Captain Charles Asgill: An Anglo-American Incident, 1782
Bitter feelings between Loyalists and Patriots after the British surrender at Yorktown led to many skirmishes and retaliations.
Captain Charles Asgill, though innocent, was condemned to die. Why did this young Englishman's plight become an international issue? Why were the rulers of nations involved in his case - including King George III and King Louis XVI? And why did some of them implore that Asgill's life be spared? The answers to these questions are to be found in the complicated and baffling details of the closing years of the American Revolution. Although the peace terms concluding the War of Independence had not been signed, fighting between the British and American military forces had virtually ended after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19th, 1781. Nevertheless, in a number of areas, skirmishes and acts of retaliation continued between the Loyalists and the Patriots. In New Jersey these opening parties were still consumed with hatred for each other. Loyalist and patriot leaders refused to let the emotions of war cool down, and clamered for direct action. Among the Patriots Captain Joshua Huddy was one of the most ardent spirits. During the spring of 1782 he was in command of a block-house at Tom's River in Monmouth County, New Jersey. On March 24th his fortification was attacked by a party of Loyalist refugees from New York, which had been a haven for Loyalists throughout the war. Huddy fought bravely, but his ammunition ran out; he surrendered and was taken as a prisoner to New York. After being lodged in two different jails, he was put in irons and sent to an armed guard ship, anchored off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. This American officer was given no trial; yet he was informed he was to be hanged.
In accordance with these designs, Captain Richard Lippincott, a native of New Jersey, but then in the service of the King, was sent to the guard ship with secret instructions issued by the Board of Refugees, a Loyalist group. On April 12th, 1782, Captain Huddy was taken from the ship by sixteen Loyalist refugees under the direction of Lippincott, and carried to a place called Gravelly Point on the New Jersey shore. He was given time to make his last will and testament; then with such equipment as three wooden rails, a barrel, and some rope, the party of Loyalists hanged Huddy. A placard was attached to the victim's body which spoke of vengeance, and confirmed that this was retaliation for previous deeds of cruelty committed by the Patriots. With an ironic twist, the sign ended with this statement: "Up goes Huddy for Philip White." The excuse for the hanging was the death of a Loyalist, Philip White, who, after being taken a prisoner, tried to escape from his guards. But, according to two authorities, Captain Huddy was not involved in the killing of Philip White, as the Loyalist refugees asserted. In fact, Huddy was already a prisoner, confined in New York, when the White incident occurred.
This was partisan warfare with all its bloody vengefulness. After the wanton hanging of Huddy, the exasperated Patriots of New Jersey, in their turn, called for retaliation. They wrote to the Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, George Washington. By making this appeal, they raised the question to a national level. If retaliation were to be carried out, it would be a national, not a local, action. Washington informed Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, that there would be retaliation unless the perpetrators of Huddy's murder were given up. Meanwhile, he stood firmly against public sentiment, and delayed the immediate execution of a British officer which was urged upon him.
The Commander-in-Chief summoned twenty-five of his officers to meet in a council of war at Major-General William Heath's headquarters. The facts of Huddy's case were presented and the questions submitted to the officers in council were to be answered secretly and forwarded to Washington. In their replies, all the American officers agreed that retaliation was justifiable. A majority believed that Sir Henry Clinton should hand over Lippincott. If Clinton refused, Washington's advisers were of the opinion that a British officer with the same military rank as Huddy should be the object of retaliation. He was to be selected by lot. Thus, a British officer was to be hanged unless the enemy sent out "the author of the inhuman act." Congress gave its approval, and the British commander in New York was notified of American intentions.
Washington, in his letter to Clinton, demanded either Lippincott or the person who had given the initial orders for Huddy's execution. Should the person who was responsible be of lower rank than captain, as many perpetrators as necessary, according to the tariff rate of exchange, were to be handed over to the American officials. Clinton, in response to Washington, admitted that the hanging was a barbarous act, and ordered an investigation of the affair.
The British officer selected for retaliation was to have been an unconditional prisoner of war. The Secretary at War informed Washington that the Americans at that time possessed no unconditional officer. The American commander then gave orders that either a capitulation or a convention officer should be selected. Subsequently, it was discovered that an error had been made; the Americans possessed two unconditional officers, prisoners of war. But the orders had been issued and could not be rescinded. Washington was distressed that a convention, prisoner might have to suffer.
