WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799). Document signed ("G:o Washington") as Commander in Chief, to Samuel B. Webb (1753-1807), "Instructions for Colonel Webb conducting the prisoners of War to Peekskill." Given at Headquarters, Morristown, 8 January 1777. 1 page, folio, small remnants of mounting on verso, closed tear at horizontal crease, and another just touching Washington's signature. Text in the hand of Stephen Moylan.
"TREAT THEM WITH HUMANITY, AND LET THEM HAVE NO REASON TO COMPLAIN OF OUR COPYING THE BRUTAL EXAMPLE OF THE BRITISH ARMY..."
A fine example of Washington's magnanimity as he gives strict instructions for the humane treatment of the prisoners taken at Princeton and Trenton: "You are to take charge of privates of the British army," Washington writes, leaving the amount blank, "& to conduct them by the shortest and best rout from this place to Peekskill in the State of New York & Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their Treatment of our unfortunate bretheren who have fallen into their hands. Provide everything necessary for them on the Road, and draw orders on the Quarter master General for the amount of your several Disbursements. You will deliver the prisoners to General Heath or the officer commanding there, who is desired to forward them to Governor Trumbull, who will dispose of them in such parts of the State of Connecticut as he will think proper."
Some 211 British and Hessian soldiers "lately taken in the Jersies," as Webb described them, were marched to Connecticut. Washington has in mind, of course, the deplorable conditions on the prison ships deployed by the British to house the roughly 4,000 American POWs taken at the Battle of New York in the fall of 1776. Disease and death were rampant on these overcrowded, unsanitary ships. The brick and mortar prisons maintained in New York were little better than the floating hells. Van Cortlandt's Sugar House, the Liberty Street Sugar House, and the Provost Jail were soon notorious among the Americans. Reliable estimates of the numbers killed by disease or maltreatment range from 7,000 to 11,000--far more than the number of combat deaths. Isolated instances of brutality inevitably occurred on the American side, usually directed against Loyalists. But hardly any British or Hessian POWs died of malnutrition or mistreatment in American hands. Once English and German soldiers got to their rural encampments, they usually just drifted away into the countryside, most quitting the war for good. Ironically, Webb himself was taken prisoner in December of 1777, and languished a year in British captivity before being exchanged.