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“A Melancholy Case”
In reprisal for a Tory atrocity, Washington ordered the hanging of a captive British officer chosen by lot. He was nineteen.
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
When George Washington deliberately condemned an innocent man to die in the spring of 1782, he fully shared the view of Alexander Hamilton that “a sacrifice of this s of the age we live in. …” Nonetheless, he said, “having formed my Opinion upon the most mature reflexion … I can never recede from it.” By his orders Charles Asgill, a young British officer, would be put to death in exemplary retaliation for the murder of a man he had never seen. He would hang because the British authorities had refused to relinquish the real murderer, who remained in protective custody behind their lines in New York.
For Washington it had been an extraordinary decision, filled with pain and regret, and as he expected, it had caused “some noise in Europe.” But not even the threat that some nations might now withhold their recognition of the United States could persuade him to rescind his orders. “Justice to the Army and the Public, my own Honor and I think I may venture to say universal benevolence ,” he wrote, “require them to be carried into full execution.”
The Asgill affair of 1782 was, as one participant noted, “a melancholy case,” arising out of a curious civil war that had turned New Jersey into a bloody battleground. Now Washington was determined—at the cost of Asgill’s life—to bring order to that troubled state, where violence and terror had ruled from the onset of the Revolution.
In 1776 the Jersey militia had forced Loyalists by the hundred to flee for safety into British-held New York. The Refugees—as the Loyalists called themselves—did not leave willingly, and once gone they returned at irregular intervals in small guerrilla bands to burn, pillage, and kill. Then, in 1780, George III created a Rufugee army under the direction of the Board of Associated Loyalists, headed by William Franklin, Benjamin’s Tory son.
Thereafter, the Refugees mounted more regular attacks on New Jersey’s patriot towns. Soon stories of rape, mutilation, and murder circulated freely in both camps, as what had begun as military raids degenerated into personal vendettas. If many of the stories were simply hearsay, they nevertheless served to enflame already embittered feelings and were used by each side to justify the crudest kind of warfare. Had the fighting not been so personal, the bitterness might have faded with the British capitulation at Yorktown in October, 1781. But the Refugees were not disposed to recognize a British defeat, and the Jersey militia refused to forgive—or forget—the Loyalist raids.
The violence and brutality went on into 1782, marked by a Tory fanaticism that led Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief, to believe that the Refugees intended to prevent “all future reconciliation between Great Britain and the revolted colonies.” As the weeks went by, the situation in New Jersey became a subject of deep concern.
The decisive engagement came on a morning in late March when a band of Refugees overran the outnumbered defenders of Toms River shortly after dawn. By noon they had reduced the town and its salt works to a pile of smoking ruins. By the next day they were back in New York, carrying with them one Joshua Huddy, the captain of the Monmouth County militia and a local hero of considerable renown. Huddy had twice escaped his guards after earlier captures, so this time the Refugees took no chances. They lodged him briefly in their own jail near the waterfront in lower Manhattan; hearing reports that a rescue party might try to free him, they transferred him in irons to the British prison ship Brittania , which was lying off Sandy Hook.
In the meantime a certain Philip White, a determined Tory from Monmouth County, had slipped out of New York to visit his wife, who still lived in New Jersey. Discovered and captured by what remained of Huddy’s men, in a matter of hours he was dead; shot, the militia insisted, as lie tried to escape. Whether or not this was true, in New York the Refugees announced that White had been brutally murdered, his body mutilated almost beyond recognition, and his corpse shovelled into a makeshift grave before his wife could give him decent burial.
The Refugees vowed revenge. “We thought it high time,” a spokesman later told Clinton, “to convince the rebels we could no longer submit to such alarming acts of barbarity.” At about 10 A.M. on April 12 Captain Richard Lippincott and other members of the Board of Associated Loyalists rowed out to the Drittania and, without Clinton’s knowledge, took Hucldy from his British guards on the pretext that he was to be exchanged for a Refugee in an American jail. They carried him handcuffed to the Jersey shore. There on the bank of the Navesink River at Gravelly Point they hastily erected a gallows, using three rails, a barrel, and a rope. Giving Huddy some minutes to write his will (the noose was already about his neck), they strung him up.