Lot 111

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George Washington Shows Mercy in Prisoner Exchange of Generals, Involves Henry Clinton, James Irvine, Dan Waterbury. Superb Sig!

With this letter, General George Washington ordered the exchange of two German officers, Brigadier General Johann Friedrich Specht (1715-1787) of Brunswick and Brigadier General Wilhelm Rudolph von Gall (1734-1799) of Hesse-Hanau, who had commanded brigades in General John Burgoyne's British Army that surrendered at Saratoga, New York, in mid-October 1777. They and their men had been confined near Charlottesville, Virginia, since January 1779.

Washington sent this letter to Colonel James Wood, who oversaw the Convention Army near Charlottesville. Wood was the son of a fellow colonel with whom Washington had fought the French in 1754. He also specified the route by which Wood should send the prisoners to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, so that they would not see the size or condition of American forces in New Jersey.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, Manuscript Letter Signed, to James Wood, October 31, 1780, Passaic Falls, [New Jersey]. 1 p., 8.25" x 13.25". Expert professional restoration to a small hole at left and few minor flaws and separations not affecting the superb signature.

Complete Transcript
Head Quarters near Passaic Falls 31st Octobr 1780
Dear Sir
Major General Phillips has informed me that Sir Henry Clinton has consented to the exchange of Brigadiers General Spetch and de Gall with the officers of their suite and their attendants. I have acceded to this proposal. You will therefore immediately permit those General Officers with their families to repair to Elizabeth Town by the route of Lancaster, Reading and Easton, avoiding any cantonments of the Army on their way thro' Jersey.
I am with great Esteem
Dear Sir
Your most obt Servt
Go: Washington.
Coll Wood.

Historical Background
The decisive American victory at the Battles of Saratoga, with assistance from the French, led to the surrender of General John Burgoyne's army of some 5,900 British, German, and Canadian soldiers. Burgoyne's surrender played a decisive role in bringing France formally into the war as an American ally.

American General Horatio Gates accorded the British and German troops the traditional honors of war and reached a convention with General Burgoyne that would provide the prisoners safe passage back to Europe. However, the Continental Congress rejected the convention, and the prisoners, now referred to as the Convention Army, were held first in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for one year, then near Charlottesville, Virginia, from January 1779 to late 1780, when they were transferred to Frederick, Maryland. They continued to be held there, except for specific officer exchanges, until the formal end of the war in 1783.

Previous negotiations for the exchange of these two German officers in April 1778 had broken down over questions of their appropriate rank. In August 1780, Colonel James Wood wrote to General George Washington that Brigadier General Specht "has had Frequent Indispositions of late, he is Very infirm, Nearly Eighty years of Age, and really Quite Superannuated, is extremely Anxious of being Exchanged, if it Cou'd be Done with Propriety. I think it wou'd be Good Policy, as there is the Greatest Probability that he will not Survive the Ensuing Winter, as I am told the Cold Season is very Unfavourable to his Complaints." Abraham Skinner (1755-1826) was the American Commissary General of Prisoners in 1780, and his British counterpart was Joshua Loring Jr. (1744-1789), a member of a Loyalist family from Massachusetts.

In October 1780, British Major General William Phillips proposed the exchange of Specht and Von Gall for any two of the three American brigadier generals William Thompson (1736-1781), David Waterbury (1722-1801), and James Irvine (1735-1819). The exchange soon came to involve American Brigadier General Louis Duportail (1743-1801) and British Brigadier General James Hamilton (1728-1803) of the Convention Army as well. Thompson of Pennsylvania was captured during an attack on the enemy in Quebec in June 1776, and he was paroled but not exchanged until early 1781. Thompson blamed Congressman and Declaration-signer Thomas McKean (1734-1817) of Delaware for hindering his exchange, and his criticism became so harsh that McKean sued Thompson for libel and won.

Waterbury, a veteran of the French and Indian War, became a brigadier general of the Connecticut militia in June 1776. He was second in command to General Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in October 1776. He commanded the galley Washington but was forced to surrender after the galley took severe damage.

Irvine of Pennsylvania was a veteran of the Pennsylvania militia and the French and Indian War. He was appointed a brigadier general of the Pennsylvania militia in August 1777. He was wounded and captured at Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, in December 1777. He was held captive in New York and on Long Island and not exchanged until 1781.

Duportail was a lieutenant colonel in the French Royal Corps of Engineers when Benjamin Franklin recruited him in Paris. While working on military fortifications in Charleston, South Carolina, Duportail was taken prisoner when the British captured the city in May 1780. After his exchange, Duportail built the siege works necessary for the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in September and October 1781.

On the same day that he wrote this letter, General Washington wrote to the Board of War that the German officers "are both old and infirm and it is therefore to be wished that they may accomplish their long Journey before the severity of the season sets in." After their exchange, they returned to Europe in January 1781. Also on this date, Washington wrote to Major General William Phillips, explaining that he had ordered Specht and Von Gall to be brought from Virginia to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, for exchange.

James Wood Jr. (1741-1813) was born in Frederick County, Virginia, to James Wood Sr., who was a colonel in the militia and served with his friend Colonel George Washington in the 1754 campaign against the French. The younger James represented Frederick County in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1766 to 1776 and in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1776. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the Frederick County Militia, and in February 1777 commander of the 12th Virginia Regiment. He led the regiment in the Philadelphia and Monmouth campaigns of the next two years. His regiment was redesignated the 8th Virginia in September 1778, and he was appointed Superintendent of the Convention Army. He continued in that role until January 1783, when he was promoted to brigadier general in the Virginia militia. From 1784 to 1796, he served as a member of Virginia's Executive Council, and he served as the 11th Governor of Virginia from 1796 to 1799.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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