washington demanded that British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton deliver Captain Lippincott to Washington for trial. But Clinton, himself angered by Lippencott's actions, disciplined Lippincott by court-martial, but refused to turn the captain over to the Americans. Feeling pressure for some kind of retaliation against the British for Huddy's death, Washington decided to select by lot a captain from among his British prisoners to be hung if Lippincott was not delivered to him. Charles Asgill, a likable nineteen-year-old captain from a wealthy and connected London family, was chosen.

    But according to the terms of Cornwallis' Yorktown surrender, a clause in the articles of capitulation denied the Americans reprisals, such as the one Washington was planning. It was at this point that Washington, doubtful of what to do next, turned to Benjamin Lincoln for advice. Washington had relied on General Lincoln in the past (as Washington's second-in-command at Yorktown, Lincoln was sent by Washington to accept the British surrender at Yorktown). He was now serving as the Congress of Confederation's secretary at war. Washington writes him in full:

    "My Dear Sir,

    "Colo. Hazen's sending an officer under the capitulation of Yorktown for the purpose of retaliation, has distressed me exceedingly. Will you be so good as to give me your opinion of the propriety of doing this upon Captain Asgill should we be driven to it for want of an unconditional prisoner.

    "Presuming that this matter has been a subject of much conversation, pray, with your own, let me know the opinions of the most sensible of those with whom you have conversed.

    "Congress by their resolve have unanimously approved of my determination to retaliate. The Army have advised it, and the Country look for it, But how far it is justifiable upon an officer under the faith of a capitulation, if none others can be had, is the question?

    "Hazen's sending Capt. [Charles] Asgill on for this purpose makes the matter more distressing, as the whole business will have the appearance of a farce if some person is not sacrificed to the manes of poor Huddy, which will be the case if an unconditional Prisoner cannot be found, and Asgill escapes.

    "I write to you on exceeding great haste, but beg your Sentiments may be transmitted as soon as possible (by Express) as I may be forced to a decision in the course of a few days.

    "I am, with much sincerity and affection
    D[ea]r Sir
    Y[ou]r Obed. Servt.
    [Signed] Go: Washington."

    Following several tense months, the desire to hang Asgill lessened. The French government, with help from King Louis XVI, cited the articles of capitulation and requested that the new Confederation Congress release Asgill. Much to Washington's relief, Congress yielded and Washington freed the British prisoner in November 1782. This letter has been tightly trimmed along both left and right edges. Professionally restored along fold separations. Washington's handwriting and signature are clear and crisp.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    June, 2010
    8th-9th Tuesday-Wednesday
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