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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
He was discovered in late afternoon, hanging loosely in the rope, the will in his shirt pocket, the overturned barrel at his feet. Pinned to his coat was a roughly printed placard that was at once an explanation and a threat: We, the Refugees, have with grief long beheld the cruel murders of our brethren, and finding nothing but such measures daily carrying into execution; we, therefore, determine not to suifer without taking vengeance for the numerous cruelties, and thus begin, having made use of Captain Huddy as the first object to present to your view, and further determine to hang man for man, as long as a refugee is left existing. UP GOES HUDDY FOR PHILIP WHITE .
Cut down and carried homeward, Huddy’s body lay in state at Monmouth Courthouse, while the news of what Washington called “the most wanton, unprecedented and inhuman Murder that ever disgraced the Arms of a civilized people” spread to the world at large. “The first reflection which arises on this black business,” Thomas Paine wrote, “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 mourners of Huddy gathered at Monmouth for the funeral in such great numbers that the rites were conducted on the front porch of the inn before the town green. The throng listened in silence to a thundering sermon denouncing the English. When it was over and Huddy had been laid to a hero’s rest, the crowd reassembled in an impromptu town meeting. All the emotion and anger of seven years of war welled up, and in the heat of the moment the men of Monmouth delivered an ultimatum. If George Washington did not offer suitable reprisal for Huddy’s death, they themselves would; in so doing they would “open to view a scene at which humanity itself may shudder.”
As commander of the American forces, Washington had confronted the question of exemplary retaliation on at least two earlier occasions, and both times he had refused to seek an eye for an eye. “Humanity and policy forbid the measure,” he had written in 1777. When the British hanged a South Carolina militia colonel without a trial in 1781, he had wavered momentarily, but then went to some lengths to dissuade General Nathanael Greene from hanging a British colonel in reprisal. Now as he angrily read the ultimatum from Monmouth at his headquarters in Newburgh, New York, he decided that circumstances demanded the practice he loathed. Still, he understood the delicacy of the matter, and not wanting to make the decision alone, he assembled the General Staff.
Some twenty-five officers listened in silence to a reading of the documents. There was no discussion. Then each of them retired to his quarters to draft a written reply. The opinions were nearly unanimous: retaliation, as one of them wrote, was “justifiable and expedient,” both to prevent further Loyalist atrocities and to keep the people of New Jersey from seeking vengeance on their own.
On April 21 Washington sent a brief, almost curt, note to Clinton, demanding that Captain Lippincott, the leader of the hanging party, be delivered up to American hands. “In Failure of it,” he added ominously, “I shall hold myself justifiable in the Eyes of God and Man, for the measure to which I shall resort.”
Clinton, who described himself as “greatly surprised and shocked” at Huddy’s death, replied with some heat that he was blameless for the crime. An inquiry was under way, he wrote, and those responsible would be brought to trial immediately. Nonetheless, whatever his staff turned up, he had no intention of giving Lippincott or any other person into Washington’s charge, because “the Violators of the Laws of War” are best “punished by the Generals under whose Powers they act. …”
The truth is that Clinton had learned about Huddy’s hanging four days before Washington’s letter reached him and was incensed at the brutal crime that had compromised “the dignity of British arms and [his] own command.” Thinking at the time that Lippincott had acted on his own, he had requested the Board of Associated Loyalists to set the record straight. But the board had refused to co-operate, and Clinton, sensing his mistake, brought Lippincott into custody to prevent his escape. He ordered a courtmartial to convene and drastically limited the power of the board to act independent of his authority.
Washington learned of these things during the summer, but by then it was too late. Discouraged by Clinton’s letter, he had written Congress of his plans to initiate retaliation; early in May he learned that its members unanimously approved what he proposed to do. They were, he was told, “deeply impressed with the necessity of convincing the enemies of the United States … that the repetition of their unprecedented and inhuman cruelties … will no longer be suffered with impunity.” They offered “their firmest support.”