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General Washington's Terrible Dilemma

Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, 5 June 1782

Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, 5 June 1782

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  • In this letter dated 5 June 1782, General George Washington writes to Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln seeking the latter's advice about whether to execute a young British prisoner, Captain Charles Asgill, in retaliation for the killing of an American prisoner of war, Captain Joshua Huddy. The selection of Asgill for execution, a prisoner protected from retaliation under the terms of the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, "distressed [Washington] exceedingly," for, in the waning days of the American Revolution, it threatened to become an international crisis and stain his personal honor.

    The Huddy-Asgill Affair

    During the American Revolution, Patriot and Tory irregulars waged a murderous, six-year guerrilla war in the hinterlands of British-occupied New York City. In the spring of 1782, a detachment of Associated Loyalists, a confederation of Tory irregular forces under the command of William Franklin, the former royal governor of New Jersey (and son of Benjamin Franklin), captured Captain Joshua "Jack" Huddy of the New Jersey militia at Toms River, in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The Loyalists transferred Huddy to a British military prison in New York, but later, under the pretense of a prisoner exchange, a detachment of Franklin's men commanded by Captain Richard Lippincott retrieved him from British custody. The Associated Loyalists, however, had other plans for Huddy and hanged him on 12 April 1782, in retaliation for the death of one of their number, a Loyalist named Philip White. Huddy's execution caused a great public outcry in New Jersey and throughout the colonies, and immediate calls for bloody vengeance. To prevent the New Jersey militia from taking violent retribution on their own, Washington ordered General Moses Hazen to select, by lot, a British officer to be executed in retaliation for the death of Huddy. Unfortunately for Washington, it appeared that all the officer prisoners available, including the officer selected for execution, nineteen-year-old Captain Charles Asgill, were protected from retaliation under the terms of Lord Cornwallis's capitulation at Yorktown. Washington found himself faced with a terrible dilemma: he was determined to avenge Huddy's murder, but he also was a signatory to the articles of capitulation at Yorktown that specifically protected his chosen victim from retaliation. In replying to one war crime, he might find himself committing another. In this crisis, he turned for advice to General Benjamin Lincoln, an old comrade in arms and formerly the second in command of the Continental Army, who was serving as secretary of war. Lincoln also had been present at Yorktown, and had been given the honor by Washington of accepting the British surrender.

    The senior officers of the Continental Army supported Washington's plan to retaliate against the British, but they urged caution and patience. The threat to Asgill was causing dissension between the British and their Loyalist allies. British commanders had repudiated the actions of the Associated Loyalists, and if they tried Lippincott, the perpetrator of Huddy's murder themselves, it would save Asgill's life and extricate Washington from a delicate situation. Although the Continental Congress had approved Washington's plan to avenge the death of Huddy, he delayed the execution of Asgill, pending the British court martial of Lippincott. The court martial of Lippincott, however, frustrated Washington's hopes. The British exonerated Lippincott, and there was little likelihood that William Franklin either would be tried or surrendered to American justice. At the same time, the entirely innocent Asgill was proving to be an extremely sympathetic victim. Even Joshua Huddy's widow pleaded for his life.

    In the end, Washington's procrastination allowed time for foreign intervention to save Asgill. First, the Comte de Rochambeau, the commander of the French forces in America, quietly indicated to Washington that, as he too had signed the articles of capitulation at Yorktown, French national honor was at stake when the life of a "protected" prisoner was threatened. Captain Asgill, it turned out, also had friends in high places. His father, Sir Charles Asgill, was a former Lord Mayor of London and a supporter of the American Revolutionary cause. His mother, Sarah Theresa Pratviel, the daughter of a Huguenot emigré living in England, sought the assistance of the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, and through him the intercession of the King and Queen of France. Much to the relief of Washington, a plea from the French government caused the Continental Congress to order the release of Asgill on 7 November 1782, ending the crisis and breaking the cycle of retaliatory killings that threatened to prolong hostilities.

    The Benjamin Lincoln Papers at the MHS

    This letter, a recent gift to the Society, is the capstone to the Society's Benjamin Lincoln Papers, 1775-1810. The collection documents Lincoln's pre-war role as Hingham town clerk and colonel in the Massachusetts militia; his military career in the Continental Army under Washington during the Revolution and as secretary of war, 1781-1783; and his post-war military and public service and during Shays' Rebellion, 1786-1787; as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, 1787; federal emissary to the Indians north of the Ohio, 1789; and collector of the port of Boston, 1789-1809. See the online finding aid to this collection.

    Suggestions for Further Reading

    Boatner, Mark Mayo. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

    Ellis, Joseph. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Vintage, 2005.

    Ketchum, Richard M. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004.

    Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

    Mayo, Katherine. General Washington's Dilemma. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938.


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