A Supernumerary Crisis.
To Sir Guy Carleton
May 31, 1782
IT is the nature of
compassion to associate with misfortune; and I address this to you in behalf
even of an enemy, a captain in the British service, now on his way to the
headquarters of the American army, and unfortunately doomed to death for a
crime not his own. A sentence so extraordinary, an execution so repugnant to
every human sensation, ought never to be told without the circumstances which
produced it: and as the destined victim is yet in existence, and in your hands
rests his life or death, I shall briefly state the case, and the melancholy
Captain Huddy, of the Jersey militia, was attacked in a small fort on Tom's
River, by a party of refugees in the British pay and service, was made
prisoner, together with his company, carried to New York and lodged in the
provost of that city: about three weeks after which, he was taken out of the
provost down to the water-side, put into a boat, and brought again upon the
Jersey shore, and there, contrary to the practice of all nations but savages,
was hung up on a tree, and left hanging till found by our people who took him
down and buried him.
The inhabitants of that part of the country where the murder was committed,
sent a deputation to General Washington with a full and certified statement of
the fact. Struck, as every human breast must be, with such brutish outrage, and
determined both to punish and prevent it for the future, the General
represented the case to General Clinton, who then commanded, and demanded that
the refugee officer who ordered and attended the execution, and whose name is
Lippencott, should be delivered up as a murderer; and in case of refusal, that
the person of some British officer should suffer in his stead. The demand,
though not refused, has not been complied with; and the melancholy lot (not by
selection, but by casting lots) has fallen upon Captain Asgill, of the Guards,
who, as I have already mentioned, is on his way from Lancaster to camp, a
martyr to the general wickedness of the cause he engaged in, and the
ingratitude of those whom he served.
The first reflection which arises on this black business is, what sort of
men must Englishmen be, and what sort of order and discipline do they preserve
in their army, when in the immediate place of their headquarters, and under the
eye and nose of their commander-in-chief, a prisoner can be taken at pleasure
from his confinement, and his death made a matter of sport.
The history of the most savage Indians does not produce instances exactly of
this kind. They, at least, have a formality in their punishments. With them it
is the horridness of revenge, but with your army it is a still greater crime,
the horridness of diversion.
The British generals who have succeeded each other, from the time of General
Gage to yourself, have all affected to speak in language that they have no
right to. In their proclamations, their addresses, their letters to General
Washington, and their supplications to Congress (for they deserve no other
name) they talk of British honor, British generosity, and British clemency, as
if those things were matters of fact; whereas, we whose eyes are open, who
speak the same language with yourselves, many of whom were born on the same
spot with you, and who can no more be mistaken in your words than in your
actions, can declare to all the world, that so far as our knowledge goes, there
is not a more detestable character, nor a meaner or more barbarous enemy, than
the present British one. With us, you have forfeited all pretensions to
reputation, and it is only by holding you like a wild beast, afraid of your
keepers, that you can be made manageable. But to return to the point in
Though I can think no man innocent who has lent his hand to destroy the
country which he did not plant, and to ruin those that he could not enslave,
yet, abstracted from all ideas of right and wrong on the original question,
Captain Asgill, in the present case, is not the guilty man. The villain and the
victim are here separated characters. You hold the one and we the other. You
disown, or affect to disown and reprobate the conduct of Lippincut, yet you
give him a sanctuary; and by so doing you as effectually become the executioner
of Asgill, as if you had put the rope on his neck, and dismissed him from the
world. Whatever your feelings on this interesting occasion may be are best
known to yourself. Within the grave of your own mind lies buried the fate of
Asgill. He becomes the corpse of your will, or the survivor of your justice.
Deliver up the one, and you save the other; withhold the one, and the other
dies by your choice.
On our part the case is exceeding plain; an officer has been taken from his
confinement and murdered, and the murderer is within your lines. Your army has
been guilty of a thousand instances of equal cruelty, but they have been
rendered equivocal, and sheltered from personal detection. Here the crime is
fixed; and is one of those extraordinary cases which can neither be denied nor
palliated, and to which the custom of war does not apply; for it never could be
supposed that such a brutal outrage would ever be committed. It is an original
in the history of civilized barbarians, and is truly British.
On your part you are accountable to us for the personal safety of the
prisoners within your walls. Here can be no mistake; they can neither be spies
nor suspected as such; your security is not endangered, nor your operations
subjected to miscarriage, by men immured within a dungeon. They differ in every
circumstance from men in the field, and leave no pretence for severity of
punishment. But if to the dismal condition of captivity with you must be added
the constant apprehensions of death; if to be imprisoned is so nearly to be
entombed; and if, after all, the murderers are to be protected, and thereby the
crime encouraged, wherein do you differ from [American] Indians either in
conduct or character?
We can have no idea of your honor, or your justice, in any future
transaction, of what nature it may be, while you shelter within your lines an
outrageous murderer, and sacrifice in his stead an officer of your own. If you
have no regard to us, at least spare the blood which it is your duty to save.
Whether the punishment will be greater on him, who, in this case, innocently
dies, or on him whom sad necessity forces to retaliate, is, in the nicety of
sensation, an undecided question? It rests with you to prevent the sufferings
of both. You have nothing to do but to give up the murderer, and the matter
But to protect him, be he who he may, is to patronize his crime, and to
trifle it off by frivolous and unmeaning inquiries, is to promote it. There is
no declaration you can make, nor promise you can give that will obtain credit.
It is the man and not the apology that is demanded.
You see yourself pressed on all sides to spare the life of your own officer,
for die he will if you withhold justice. The murder of Captain Huddy is an
offence not to be borne with, and there is no security which we can have, that
such actions or similar ones shall not be repeated, but by making the
punishment fall upon yourselves. To destroy the last security of captivity, and
to take the unarmed, the unresisting prisoner to private and sportive
execution, is carrying barbarity too high for silence. The evil must be put an
end to; and the choice of persons rests with you. But if your attachment to the
guilty is stronger than to the innocent, you invent a crime that must destroy
your character, and if the cause of your king needs to be so supported, for
ever cease, sir, to torture our remembrance with the wretched phrases of
British honor, British generosity and British clemency.
From this melancholy circumstance, learn, sir, a lesson of morality. The
refugees are men whom your predecessors have instructed in wickedness, the
better to fit them to their master's purpose. To make them useful, they have
made them vile, and the consequence of their tutored villany is now descending
on the heads of their encouragers. They have been trained like hounds to the
scent of blood, and cherished in every species of dissolute barbarity. Their
ideas of right and wrong are worn away in the constant habitude of repeated
infamy, till, like men practised in execution, they feel not the value of
The task before you, though painful, is not difficult; give up the murderer,
and save your officer, as the first outset of a necessary reformation.
Philadelphia, May 31, 1782.