Sunday, May 6, 2012

Some Little Inconsistency

On May 7, 1782, William Ellery and Ezekiel Cornell, Rhode Island Delegates to the Continental Congress, wrote to Gov. William Greene to explain that recent negotiations for a prisoner exchange proved unsuccessful.

George Washington's commissioners met commissioners from General Sir Guy Carleton and Admiral Robert Digby, the commanders of British army and naval forces, respectively.  The Rhode Island Delegates wrote, “Sir H. Clinton’s Commissioners were not empower’d to settle a general cartel.  Indeed, their powers were ostensible only; every thing was referred to him by them.  He refused to pay the balance due for subsisting their soldiers in our possession; and would not advance a farthing for the support of them.  He was willing to give seamen for soldiers, or a trifling sum of money for each soldier."

Ellery and Cornell added that American commissioners "were instructed by the Genl. to insist upon better accommodations for our sea-prisoners.  Admiral Digby’s powers to their commissioners were much short of expectation.  He was willing to exchange seamen for soldiers, and this was all he said that wanted regulation.”

Carleton's conciliatory approach differed from the Royal Navy's treatment of prisoners in New York City, prompting Washington to remark on the contrast.  On July 10, 1782, George Washington wrote to friend and former aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman, “Sir Guy gives strong assurances of the pacific disposition of his Most gracious Majesty, by Land.
 By sea, however, Admiral Digby gives proofs…of His Most Gracious Majesty’s good intention of capturing everything that Floats on the face of the Water; and of his humane design of suffocating all those who are taken thereon, in Prison Ships, who will not engage in his Service.”   

Washington wrote, “To an American, whose genius is not susceptible of refined Ideas, there would appear some little inconsistency in all this….”

In a letter to Henry Laurens, also dated July 10, 1782, Washington remarked that Carleton was trying to "sooth and lull our people into a State of security,” while Digby was trying to coerce the enlistment of maritime captives by suffocating them on prison ships and British Governor of Quebec Sir Frederick Haldimand was trying to incite Native Americans into burn the frontiers.  Washington noted, “Such is the Line of conduct pursued by the different Commanders, and such their politic's.”  


For more on Carleton, please consult Paul David Nelson, Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester: Soldier-Statesman of Early Canada (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000).  For the British Naval commanders in occupied New York City, consult Francis D. Cogliano, American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War: The Captivity of William Russell (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), especially pages 160-161.  For the expectation that a nation at war would compensate for the expenses of their personnel held in enemy custody, see the footnote here.
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