George Washington and British POWs

George Washington was a humane man, but he had his limits.  When he learned that American prisoners of war were being mistreated by the British, he wrote to General Thomas Gage, the commander of the British forces in Boston, this letter on August 11, 1775:

Sir: I understand that the Officers engaged in the Cause of Liberty and their Country, who by the Fortune of War have fallen into your Hands, have been thrown, indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons; That no Consideration has been had for those of the most respectable Rank, when languishing with Wounds, and Sickness; that some have been even amputated, in this unworthy Situation.

    Let your Opinion, Sir, of the Principle which Actuates them, be what it may, they suppose they act from the noblest of all Principles, a Love of Freedom, and their Country: But political Opinions I conceive are foreign to this Point; the Obligations arising from the Rights of Humanity, and Claims of Rank are universally binding, and extensive (except in case of Retaliation): These I should have hoped, would have dictated a more tender Treatment of those Individuals, whom Chance or War had put in your Power. Nor can I forbear suggesting its fatal Tendency, to widen that unhappy Breach, which you, and those Ministers under whom you act, have repeatedly declared you wish’d to see forever closed.

    My Duty now makes it necessary to apprize you, that for the future I shall regulate my Conduct towards those Gentlemen, who are or may be in our Possession, exactly by the Rule you shall observe towards those of ours, now in your Custody.

    If Severity and Hardship mark the Line of your Conduct (painful as it may be to me) your Prisoners will feel its Effects: But if Kindness and Humanity are shewn to ours, I shall with Pleasure consider those in our Hands, only as unfortunate, and they shall receive from me that Treatment, to which the unfortunate are ever intitled.

    I beg to be favoured with an Answer, as soon as possible, and am Sir, etc

Gage gave a rather snippy reply on August 13:

“To the glory of civilized nations, humanity and war have been compatible; and compassion to the subdued is become a general system. Britons ever pre-eminent in mercy, have outgone common examples, and overlooked the criminal in the captive. Upon these principles your prisoners, whose lives by the law of the land are destined to the cord, have hitherto been treated with care and kindness, and more comfortably lodged than the King’s troops in the hospitals; indiscriminately it is true, for I acknowledge no rank, that is not derived from the King.

   “My intelligence from your army would justify severe recrimination. I understand there are of the King’s faithful subjects, taken some time since by the rebels, laboring, like negro slaves, to gain their daily subsistence, or reduced to the wretched alternative, to perish by famine or take arms against their King and country. Those who have made the treatment of the prisoners in my hands, or of your other friends in Boston, a pretence for such measures, found barbarity upon falsehood.

   “I would willingly hope, Sir, that the sentiments of liberality, which I have always believed you to possess, will be exerted to correct these misdoings. Be temperate in political disquisition; give free operation to truth, and punish those who deceive and misrepresent; and not only the effects, but the causes, of this unhappy conflict will be removed. Should those, under whose usurped authority you act, control such a disposition, and dare to call severity retaliation, to God, who knows all hearts, be the appeal for the dreadful consequences. I trust that British soldiers, asserting the rights of the state, the laws of the land, the being of the constitution, will meet all events with becoming fortitude. They will court victory with the spirit their cause inspires; and, from the same motive, will find the patience of martyrs under misfortune.

   “Till I read your insinuations in regard to ministers, I conceived that I had acted under the King, whose wishes, it is true, as well as those of his ministers, and of every honest man, have been to see this unhappy breach for ever closed; but, unfortunately for both countries, those who long since projected the present crisis, and influence the councils of America, have views very distant from accommodation. I am, Sir, your most obedient humble servant.

   “Thomas Gage.”

Washington ordered on August 14 that retaliatory measures be taken against the British prisoners in line with what the American prisoners were suffering.  He revoked the order in a few days, probably assuming that the British now understood that he was in earnest that his conduct towards British prisoners would be in accord with their treatment of American prisoners.


Published in: on May 5, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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