According to the plans drawn up, General Moses Hazen, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was to conduct the drawing of the lots. Hazen could select captive officers from any post in Maryland or Pennsylvania. He therefore ordered to Lancaster those British officers who were then confined at York; and on May 27th, 1782, the thirteen officers now at Lancaster drew lots. Thirteen pieces of paper were placed in a hat. On one slip of paper was written the single word, "unfortunate." The misfortune fell upon Captain Charles Asgill, the young son of Sir Charles Asgill. It is said that one of the more fortunate officers sat up all night with young Asgill, because, if the latter escaped, the former feared there would be another drawing of lots. The victim was sent under guard to Philadelphia and then on to Chatham, New Jersey. A friend, Major James Gordon, was permitted to accompany him. General Washington ordered that kindness and politeness be shown to the prisoner; but the officer of the guard was to make certain that Asgill's security was maintained.
As has been mentioned, Captain Asgill was not an unconditional war prisoner. He had capitulated when the British laid down their arms at Yorktown and was waiting to be exchanged. Washington was uneasy over this fact, and wrote to others about the questionableness of using a person for retaliation who had placed his faith in the terms of capitulation. A widespread sympathy for Asgill was also beginning to develop throughout the thirteen colonies and abroad. Even the Loyalists in New York were worried about the evils they had unwittingly drawn upon their heads.
In the meantime, the British had requested a delay in Asgill's execution. They had arrested Lippincott, and were proceeding with a court-martial. This turned out to be a time-consuming affair. During the trial, Lippincott asserted that he was not responsible for hanging Huddy, but was merely carrying out orders. Who, then, had ordered Huddy's execution? It was revealed that the accused had received verbal instructions from the former royal governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, and the Board of Refugees - frequently termed the Board of Associated Loyalists. Some writers have implied that Franklin tried to dissuade Lippincott from divulging this information. Nevertheless, if Clinton was genuinely eager to punish the offenders, he would have to look for them among the Loyalist association which he had recently helped to create. Eventually Lippincott was pronounced not guilty. The British sent a copy of the proceedings to Washington; and he, in turn, forwarded the findings to Congress. As the testimony revealed that the accused had merely complied with orders issued by the Board of Refugees, and as ex-governor Franklin was the president of this group - and, incidentally, the son of the well-known Patriot, Benjamin Franklin - some Americans thought that he alone should be held accountable for Huddy's death.
While Congress was trying to reach a decision, the British had a change in their high command. Sir Guy Carleton arrived in New York as Commander-in-Chief. The new commander, as his predecessor had done, expressed a deep sense of regret in regard to the Huddy incident and Carlemn promised to make a further inquiry. He also disbanded the Board of Associated Loyalists. Meanwhile, the preliminary articles of peace had been agreed and announced. General Washington therefore felt that a retaliatory execution would no longer accomplish its original purpose. Nevertheless, he was not satisfied with the findings of the British court-martial.
A majority in the Continental Congress did not approve of the results of the British inquiry and demanded an immediate execution. "It is a melancholy reflection," wrote William Livingston, a former member of Congress and then governor of New Jersey, "that the innocent must suffer for the guilty; but it is to be hoped this will prove mercy in the end, as it may bring the most savage nation in the world to reflect that their crimes will in the end fall upon their own heads." Again, he wrote that it is "absolutely necessary to execute the resolution to retaliate, which we have so often taken, and so frequently been prevented by feelings from carrying into execution." Livingston, intemperate as he was, was merely echoing the sentiments of many in Congress. Thus the Congressional debate raged for three days, during which Elias Boudinot and James Duane, members of Congress from New Jersey and New York, led the minority which maintained that there should be a stay of execution. According to the former, "more ill blood appeared in the House" than he had ever seen before. Finally, at the close of the third day when the question was ordered to be taken, the minority, perceiving that nothing else could be done, asked that the question be delayed until the following morning. Harsh words had been uttered, and many had been greatly irritated, and and so the minority promised that they would say no more if their request was granted. It was. After the minutes had been read the following morning, the President of Congress presented to the Congressmen a letter that he had just received from Washington. But before the contents of the letter are revealed, we must note the passage of time. Congress had been debating this question during the first days of November 1782. Between July and Novem other events had taken place behind the scenes.
