General Washington writes about the exchange of British General John Burgoyne
George Washington Letter Signed Twice "G: Washington"
(once at the close of the letter and once as a free frank; both on
the fourth page). Three and one-third pages, 8.25" x 13", "Head
Qrs [Bergen County, New Jersey]," July 24, 1780. The body of
the letter is penned by General Washington's aide-de-camp Robert
Hanson Harrison, who has addressed the letter on fourth page to
"Abraham Skinner Esq. / Deputy Commissary of Prisoners."
During the Revolution, Colonel Theunis Dey commanded the Bergen County Militia. Colonel Dey offered the easterly side of his house in the Preakness Valley to General Washington and the commander-in-chief used it for his headquarters in July, October, and November, 1780. This letter was written in Col. Dey's house. In full:
"Sir: I have received Your Letter of the 22d Instant inclosing a Copy of one from Mr Loring the British Commissary of prisoners of the 19th. I find by his Letter that the Enemy intend now or at least wish to effect it if they can, to connect the exchange of our Officers and privates, prisoners at New York and Long Island, and to make the release of the former depend on that of the latter. This is evidently the Object at which they now aim. It is inadmissible, and what I will not accede to. Exchanges, from the first that took place between us to the present time, have been conducted on a very different principle, and it was never attempted in any case before to combine the release of Officers and Men together, except in the instance of the Convention Troops; and the propositions contained in Mr Loring's Letter of the 21st. of June whatever communications he may have thought proper to give since are separate and distinct with respect to the business, and do not in the most distant manner hint at any relation between them. You are therefore to govern yourself intirely by his proposition of the 21st of June and by my Letter of the 12th Instant, with respect to the Officers. [transcript of Washington's July 12, 1780 letter is included]
As to the privates, prisoners in New York, about whose exchange the Enemy appear solicitous at present, it might be remarked that humanity required it much more strongly when it was proposed and urged on our part on the 3d of Feby, and that they thought proper then to decline it and not to give any answer upon the subject till the 6th of May. But waiving all consideration of the motives which induced them then to decline what they now would accede to. You may ascertain with Mr. Loring and obtain Lists from him, of such as are really prisoners whom we shall deem as such and fit subjects of Exchange. This will be a good and necessary preliminary step, and such as will facilitate their relief.
In consequence of directions I have just received for the purpose, You will propose to Mr Loring to exchange any Brigadier Genl belonging to them in our hands for Brigadier Genl du Portail, who was taken at Charles Town, and, if the proposition is agreed to, You will take immediate Measures for releasing the Officer given on our part, and will obtain an order for the liberation of Genl Portail and for his safe conduct to Philadelphia, or some part of Jersey, if Sir Henry Clinton will indulge him with a passage by Water, or if not, 'till he arrives at such place in North Carolina as he may mention.
As Lt Genl Burgoyne is not with the Convention Troops, and the Enemy have no Officer of ours of his rank to exchange for him; and as they have several of our Colonels prisoners to them, who can never be exchanged on the principle of equal rank; I wish You to propose for the mutual relief of the parties, his exchange for Our Colonels, as far as it may extend, according to the tariff or grades which were discussed and thought reasonable by our respective Commissioners when at Amboy last; beginning first with the Officers of this rank prisoners in this quarter, reserving One to be exchanged for Colonel Cockler [Col. Johann Wilhelm Kochler of the Regiment Trumbach, German allied troops] and extending it to the relief of those in the Continental line prisoners at the Southward, as far as it will reach according to the seniority of their capture and where this is equal the dates of Commission must govern. There were Two Officers of the name of Robinson, Sons of Colonel Robinson, taken at Stony Point. You will permit them to go to New York on parole, and remain till called for or exchanged. I am Sir yr Most Obed Servt."
