December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
The British commander felt the rebels didn't a real army. But letters he addressed to "George Washington, Esq." were returned to sender.
In the spring and summer of 1776 there were many Englishmen who earnestly hoped that the mutual abrasions of the colonies and the mother country might be healed without further violence. Among them were the famous Howe brothers—Sir William, commander in chief of the British army in America, and Lord Richard, top admiral of the corresponding naval forces. When Lord Howe reached America in June, 1776, he brought with him a royal commission to grant pardons, and thereby to attempt a reconciliation. Before he had achieved anything, the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, and the prospect for negotiations looked bleak. Howe could not deal directly with Congress, which from his point of view did not exist; and he could deal with George Washington only as a private citizen, not as the commanding general of a rebel army. As he was soon to discover, the Americans were equally set in their determination not to permit any disrespect to their new revolutionary status. In this atmosphere of pnckly protocol, the following two letters were received by Lucy Knox from her husband Henry, who was Washington's aide and commander of artillery.
New York, July 15, 1776
Lord Howe yesterday sent a flag of truce up to the city. They came within about four miles of the city, and were met by some of Colonel Tupper’s people, who detained them until his Excellency’s pleasure should be known. Accordingly, Colonel Reed and myself went down in the barge to receive the message. When we came to them, the officer, who was, I believe, captain of the Eagle man-of-war, rose up and bowed, keeping his hat off: ” I have a letter, sir, from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington.” “Sir,” says Colonel Reed, “we have no person in our army with that address.” “Sir,” says the officer, “will you look at the address?” He took out of his pocket a letter which was thus addressed:
“No sir,” says Colonel Reed, “I cannot receive that letter.” “I am very sorry,” savs the officer, “and so will be Lord Howe, that any error in the superscription should prevent the letter being received by General Washington .” “Why, sir,” says Colonel Reed, “I must obey orders.” “Oh, yes, sir, you must obey orders, to be sure.” Then, after giving him a letter from Colonel Campbell to General Howe, and some other letters from prisoners to their friends, we stood off, having saluted and bowed to each other. After we had got a little way, the officer put about his barge and stood for us and asked by what particular title he chose to be addressed. Colonel Reed said, “You are sensible, sir, of the rank of General Washington in our army?” “Yes, sir, we are. I am sure my Lord Howe will lament exceedingly this affair, as the letter is quite of a civil nature, and not a military one. He laments exceedingly that he was not here a little sooner”; which we suppose to allude to the declaration of independence; upon which we bowed and parted in the most genteel terms imaginable.
New York, July 22, 1776
On Saturday … we had a capital flag of truce, no less than the adjutant-general of General Howe’s army. He had an interview with General Washington at our house. The purport of his message was in very elegant, polite strains, to endeavour to persuade General Washington to receive a letter directed to George Washington, Esq., etc., etc. In the course of his talk every other word was, “May it please your Excellency,” “if your Excellency so please”; in short, no person could pay more respect than the said adjutant-general, whose name is Colonel Paterson, a person we do not know. He said the etc., etc. implied everything. “It does so,” said the General, “and anything.” He said Lord and General Howe lamented exceedingly that any errors in the direction should interrupt that frequent intercourse between the two armies which might be necessary in the course of the service. That Lord Howe had come out with great powers. The General said he had heard that Lord Howe had come out with very great powers to pardon, but he had come to the wrong place; the Americans had not offended, therefore they needed no pardon. This confused him. After a considerable deal of talk about the good disposition of Lord and General Howe, he asked, “Has your Excellency no particular commands with which you would please to honour me to Lord and General Howe?” “Nothing, sir, but my particular compliments to both”—a good answer.
General Washington was very handsomely dressed, and made a most elegant appearance. Colonel Paterson appeared awe-struck, as if he was before something supernatural. Indeed, I don’t wonder at it. He was before a very great man indeed. We had a cold collation provided, in which I lamented most exceedingly the absence of my Lucy. The General’s servants did it tolerably well, though Mr. adjutant-general disappointed us. As it grew late, he even excused himself from drinking one glassof wine. He said Lord Howe and General Howe would wait for him, as they were to dine on board the Eagle man-of-war ; he took his leave and went off.