British Gen. Phillips offers Gen. Washington his assistance in effecting a prisoner exchange of the "Convention Army" of which he is senior officer.Historically Important British Maj. Gen. William Phillips Manuscript Letter to Gen. George Washington, 3.5 pages, 7" x 9", conjoined pages, front and verso. Cambridge, December 8, 1778. The retained, unsigned copy of a letter sent to Gen. Washington, marked "/Copy/" in the upper margin. Narrow paper hinge at right edge of fourth page. Two minor fold splits expertly repaired, slight wrinkling in upper corner. Fine condition.
This letter is in the hand of an aide to British Major General William Phillips. The text of a Manuscript Letter Signed from Phillips to Washington, dated Cambridge, November 24, 1778 (two weeks before this one), in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, is in the same hand as this one. On December 25, 1778, General Washington replied (see below) to Phillips' December 8, 1778 letter.
This December 8, 1778, letter, in full: "The unsuccessful attempts which have been made to ratify the Treaty of Convention of Saratoga and the asperity which seems to have crept into the Correspondence between Sir Henry Clinton and the American Congress leaves it to be conjectured that the humane purpose of a General Cartel of Exchange of Prisoners of War and Troops of the Convention will not have force so soon as good men like yourself could wish. - You may naturally suppose, Sir, that I have been and am greatly interested in the fate of the Troops with whom I have served, and in the vanity of my ideas upon the subject of Exchanges I have been led to imagine that the interposition of intermediate Persons might operate in favor of a Cartel and I have been of opinion that my Rank and Situation gives me opportunity of offering my Interpretation in Favour of the Troops of Convention and for their being acceded. Major General Gates having made the Treaty of Convention seemed to me to be a person proper to apply to on this subject. I conveyed to him my sentiments upon the matter [see below] but not having any authority for writing or acting publicly upon the occasion, I could only make a Private Opinion of my own, if possible, that some negotiation might be opened from which all Parties might be benefited, and the Prisoners of War on both sides, as well as the Troops of Convention, might be exchanged and Ransomed. Major General Gates was willing to report to you and the American Congress whatever I pleased to propose upon this subject, this I have not ventured to allow through fear of having my letters made public or published, but I am still of the opinion that by my having a conversation with you, Sir, if you will permit it, or with an officer you should appoint for the purpose, a plan might be formed for the mutual advantage of the British and American Armies, and it might be done so that neither you, Sir, or the American Congress on the one part, or Sir Henry Clinton on the other, need be committed in any manner on the subject unless upon a General approbation so far as it might be necessary to ratify such propositions as might be made by myself and the Officers with whom I should confer-. I leave this, Sir, to your consideration, and if you will permit me I shall with great satisfaction pay a Visit at your Head Quarters in my way to Virginia, and I dare say it will give you equal pleasure with myself to be of use in the human purposes I have in view, and it would afford me particular satisfaction to be able to transact such an affair with a Gentleman who, altho' the misfortunes of the times has made an enemy to Great Britain, calls upon my Respect for his private virtue. I should feel myself much obliged to you for an answer whether I may pass your Great Quarters - I set out next Thursday by the Route of Hartford and Fishkill."
General Horatio Gates, commander of the U.S. troops at the Battle of Saratoga, October 17, 1777, had signed the Treaty of Convention of Saratoga with British General John Burgoyne stipulating that the captured troops would be released unarmed and returned to England, with the promise that they would not be sent back to America during the Revolutionary War. Gen. Washington objected, arguing that the arrival of these men in Britain would simply free up a like number of troops for service in America. Congress agreed with Washington and refused to ratify the Treaty of Convention of Saratoga. While some British and German officers were eventually exchanged for captured American officers, most of the 5,800 men, in what became known as the "Convention Army," were held captive in camps in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania until the formal end of the war in 1783.
In this letter, Phillips tells Washington, "You may naturally suppose, Sir, that I have been and am greatly interested in the fate of the Troops with whom I have served." Phillips was part of Burgoyne's army and was captured at Saratoga, becoming part of the Convention Army sequestered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After Burgoyne was allowed to return to England in early 1778, Phillips was the senior British officer in captivity. He is pictured in John Trumbull's painting Surrender of General Burgoyne which has been hanging in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol since 1826. Phillips writes that he could "pay a Visit at your Head Quarters in my way to Virginia." It was in November and December 1778 that the Convention Army marched approximately 700 miles from the Boston area to Charlottesville, Virginia, removing the possibility of the prisoners being freed by a British naval raid in Massachusetts. In 1780, Major General Phillips was exchanged for U.S. General Benjamin Lincoln and he returned to command British troops. In 1781, when British forces became active in Virginia, the Convention Army was relocated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania until their release after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
Referred to in this letter, on December 1, 1778, Major General Phillips had written to Major General Horatio Gates, in part, "From what has passed between Sir Henry Clinton and the American Congress upon the subject of the Troops of Convention having proved so unsuccessful I am naturally and unluckily led to image that punctillo endeavors at accomplishing a complication of the Treaty of Convention, altho' I very believe both sides are inclined towards it...I am of the opinion that you, Sir, and I may possibly contrive a method for a general exchange of the Troops of Convention..."
On December 25, 1778, General Washington, writing from Philadelphia, replied to Phillips' December 8th proposal in the letter here offered, addressed to "Major Genl. Phillips of the Convention Troops." In part, "On Monday last, just as I was setting out from my Quarters at Middle Brook, I received the favor of your two Letters of the 8th. Instant...With respect to an exchange of prisoners, I assure you, Sir, there is nothing that would give me greater pleasure than such an event, founded on principles of quality and mutual advantage; but at present, I see but little if any prospect of its taking place. Since the date of your Letters there has been a meeting of Commissioners from the two Armies upon the subject, when nothing was effected; and when the views of Congress and of Sir Henry Clinton were explicitly declared. This and every other circumstance convinces me that the interview you have been pleased to propose could answer no valuable purpose; nor should I think myself at liberty to take up a business of this nature without proper authority on both sides, to give efficacy to what might be proposed or done...."
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