Col. Beverley Robinson's sons who were taken prisoner at Stony Point were Capt. Morris Robinson of the Queen's Rangers, Loyalist Provincial Troops, and Ensign Frederick Philipse Robinson, of the Seventeenth Foot, British Army. Their father was Colonel of the Loyal American Regiment, raised principally in New York. Abraham Skinner was Deputy Commissary General of Prisoners until September 15, 1780, when he was elected Commissary General of Prisoners by the Continental Congress to succeed John Beatty who had resigned in March.
On October 17, 1777, British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga. The Convention of Saratoga, negotiated by Major General Horatio Gates, allowed Burgoyne's army of 5,871 British regulars and German mercenaries to return to England and Europe on the promise that they would not fight in North America again. Congress did not allow Burgoyne's army to leave for fear that even if they did not violate their agreement not to fight, their return to England would free an equal number of other troops to come to North America to fight. Burgoyne's army, called the "Convention Troops" by Washington," was detained in various locations, mostly in Massachusetts and Virginia, until the end of the war. In May 1778, Burgoyne was permitted to return to England on parole on account of "ill health."
In this letter, General Washington calls British Commissary of Prisoners Joshua Loring's proposal to exchange captured American Officers and privates together, ostensibly holding the enlisted men hostage to further officer exchanges, "inadmissible and what I will not accede to . . . it was never attempted in any case before to combine the release of Officers and Men together except in the instance of the Convention Troops." He instructs Skinner to govern his negotiations as to the exchange of Officers under the principles in his letter sent twelve days earlier; that is, "rank for rank."
Gen. Washington instructs Skinner to "propose to Mr Loring to exchange any Brigadier Genl belonging to them in our hands for Brigadier Genl du Portail, who was taken at Charles Town." On March 30, 1780, Washington had sent du Portail to help Major General Benjamin Lincoln defend Charleston, South Carolina, with a letter beginning, "This will be delivered to you by Brigadier General Du Portail, Chief Engineer; a Gentleman of whose abilities and merit I have the highest opinion and who, if he arrives in time will be of essential utility to you." Du Portail arrived on April 25th. On May 12th, Major General Lincoln surrendered and du Portail, and Lincoln and his army were taken prisoner.
On November 7, 1780, General Washington notified Congress, "I have the pleasure to inform Congress, that at the late meeting of the respective Commissaries [Skinner and Loring], the exchanges of about one hundred and forty of our Officers and all our privates in New York amounting to 476, were effected. Among the former are Major General Lincoln, Brig. Generals Thompson, Waterbury and Du Portail and Lt. Colo. Laurens. Sir Henry Clinton having made a proposal of exchanging a further number of the Convention Officers, without attaching Men to them, I have acceded to it." Washington's insistence, in the letter here offered, that the exchange of Officers would not be combined with the exchange of enlisted Men was finally agreed to by British Major General Clinton.
As far as the highest ranking British officer, Lieutenant General Burgoyne, then under American parole, since "the Enemy have no Officer of ours of his rank to exchange for him," Gen. Washington proposes that "as they have several of our Colonels prisoners to them, who can never be exchanged on the principle of equal rank; I wish You to propose for the mutual relief of the parties, his exchange for Our Colonels, as far as it may extend." Colonel is the rank just under brigadier general. The British refused. Finally, nineteen months later, after Cornwallis' surrender to Washington at Yorktown, on February 9, 1782, an agreement was signed by Abraham Skinner and Joshua Loring to exchange General Burgoyne "for an equivalent of 1,047 officers and soldiers, and other officers for their equivalent in rank on the other side." Included in the exchange were British prisoners Brigadier General William Moultrie, Colonel Charles C. Pinckney, two Majors, nine Captains, ten Lieutenants, eleven Ensigns, and 443 privates.
Between Washington's signatures, Skinner has docketed the letter, "His Excellency Genl. Washington Letter 24th July 1780." Water-staining and other flaws have been professionally repaired, although a complete restoration and cleaning would enhance this item even more. The water stain has affected Washington's letter-closing signature, though the bold signature still significantly contrasts with the stain. The general's franking signature is not affected by browning or stains. With seal remnants and marginal nicks and tears.
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