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Washington and Col. Patterson

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

July 20. –This day, Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson, of the British army, came to New York, from Lord Howe’s fleet, and landed near the main battery. He passed through a file of the Life Guards of General Washington, and had a private conference with him, at Colonel Knox’s, for near half an hour.

After usual compliments, in which, as well as through the whole conversation, Colonel Patterson addressed General Washington by the title of Excellency, he entered upon the business by saying, that General Howe much regretted the difficulties which had arisen, respecting the address of the letters to General Washington,1 and that it was deemed consistent with propriety, and founded upon precedents of the like nature by ambassadors and plenipotentiaries where disputes or difficulties of rank had arisen. He also said that General Washington might recollect he had, last summer, addressed a letter to General Howe, To the Hon. William Howe, Esq.; that Lord Howe and General Howe did not mean to derogate from the respect or rank of General Washington; that they held his person and character in the highest esteem, and that the direction, with the addition of &c., &c., &c., implied every thing that ought to follow. He then produced a letter, which he did not directly offer to General Washington, but observing that it was the same letter which had been sent, with a superscription To George Washington, &c., &c., &c., he laid it on the table. The general declined the letter, and said, that a letter directed to a person in a public character, should have some description or indication of it, otherwise it would appear a mere private letter; that it was true the &c., &c., &c., implied every thing, and they also implied any thing; that the letter to General Howe alluded to, was an answer to one received under a like address from him, which the officer on duty having taken, he did not think proper to return, but answered it in the same mode of address. He then said he should absolutely decline any letters directed to him as a private person, when it related to his public station.

Colonel Patterson then remarked, that General Howe would not urge his delicacy further, and repeated his assertions, that no failure of respect was intended. He then said that he would endeavor, as well as he could, to recollect General Howe’s sentiments on the letter and resolves of Congress, sent him a few days before, respecting the treatment of our prisoners in Canada. “That the affairs of Canada were in another department, not subject to the control of General Howe, but that he and Lord Howe utterly disapproved of every infringement on the rights of humanity.”2

Colonel Patterson then took a paper out of his pocket, and, after looking it over, said he had expressed nearly the words. General Washington then said that he had also forwarded a copy of the resolve to General Burgoyne.

To which Colonel Patterson replied, he did not doubt a proper attention would be paid to it, and that he (General Washington) was sensible that cruelty was not the characteristic of the British nation. Colonel Patterson then proceeded to say he had it in charge to mention the case of General Prescott, who they were informed was treated with such rigor, that under his age and infirmities, fatal consequences might be apprehended.

General Washington replied that General Prescott’s treatment had not fallen under his notice; that all persons under his particular direction he had treated with kindness, and their situation was made as easy as possible; that he did not know where General Prescott was, but believed his treatment very different from their information.3 General Washington then mentioned the case of Colonel Allen, and the officers who had been confined in Boston jail. As to the first, Colonel Patterson answered, that General Howe had no knowledge of it but by information from General Washington, and that the Canada department was not under his direction or control; that as to the other prisoners at Boston, whenever the state of the army at Boston admitted it, they were treated with humanity and even indulgence; that he asserted this upon his honor, and should be happy in an opportunity to prove it.

General Washington then observed, that the conduct of several of the officers would well have warranted a different treatment from what they had received; some having refused to give any parole, and others having broken it when given, by escaping or endeavoring so to do. Colonel Patterson answered, that as to the first they misunderstood the matter very much, and seemed to have mistook the line of propriety exceedingly; and as to the latter, General Howe utterly disapproved and condemned their conduct.

That if a remonstrance was made, such violations of good faith would be severely punished; but that he hoped General Washington was too just to draw public inferences from the misbehavior of some private individuals; that bad men were to be found in every class and society; that such behavior was considered as a dishonor to the British army. Colonel Patterson then proceeded to say that the goodness and benevolence of the king had induced him to appoint Lord Howe and General Howe his commissioners to accommodate the unhappy dispute; that they had great powers, and would derive the greatest pleasure from effecting an accommodation; and that he (Colonel Patterson) wished to have this visit considered as making the first advances to this desirable object. General Washington replied he was not vested with “any powers on this subject, by those from whom he derived his authority and power. But from what had appeared or transpired on this head, Lord Howe and General Howe were only to grant pardons; that those who had committed no fault wanted no pardon; that we were only defending what we deemed our indisputable right. Colonel Patterson said that would open a very wide field for argument. He then expressed his apprehensions that an adherence to forms was likely to obstruct business of the greatest moment and concern.

He then observed, that a proposal had been formally made of exchanging Governor Skene for Mr. Lovell; that he now had authority to accede to that proposal. General Washington replied, that the proposition had been made by the direction of Congress, and having been then rejected, he could not now renew the business, or give any answer, till he had previously communicated it to them.

Colonel Patterson behaved with the greatest attention and politeness during the whole business, and expressed strong acknowledgments that the usual ceremony of blinding his eyes had been dispensed with. At the breaking up of the conference, General Washington strongly invited him to partake of a small collation provided for him, which he politely declined, alleging his late business, and an impatience to return to General Howe, though he had not executed his commission so amply as he wished. Finding he did not propose staying, he was introduced to the general officers, after which he took his leave, and was safely conducted to his own boat, which waited for him about four miles distant from the city.4


1 On the 14th of July, Lord Howe sent up a flag, with the captain and lieutenant of the Eagle man-of-war. The adjutant-general met them after some little ceremony, but as their letter was directed for George Washington, Esq., he would not receive it. The officers insisted much on his receiving it, saying it was of a civil nature, his lordship being invested with unlimited powers, and was sorry he had not arrived a few days sooner. —Pennsylvania Journal, July 17.
2 Referring to the barbarity of the Indians to some of the Americans in Canada.
3 See page 226, ante.
4 Pennsylvania Journal, July 31.

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