Concerning the “Asgill affair,” see Tom Hester Jr., “Part 20: Hostilities have ended: The population celebrates but treaty is still in negotiations. April 14, 1783,” Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger; 2 September 2001 (part 20 of 22 in the series Center of the Storm: Reliving New Jersey’s Role in the Revolutionary War, Summer 2001), who provides the following account:
[ . . . ] The slayings [a late-night surprise attack by Tories on 25 October 1782 in which 20 of 25 Gloucester County militia were killed as they slept on the sand on Long Beach Island], with the war virtually over, only intensified patriot hatred of loyalists and reminded them of the hanging by Tories of militia captain Joshua Huddy of Colts Neck only a year ago, on April 12, 1782. Enraged patriots considered Huddy’s death a murder and their demands that Washington seek retribution set off what could be considered the new nation’s first international incident.
Huddy, commander of the Toms River [New Jersey] Blockhouse and long considered a thorn in the side by Monmouth loyalists, was captured March 24, 1782, when Tories sailed from their base at Sandy Hook aboard their brigantine the Arrogant and attacked the fortification. Huddy and his 25 militiamen refused demands to surrender and did so only after they expended all of their ammunition.
After burning Toms River, a longtime patriot stronghold, the loyalists took Huddy to New York. There, without the knowledge of Gen. Henry Clinton — the British commander at the time — William Franklin, New Jersey’s deposed royal governor, the estranged son of Benjamin Franklin, and a loyalist organizer throughout the war, secretly ordered Tory Capt. Richard Lippencott of Shrewsbury to execute Huddy.
Four days after Huddy’s capture, Philip White, Lippencott’s brother-in-law, was shot as he attempted to flee after killing the son of a Monmouth militia colonel. White was found dead with an arm cut off, one eye missing, and his legs broken.
Lippencott had Huddy taken to the highlands of Middletown, where the Tories prepared to hang him from a tree. . . .
[“Captain Huddy Led from Prison to be Hanged.” Illustration from Henry Davenport Northrop, Our Greater Country; Being a Standard History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent to the Present time (Philadelphia 1901), 477.]
Huddy’s body was left hanging from the tree for six hours until it was retrieved by patriots. Pinned to the dead man’s chest was a message that read, in part, “Up goes Huddy for Philip White.”
Responding to calls for retribution by angry patriots, Washington demanded that Clinton turn over Lippencott to be tried for murder. Clinton declined, and instead had Lippencott court martialed. The hangman [Lippencott himself] was acquitted when British officers held he was only following orders.
Washington then ordered that captured British officers be selected by lottery to be hanged in retribution for Huddy’s death. Capt. Charles Asgill, 20, “a charming young aristocrat,” lost the lottery held among 13 officers. . . .
Simon Schama, Rough Crossings. Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (New York 2006 ), 142, explains how the matter’s resolution was put into motion:
What saved the young guards officer was the inflation of the Asgill matter into “L’Affaire Asgill,” the talk of the European salons and gazettes in the autumn of 1782. It had all the elements of the sentimental romance, much in vogue in this, the same year as the appearance of Rousseau’s Confessions: a stricken mother; a father on his death bed; a sister distraught and in “delirium”; one sternly unbending general, and his opposite number desperate for a solution that would be both humane and just.
Given the news about her son, the anguished Theresa Asgill had written to Carleton to implore his personal intercession. Instead of shrugging his shoulder Carleton had a stroke of genius, suggesting that the mother write instead to the French Foreign Minister, Count Vergennes, in the knowledge that the fashionable cult of sensibility had a strong grip on the French aristocracy. Theresa Asgill, as it turned out, knew just what to do and how to do it.
Theresa Asgill had previously appealed to King George III, who in fact ordered Clinton to surrender Lippencott in exchange for Asgill; Clinton, however, schemed to disobey the order. It was only then that she wrote the following to Charles Gravier, Count de Vergennes (George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741–1799, Series 4, Image 505; with slightly different wording in Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States 5:635–36; it is to this letter that Caroline is referring in her letter to Julie von Studnitz on 14 March 1783 [letter 36]):
London, July 18, 1782
If the politeness of the French Court will permit an Application of a Stranger, there can be no doubt but one in which all the tender feelings of an individual can be interested, will meet with a favorable reception from a Nobleman, whose character does honor not only to his own country but to human nature.
