Thursday, April 12, 2012

April 13: What Must Be His Feelings

On April 13, 1777, John Adams sent his wife, Abigail (Smith) Adams, the correspondence between George Washington and British personnel regarding complications in a possible prisoner exchange.  John Adams probably forwarded the Pennsylvania Evening Post of the previous date that contained Washington's letter.

"Washington is in the Right," Adams wrote, "and has maintained his Argument with Delicacy, and a Dignity, which do him much Honour."

Adams explained that Washington "hinted" at the "flagitious Conduct of the two Howes, towards their Prisoners, in so plain and clear a manner, that he cannot be misunderstood," yet  "a decency and a Delicacy is preserved which is the more to be applauded, because the natural Resentment of such Atrocious Cruelties renders it very difficult to avoid a more pointed Language, in describing them.  They might indeed, without much Impropriety, have been painted in crimson Colours of a deeper Die."

The Howe Brothers commanded British forces operating against America's Continental forces, with Admiral Richard Lord Howe commanding naval forces and General Sir William Howe commanding military forces.

Of Sir William, John Adams asked, "If Mr. Howes Heart is not callous, what must be his Feelings, when he recollects the Starvings, the Freezings, the pestilential Diseases, with which he coolly and deliberate[ly] destroyed the Lives of so many, unhappy Men.  If his Conscience is not seared, how will he bear its Lashes when he remembers his Breach of Honour, his Breach of Faith, his offence against Humanity, and Divinity, his Neighbour and his impairing Health that he ought to have cherished, and in putting and End to Lives that he ought to have preserved, and in choosing the most slow, lingering and torturing Death, that he could have devised?"

Adams "charitably" supposed that Howe "would have chosen the shortest Course and...put every Man, to the Sword or Bayonett, and thereby have put an End to their Sufferings, at once, if he could have done it without Detection.  But this would have been easily proved upon him....  Whereas, by Hunger, Frost and Disease, he might commit the Murders, with equal Certainty, and yet be able to deny that he had done it.  He might lay it to Hurry, to Confusion, to the fault of Commissaries and other Officers.  Nay might deny, that they were starved, frozen and infected."  Adams speculated that Howe "was determined to put them out of the Way, yet to deny it, to get rid of his Enemies, and yet save his Reputation.  But his Reputation is ruined forever."

Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 6: January 1, 1777-April 30, 1777 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress,1980), pages 572-73.

An image and transcript of the letter to Abigail Adams from her husband, John Adams, might also be found here: 
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 13 April 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

For more information on some of the commissary and provost personnel serving the British, please consult posts from this blog on Provost Marshal Captain William Cunningham and commissary David Sproat.  Some of the most notorious figures were Tories, like Massachusetts-born commissary general of prisoners Joshua Loring, Jr., or prewar immigrants considered Tories by virtue of their long-term American residence, like Irish-born Cunningham and Scottish-born Sproat.   

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