The True George Washington: Enemies: British Generals

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

British Generals

The Braddock campaign brought acquaintance with one which did not end in friendship, however amicable the beginning. There can be little doubt that there was cameraderie with the then Lieutenant-Colonel Gage, for in 1773, when in New York for four days, Washington "Dined with Gen. Gage," and also "dined at the entertainment given by the citizens of New York to Genl. Gage." When next intercourse was resumed, it was by formal correspondence between the commanders-in-chief of two hostile armies, Washington inquiring as to the treatment of prisoners, and as a satisfactory reply was not obtained, he wrote again, threatening retaliation, and "closing my correspondence with you, perhaps forever," ?a letter which Charles Lee thought "a very good one, but Gage certainly deserved a stronger one, such as it was before it was softened." One cannot but wonder what part the old friendship played in this "softening."

Relations with the Howes began badly by a letter from Lord Howe addressed "George Washington, Esq.," which Washington declined to receive as not recognizing his official position. A second one to "George Washington, Esq. &c. &c. &c." met with the same fate, and brought the British officer "to change my superscription." A little after this brief war of forms, a letter from Washington to his wife was intercepted with others by the enemy, and General Howe enclosed it, "happy to return it without the least attempt being made to discover any part of the contents." This courtesy the American commander presently was able to reciprocate by sending "General Washington's compliments to General Howe,?does himself the pleasure to return to him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and, by the inscription on the collar, appears to belong to General Howe." Even politeness had its objections, however, at moments, and Washington once had to write Sir William,?

"There is one passage of your letter, which I cannot forbear taking particular notice of. No expression of personal politeness to me can be acceptable, accompanied by reflections on the representatives of a free people, under whose authority I have the honor to act. The delicacy I have observed, in refraining from everything offensive in this way, entitles me to expect a similar treatment from you. I have not indulged myself in invective against the present rulers of Great Britain, in the course of our correspondence, nor will I even now avail myself of so fruitful a theme."

Apparently when Sir Henry Clinton succeeded to the command of the British army the same old device to insult the General was again tried, for Dumas states that Washington "received a despatch from Sir Henry Clinton, addressed to 'Mr. Washington.' Taking it from the hands of the flag of truce, and seeing the direction, 'This letter,' said he, 'is directed to a planter of the state of Virginia. I shall have it delivered to him after the end of the war; till that time it shall not be opened.' A second despatch was addressed to his Excellency General Washington." A better lesson in courtesy was contained in a letter from Washington to him, complaining of "wanton, unprecedented and inhuman murder," which closed with the following: "I beg your Excellency to be persuaded, that it cannot be more disagreeable to you to be addressed in this language, than it is to me to offer it; but the subject requires frankness and decision."

Quite as firm was one addressed to Cornwallis, which read,?

"It is with infinite regret, I am again compelled to remonstrate against that spirit of wanton cruelty, that has in several instances influenced the conduct of your soldiery. A recent exercise of it towards an unhappy officer of ours, Lieutenant Harris, convinces me, that my former representations on this subject have been unavailing. That Gentleman by the fortunes of war, on Saturday last was thrown into the hands of a party of your horse, and unnecessarily murdered with the most aggravated circumstances of barbarity. I wish not to wound your Lordship's feelings, by commenting on this event; but I think it my duty to send his mangled body to your lines as an undeniable testimony of the fact, should it be doubted, and as the best appeal to your humanity for the justice of our complaint."

A pleasanter intercourse came with the surrender of Yorktown, after which not merely were Cornwallis and his officers saved the mortification of surrendering their swords, but the chief among them were entertained at dinner by Washington. At this meal, so a contemporary account states, "Rochhambeau, being asked for a toast, gave 'The United States'. Washington gave 'The King of France'. Lord Cornwallis, simply 'The King'; but Washington, putting that toast, added, 'of England', and facetiously, 'confine him there, I'll drink him a full bumper', filling his glass till it ran over. Rochambeau, with great politeness, was still so French, that he would every now and then be touching on points that were improper, and a breach of real politeness. Washington often checked him, and showed in a more saturnine manner, the infinite esteem he had for his gallant prisoner, whose private qualities the Americans admired even in a foe, that had so often filled them with the most cruel alarms." Many years later, when Cornwallis was governor-general of India, he sent a verbal message to his old foe, wishing "General Washington a long enjoyment of tranquility and happiness," adding that for himself he "continued in troubled waters."

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