The Subject, Sir, on which I presume to implore your assistance, is too heart-piercing for me to dwell on, and common fame has most probably informed you of it; it therefore renders the painful task unnecessary. My Son (an only Son) and dear as he is brave, amiable as deserving to be so, only nineteen, a prisoner under articles of capitulation of York-Town, is now confined in America, an Object of retaliation! Shall an innocent suffer for the guilty?
Represent to yourself, Sir, the situation of a family under these circumstances, surrounded as I am by Objects of distress, distracted with fear and grief; no words can express my feelings or paint the Scene — my husband given over by his physicians a few hours before the news arrived, and not in a state to be informed of the misfortune; my daughter seized with a fever and delirium, raving about her brother, and without one interval of reason, save to hear the heart-alleviating circumstance.
Let your own feelings, Sir, suggest & plead for my inexpressible misery — a word from you like a voice from Heaven will save us from distraction & wretchedness.
I am well informed General Washington reveres your character; say but to him that 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. His honour, Sir, carried him to America. He was born to affluence, independence and the happiest prospects.
Let me again supplicate your goodness, let me respectfully implore your high influence in behalf of innocence in the cause of justice; of humanity; that you would, Sir, dispatch a letter to General Washington from France and favour me with a copy of it to be sent from hence. I am sensible of the liberty I take in making this request, but I am also sensible that whether you comply with it or not, you will pity the distress that suggests it.
Your humanity will drop a tear on the fault and dissolve it. I will pray, that Heaven may grant you may never want the comfort it is in your power to restore on
Schama (143) continues:
Once he stopped sobbing, Vergennes passed the letter on to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette who — mother to mother — melted in sympathetic sorrow. The philosophe Diderot’s correspondent, Grimm, began to embroider the scene, claiming that a gallows was being built directly outside Charles Asgill’s cell and that he had been taken thrice to the gibbet only for the agonized Washington to find himself incapable of giving the order for his execution. The journals and gazettes reported that passengers disembarking from ships coming from America were immediately asked, “What news of Asgill?”
Vergennes did indeed write to Washington on 29 July 1782 (George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741–1799, Series 4, Images 605–6; translated in Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States 5:634–35), concluding his letter:
I sincerely wish, sir, that my intercession may meet success; the sentiment which dictates it, and which you have not ceased to manifest on every occasion, assures me that you will not be indifferent to the prayers and to the tears of a family which has recourse to your clemency through me. It is rendering homage to your virtue to implore it.
Strictly speaking, Asgill was protected by the 14th Article of Capitulation regarding prisoners of war, and Washington’s own letter to Congress, along with the appeal of Theresa Asgill and the French royal couple, eventually brought about his release, and he returned to England in December 1782. Oddly perhaps, Caroline, writing in March 1783, does not mention the affair’s resolution.
Further documentation: Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes’s letter to Washington of 29 July 1782: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741–1799, Series 4, Images 605–6. Washington’s letter to Captain Charles Asgill of 13 November 1782: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741–1799, Series 4, Images 886–87. Copious pieces of diplomatic correspondence tracing the course of the affair are included in Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, vol. 5.
One odd postscript to the affair was the publication of at least three plays, a novel, and several poems on the affair in France. A second was the fact that Charles Asgill’s later own military career saw him fighting against the French. For detailed accounts of the “Asgill affair” and further documents, in addition to Schama see also “Case of Asgill,” Republication of the Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America, ed. Hezekiah Niles (New York 1876), 509–10; J. B. F., “Captain Huddy and Captain Asgill,” The American Historical Record and Repertory of Notes and Queries Concerning the History and Antiquities of America and Biography of Americans, ed. B. J. Lossing, vol. 2 (Philadelphia 1873), 169–74.
© 2014 Doug Stott