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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
Accordingly, on May 3 Washington ordered Brigadier General Moses Hazen, in charge of prisoners of war in Pennsylvania, to select “by Lot” the soldier who would die for Lippincott’s crime. He was instructed to designate “a British Captain who is an unconditional Prisoner, if such a one is in your possession; if not, a Lieutenant under the same circumstances. …——that is, an officer who had surrendered without any special arrangement having been made as to how he would be treated.
Shortly before nine on the morning of May 26 thirteen young British captains, accompanied by a major, rode through the streets of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, up to the Black Bear Inn. To the astonishment of the onlookers who filled the courtyard under the watchful eyes of twenty armed dragoons, the officers moved smartly to the inn’s main door “all chatting and cheerful” as if they were “going to a ball.”
It was, however, a studied casuahiess, for at a tearful dinner the previous night, their senior field officer, Major James Gordon, had told them how Huddy had died for White, and how one of them would now die for Huddy. “I wish to God,” he had said, breaking down, “they would take me in your place.” Regaining his composure, Gordon said he knew this was impossible, but he vowed he would exercise every power he had to save the life of “the unfortunate person … whoever he may be.”
Gordon led the way that morning to a second-floor room at the inn, where Hazen and two other Americans awaited their arrival. Hazen spoke first, haltingly describing the reasons why they were there. He was obviously reluctant to fulfill his orders and immediately asked the assembled men to choose among themselves. Thunderstruck at the suggestion, the British officers unanimously refused. Taking the floor, Gordon argued that they should not be there at all; that the terms of the Yorktown capitulation were being violated: and that, in any case, the thirteen officers were “but a small portion of the Captains of the Army which had surrendered at York Town.” If Hazen insisted on this illegal business, then all the others should be assembled, too. He asked for time to press an appeal.
Hazen’s response was to call his assistants from the room to prepare the lots by which the victim would be chosen. He returned after a short interval, accompanied by two drummer boys who each carried a hat containing slips of paper. In one hat there were thirteen names; in the other, twelve blanks and a slip marked “Unfortunate.” The room was deathly still as first one boy drew a name and the other, a slip.
Ten times the ritual was repeated, and ten times blanks were drawn. Then, on the next draw, the name “Asgill” rang out; the reply came back: “Unfortunate.” There was momentary consternation. Asgill blanched, and whispered, “I knew it would be so. I never won so much as a bet of backgammon in my life.” He faltered, but only for a moment as Major Gordon grasped his shoulder and hissed, “For God’s sake, do not disgrace your colors!”
Hazen turned quickly to a dragoon who had entered the chamber on signal. “This gentleman, sir,” he said, pointing to Asgill, “is your prisoner.”
Captain Charles Asgill, not yet twenty, was the only son of a well-to-do merchant and banker who had once been Lord Mayor of London. “Lively, brave, handsome … an especial favourite of his comrades”—so wrote a fellow officer—he had left school at sixteen to join the army over the protests of his parents. They had offered him £3,000 to remain at home, but the war in America beckoned, and Asgill would not be put off. In less than three years he rose to the rank of captain in the First Foot Guards, serving vigorously until he was taken prisoner at Yorktown. For all of its brevity, his had been a full life, and until this moment he had reason to anticipate a distinguished career.
Now, in the aftermath of the lottery, only tragedy lay ahead. “We gazed upon poor Asgill with a bitterness and intensity of feeling such as defied control,” one captain wrote later. “To see him, as we did at that moment, in the full bloom of youth and beauty, and to know that his days, nay, his hours, were numbered—that was a demand upon the fortitude of those who loved him, such as they could not meet.” No longer feigning nonchalance, those who had been lucky followed the prisoner down the stairs and out into the yard, where they mounted their horses and returned in dismal silence to the camps from which they had come.
Washington had his victim, but he was far from happy with the choice. Indeed, he wrote that he was filled “with the keenest anguish; I felt for him on many accounts.” Not the least was the prospect of hanging so attractive a youth, “a man of honor and sentiment,” as a substitute for “a wretch who possessed neither.”
But there was another issue that, from a diplomatic point of view, seriously complicated an already difficult case. Through error or misunderstanding—Washington was never sure which—Hazen had blundered in his selection of the captains for the lottery. His orders had expressly directed that the choice be made among “unconditional prisoners.” Hazen’s thirteen, however, had all been taken captive at Yorktown, and they were therefore specifically protected by the Fourteenth Article of the Capitulation from exemplary punishment of any kind.