Washington’s best vindication against the charge of undue neglect of American prisoners is found in the correspondence on the subject. We will therefore give his letter to Rear Admiral Digby, after his interview with the committee of three sent from the Jersey to complain of their treatment by the British, and to endeavor to negotiate an exchange.
GENERAL WASHINGTON TO REAR ADMIRAL DIGBY
Head-Quarters, June 5 1782
By a parole, granted to two gentlemen, Messrs. Aborn and Bowen, I perceive that your Excellency granted them permission to come to me with a representation of the sufferings of the American prisoners at New York. As I have no agency on Naval matters, this application to me is made on mistaken grounds. But curiosity leading me to enquire into the nature and cause of their sufferings, I am informed that the prime complaint is that of their being crowded, especially at this season, in great numbers on board of foul and infected prison ships, where disease and death are almost inevitable. This circumstance I am persuaded needs only to be mentioned to your Excellency to obtain that redress which is in your power “only” to afford, and which humanity so strongly prompts.
If the fortune of war, Sir, has thrown a number of these miserable people into your hands, I am certain your Excellency’s feelings for fellowmen must induce you to proportion the ships (if they “must” be confined on board ships), to their accommodation and comfort, and not, by crowding them together in a few, bring on disorders which consign them, by half a dozen a day, to the grave.
The soldiers of his British Majesty, prisoners with us, were they (which might be the case), to be equally crowded together in close and confined prisons, at this season, would be exposed to equal loss and misery. I have the honor to be, Sir
Yr Excellency’s most obt Hble srvt George Washington
REAR-ADMIRAL DIGBY’S ANSWER
N. Y. June 8 1782
My feelings prompted me to grant Messrs. Aborn and Bowen permission to wait on your Excellency to represent their miserable situation, and if your Excellency’s feelings on this occasion are like mine, you will not hesitate one moment in relieving both the British and Americans suffering under confinement.
I have the Honor to be your Excellency’s Very obdt Srvt
FROM COMMISSARY SKINNER TO COMMISSARY SPROAT
Camp Highlands, June 24th 1782
As I perceive by a New York paper of the 12 inst, the last letters which passed between us on the subject of naval prisoners have been committed to print, I must request the same to be done with this which is intended to contain some animadversions on those publications.
The principles and policy which appear to actuate your superiors in their conduct towards the American seamen who unfortunately fall into their power, are too apparent to admit of a doubt or misapprehension. I am sorry to observe, Sir, that notwithstanding the affectation of candour and fairness on your part, from the universal tenor of behaviour on your side of the lines, it is obvious that the designs of the British is, by misrepresenting the state of facts with regard to exchanges, to excite jealousy in the minds of our unfortunate seamen, that they are neglected by their countrymen, and by attempting to make them believe that all the miseries they are now suffering in consequence of a pestilential sickness arise from want of inclination in General Washington to exchange them when he has it in his power to do it; in hopes of being able by this insinuation and by the unrelenting severity you make use of in confining them in the contaminated holds of prison-ships, to compel them, in order to avoid the dreadful alternative of almost inevitable death, to enter the service of the King of Great Britain.
To show that these observations are just and well grounded, I think it necessary to inform you of some facts which have happened within my immediate notice, and to put you in mind of others which you cannot deny. I was myself present at the time when Captain Aborn and Dr. Bowen * * * waited on his Excellency General Washington, and know perfectly well the answer his Excellency gave to that application: he informed them in the first place that he was not directly or indirectly invested with any power of inference respecting the exchange of naval prisoners; that this business was formerly under the direction of the Board of Admiralty, that upon the annihilation of that Board Congress had committed it to the Financier (who has in charge all our naval prisoners) and he to the Secretary at war. That (the General) was notwithstanding disposed to do everything in his power for their assistance and relief: that as exchanging seamen for soldiers was contrary to the original agreement for the exchange of prisoners,–which specified that officers should be exchanged for officers, soldiers for soldiers, citizens for citizens, and seamen for seamen; as it was contrary to the custom and practice of other nations, and as it would be, in his opinion, contrary to the soundest policy, by giving the enemy a great and permanent strength for which we could receive no compensation, or at best but a partial and temporary one, he did not think it would be admissible: but as it appeared to him, from a variety of well authenticated information, the present misery and mortality which prevailed among the naval prisoners were almost entirely, if not altogether produced by the _mode of their confinement_, being closely crowded together in infected prison-ships, where the very air is pregnant with disease, and the ships themselves (never having been cleaned in the course of many years), a mere mass of putrefaction, he would therefor, from motives of humanity, write to Rear-Admiral Digby, in whose power it was to remedy this great evil, by confining them on shore, or having a sufficient number of prison-ships provided for that purpose, for, he observed, it was as preposterously cruel to confine 800 men, at this sultry season, on board the Jersey prison-ship, as it would be to shut up the whole army of Lord Cornwallis to perish in the New Goal of Philadelphia, but if more commodious and healthy accommodations were not afforded we had the means of retaliation in our hands, which he should not hesitate, in that case, to make use of, by confining the land prisoners with as much severity as our seamen were held.–The Gentlemen of the Committee appeared to be sensible of the force of these reasons, however repugnant they might be to the feelings and wishes of the men who had destruction and death staring them in the face.
