Saving Captain Asgill

Anne Ammundsen laments the lack of public access to a revelatory account of a young English officer who crossed swords – and words – with George Washington.

'The Siege of Yorktown, September 30th to October 19th, 1781', by Louis Nicholas van Blarenberghe. Art Archive/Dagli Orti/Musee du Chateau de Versailles.To die or not to die: that was the quandary facing not only the victim, Captain Charles Asgill (1762-1823), but also his gaoler, General George Washington (1732-99). Asgill was a young prisoner of war in Lord Cornwallis’ vanquished British army. Though protected by the 14th Article of Capitulation, which specifically safeguarded prisoners, his fate appeared to have been sealed at the Black Bear Inn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in May 1782. There Washington decreed that a British captain, selected by lot, was to be sacrificed in retaliation for the Loyalist murder the previous month of the Patriot soldier Captain Joshua Huddy. It was a final, desperate attempt by Washington to bring to an end a series of retaliatory murders. While regretting the need for such action, Washington was in a dilemma since many of his men, determined on US independence, were baying for blood.

Since the French had also signed the Articles of Capitulation, the blood of an innocent man would be on their hands, too, should Asgill be taken to the gallows. They were not happy with this turn of events. Their commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, who had been given the rank of lieutenant general in command of some 6,000 French troops, had joined the Continental army under Washington in 1780. On September 22nd, 1781 they combined with the Marquis de Lafayette’s troops and forced Lord Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown, Virginia a month later, on October 19th.

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