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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
For by this time the case had become an international cause célèbre . “The public prints all over Europe resounded with the unhappy catastrophe,” the Baron von Grimm recorded in his Memoirs . It “interested every feeling mind … and the first question asked of all vessels that arrived from any port in North America, was always an inquiry into the fate of that young man.” As Hamilton had warned, there were those who saw the threatened hanging as “wanton and unnecessary,” particularly since the Revolution was all but over. But most of Europe was sympathetic both to the ill-fated Asgill and the conscience-stricken Washington, who was forced to bow to the demands of military justice. And for all of the public denunciations of the American government’s course, there was considerable private optimism that Asgill at the last would be saved.
But as the summer lengthened into autumn, hope everywhere
began to fade. Carleton’s investigation was apparently going nowhere, and pressure mounted on Washington to bring the affair to an end. He had agonized all summer over what he would do when that point came. “Was I to give my private Opinion,” he wrote the Secretary of War in early October, ”… I should pronounce in favor of his being released.” But a public judgment was called for, and Washington complained bitterly that he wished Congress “would chalk a line for me to walk by in this business.” So far they had offered him none. Time was running out; no other solution than death seemed to be at hand.
The Asgill family in England, meanwhile, had had its own summer of despair. The father knew nothing of his son’s tragic state; Sir Charles had sustained a serious heart attack, and his wife had feared the news would be too much. Amelia, the young sister, had taken to her bed, where she remained for days on end, literally sick about the fate of her brother. Lady Asgill had exhausted herself with inquiries to the King, to members of Parliament and the military. But always the answer was the same: nothing could be done.
Since all avenues of help at home appeared to be closed, Lady Asgill, in mid-July, decided upon a desperate move. She addressed an eloquent letter to the Comte de Vergennes, the foreign minister of France. “Let your feelings, sir, suggest and plead my inexpressible misery,” Lady Asgill wrote. “A word from you, like a voice from heaven, will save us from distraction and wretchedness. I am well informed General Washington reveres your character. Say but to him you wish my son to be released, and he will restore him to his distracted family and render him to happiness. My son’s virtue and bravery will justify the deed.”
Vergennes was deeply moved. In an audience with Louis XVI he showed him the letter and then, with the King’s consent, communicated one of his own to Washington. It, too, was eloquent. Vergennes suggested that the King and Queen of France wanted Asgill to live. He was certain, he wrote, that Washington himself wanted to avoid the execution. “If it is in your power, sir, to consider and have regard to it, you will do what is agreeable to Their Majesties. …” Skillfully, he planted the thought that Asgill was “among those whom the arms of the King contributed to put into your hands at Yorktown.” The prisoner, then, belonged as much to Louis XVl as he did to Washington.
It was a seductive idea, and Washington seized on it as the way out of his dilemma. By the time Vergennes’ letter reached the United States, it was late October and the Congress was preparing to debate a resolution ordering Asgill’s immediate execution. Washington sent a courier speeding to Philadelphia, hoping it was not too late.
For what must have seemed the first time in the lengthy affair, Washington’s luck held. A small minority had successfully delayed a vote through three days of argument; the courier entered the chamber on November 7, just as the roll was to be called. Quickly Elias Boudinot, the president of the Congress and a leader of the minority group, read the substance of Vergennes’ and Lady Asgill’s letters to the House. Their contents, he said, were “enough to move the heart of a savage.”
But the sudden appearance of the documents, Boudinot added, “operated like an electrical shock—each member looking on his neighbor in surprise, as if saying ‘here is unfair play.’ ” The Congress was in total confusion, Boudinot reported. “The President was interrogated. The cover of the letters was called for. The General’s signature was examined. In short, it looked so much like something supernatural that even the minority … could scarcely think it real.”
Convinced at last of the authenticity of the letters, Congress voted unanimously that Asgill’s life “should be given as a compliment to the King of France.” He was ordered to be freed and sent home. Thus, Boudinot noted in his Journal , “we got clear of shedding innocent blood by a wonderful interposition of Providence.”