Since her husband was seriously ill, Lady Asgill, Captain Asgill's mother, had to bear burden of trying to save her only son. As no other member of the family was in a position to act, she addressed an appeal to the King, who thereupon ordered the British commander in America to give up Huddy's executioners, but the American Loyalists in England exerted their influence to prevent the order being despatched or, if it did arrive, being put into effect. Meanwhile, Lady Asgill also appealed to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Comte de Vergennes, imploring him to persuade Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to intercede on her son's behalf. "A word, a word from you (she wrote in her despair), like a voice from Heaven, would liberate us from desolation..." At the French, as at the English, court she found a sympathetic understanding. "The goodness of their majesties' hearts (reported Vergennes to Washington) induces them to desire that the inquietudes of an unfortunate mother may be calmed, and her tenderness reassured." In this same message, Vergennes pointed out the following fact for Washington's consideration: "Captain Asgill is doubtless your prisoner, but he is among those whom the arms of the king contributed to put into your hands at Yorktown. Although this circumstance does not operate as a safeguard, it however justifies the interest I permit myself to take in this affair."
The question of Asgill's fate was by now attracting widespread attention in Europe and America. The Estates General of Holland asked the Continental Congress to pardon him. Benjamin Franklin, currently engaged in receiving the plaudits of the ladies of France and in helping the other American commissioners negotiate the terms of peace, too a keen interest in the case. He knew that General Washington was under pressure; but he was reasonably certain there would be no execution. Franklin, however, could do little to relieve the immediate sufferings of the Asgill family. Captain Asgill wrote to Sir Guy Carleton; but no satisfactory response came from British Headquarters. Thomas Paine, the revolutionary pamphleteer, also pleaded with Carleton to give up Lippincott. If the British commander refused, then Carleton, according to Paine, would be Asgill's executioner. In late August the prisoner was placed on temporary parole. Asgill and his friend, Major Gordon, were permitted to ride over the countryside surrounding Chatham and Morristown, New Jersey. Thus events had been building up to a climax. The Continental Congress in November had to make the final decision. Would its members resolutely support the threatened national retaliation upon an innocent person?
After three days of debate, Congress was presented with Washington's message. Vergennes' letter to Washington and Lady Asgill's letter (which Vergennes had also forwarded( were read before Congress. The majority and minority members of the Congressional debate were both surprised when the contents of these letters was revealed to them - a few of the former being suspicious of their genuineness; but, after a thorough examination of the letters and signatures, they were convinced that this was no scheme concocted by the minority. According to Elias Boundinot, Lady Asgill's eloquent plea for her son's life was "enough to move the heart of a Savage..." Congress immediately approved the sparing of Asgill's life as a compliment to the French Court. It was then proposed that the prisoner be returned to Lancaster, Pennsylvania; but, upon a second consideration, he was released without an exchange of prisoners. he was free to go to new York and thence to England.
As a result of this Congressional decision, the young nation avoided the shedding of innocent blood. The French intercession on behalf of Captain Charles Asgill, an Englishman and their former enemy, played no small part in influencing Congress to release him. French action gave Congress the pretext for retreat it needed. Possibly a few Congressmen thought that the complete liberation of the prisoner showed too much obsequiousness to a foreign sovereign. But to George Washington their decision was extremely welcome news; and John Adams, on the peace commission in Paris, declared that it came as an "exquisite relief" to his feelings.
Elias Boudinot, as we have seen, was a member of Congress; but he had formerly been the first American Commissary General Prisoners of War and was wise in the ways of prisoners. He opined that Asgill, in fact, did nothing to repudiate the flase accounts of his liberation, published in the English newspapers. Later, he charged that gallows had been erected outside his prison window, and that upon them was placed a placard indicating that they were designed for him. Washington emphatically denied these charges. Some commentators have suggested that Asgill should have acknowledged a letter he received from Washington. But, whatever may be thought of his conduct, Asgill had been reprieved; he went back to England and later continued his service in the British Army.
After Asgill had been liberated, Washington inquired of Carleton about the promised British inquiry into Huddy's execution. Little progress, he learned, had been made. The war was over, and the subject dropped. Captain Charles Asgill had spent from May to November 1782, in prison, expecting the sentence of death. Momentarily the spotlight of the world had been focused upon an innocent man, thrust to the front of the international stage. By his release, a wound had been healed in Anglo-American relations. Asgill thereafter dropped into obscurity.
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