Following the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, America achieved a temporary peace agreement as a result of their decisive victory, with further talks to come. But there was a great deal of tension and scuffles around New York.
During this time, an American Captain Joshua Huddy was captured by Tories and imprisoned in New York City. Days later, an imprisoned Tory named Philip White was killed fifty miles away in Monmouth County, New Jersey, while in American custody.
When news of White's death reached the New York City Tories, Captain Richard Lippincott took Huddy to a deserted New Jersey beach and hanged him, pinning a note to him which read, "UP GOES HUDDY FOR PHILIP WHITE."
The American public were incensed, and Washington received a flurry of letters calling for retaliation - or revenge. Washington knew that any such action could provoke the British, whilst doing nothing might result in people taking matters into their own hands.
He demanded that British Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton deliver Lippincott to him for trial but Clinton, though furious with Lippincott and keen to court-martial him, would not go that far.
Washington felt compelled to select a captive British captain and renew the demand for Lippincott's delivery, backed with the threat to execute the captive if this was not complied with. The captain was picked at random: a well-connected 19 year old name Charles Asgil.
This was particularly risky however, as the terms of the British surrender at Yorktown forbade such reprisals. Washington wrote to his second-in-command from Yorktown, Benjamin Lincoln, for advice:
"My Dear Sir,
"Colo. Hazen's sending an officer under the capitulation of Yorktown for the purpose of retaliation, has distressed me exceedingly. Will you be so good as to give me your opinion of the propriety of doing this upon Captain Asgill should we be driven to it for want of an unconditional prisoner.
"Presuming that this matter has been a subject of much conversation, pray, with your own, let me know the opinions of the most sensible of those with whom you have conversed.
"Congress by their resolve have unanimously approved of my determination to retaliate. The Army have advised it, and the Country look for it, But how far it is justifiable upon an officer under the faith of a capitulation, if none others can be had, is the question?
"Hazen's sending Capt. [Charles] Asgill on for this purpose makes the matter more distressing, as the whole business will have the appearance of a farce if some person is not sacrificed to the manes of poor Huddy, which will be the case if an unconditional Prisoner cannot be found, and Asgill escapes.
"I write to you on exceeding great haste, but beg your Sentiments may be transmitted as soon as possible (by Express) as I may be forced to a decision in the course of a few days.
"I am, with much sincerity and affection
Y[ou]r Obed. Servt.
[Signed] Go: Washington."
Aside from its obvious significance, the letter is unusual in mentioning the Battle of Yorktown at all. It was offered with an estimate of $60,000-90,000 at Heritage's historical manuscripts auction. Bidders thought it worth still more than that and pushed the price up to $95,600 before it was taken away by a collector who was bidding by phone.
In the event, the pressure to execute Asgill was dissipated, and a relieved Washington was finally able to release him unharmed.
Collectors and investors interested in rare and valuable Presidential autographs will wish to take a look at this portfolio, which includes a piece signed by Washington.
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