His Excellency was further pleased to suffer me to go to New York to examine into the grounds of the suffering of the prisoners, and to devise, if possible, some way or another, for their liberation or relief. With this permission I went into your lines: and in consequence of the authority I had been previously invested with, from the Secretary at War, I made the proposition contained in my letter of the ninth instant. Although I could not claim this as a matter of right I flattered myself it would have been granted from the principles of humanity, as well as other motives. There had been a balance of 495 land prisoners due to us ever since the month of February last, when a settlement was made; besides which, to the best of my belief, 400 have been sent in, (this is the true state of the fact, though it differs widely from the account of 250 men, which is falsely stated in the note annexed to my letter in the New York paper:) notwithstanding this balance, I was then about sending into your lines a number of land prisoners, as an equivalent for ours, who were then confined in the Sugar House, without which (though the debt was acknowledged, I could not make interest to have them liberated), this business has since been actually negotiated, and we glory in having our conduct, such as will bear the strictest scrutiny, and be found consonant to the dictates of reason, liberality, and justice. But, Sir, since you would not agree to the proposals I made, since I was refused being permitted to visit the prison-ships: (for which I conclude no other reason can be produced than your being ashamed or afraid of having those graves of our seamen seen by one who dared to represent the horrors of them to his countrymen,) Since the commissioners from your side, at their late meeting, would not enter into an adjustment of the accounts for supplying your naval and land prisoners, on which there are large sums due us; and since your superiors will neither make provision for the support of your prisoners in our hands, nor accommodation for the mere existence of ours, who are now languishing in your prison-ships, it becomes my duty, Sir, to state these pointed facts to you, that the imputations may recoil where they are deserved, and to report to those, under whose authority I have the honor to act, that such measures as they deem proper may be adopted.
And now, Sir, I will conclude this long letter with observing that not having a sufficient number of British seamen in our possession we are not able to release urs by exchange:–this is our misfortune, but it is not a crime, and ought not to operate as a mortal punishment against the unfortunate–we ask no favour, we claim nothing but common justice and humanity, while we assert to the whole world, as a notorious fact, that the unprecedented inhumanity in the _mode_ of confining our naval prisoners, to the amount of 800 in one old hulk, which has been made use of as a prison-ship for more than three years, without ever having been once purified, has been the real and sole cause of the deaths of hundreds of brave Americans, who would not have perished in that untimely and barbarous manner, had they, (when prisoners,) been suffered to breathe a purer air, and to enjoy more liberal and convenient accommodations agreeably to the practice of civilized nations when at war, (and) the example which has always been set you by the Americans. You may say, and I shall admit, that if they were placed on islands, and more liberty given them, that some might desert; but is not this the case with your prisoners in our hands? And could we not avoid this also, if we were to adopt the same rigid and inhuman mode of confinement you do?
I beg, Sir, you will be pleased to consider this as addressed to you officially, as the principal executive officer in the department of naval prisoners, and not personally, and that you will attribute any uncommon warmth of style that I may have been led into to my feeling and animation on a subject with which I find myself so much interested, both from the principles of humanity and the duties of office. I am, Sir,
yr most obdt Srvt Abraham Skinner
Letters full of recriminations continued to pass between the commissaries on both sides. In Sproat’s reply to the letter we have just quoted, he enclosed a copy of the paper which he had induced the thirteen sea captains and other officers to sign, obtained as we have seen, in such a dastardly manner.
In the meantime the naval prisoners continued to die in great numbers on board the prison and hospital-ships. We have already described the cleansing of the Jersey, on which occasion the prisoners were sent on board of other vessels and exposed to cold and damp in addition to their other sufferings. And while negotiations for peace were pending some relaxation in severity appears to have taken place.