George Washington and the Treatment of the Enemy

February 19, 2007 at 12:54 pm | Posted in America, American politics, freedom, George W Bush, War | 8 Comments

The following is what George Washington ordered his soldiers to do with captured enemy soldiers. Even though the British were quite brutal and murderous, General Washington guided his soldiers to stick to the high road, because what they were fighting for mattered more than the vengeful feelings some would have at seeing their comrades so badly mistreated by the British. Would that Americans today remember their first president and the honorable man he was, contrast to today’s president, the worst America has ever seen, and see that the way out, the way to peace lies in the removal of the current leader. Heed the words of George Washington Americans, not the words of George Bush.

From Balkinization

ON the treatment of enemy soldiers:

First among these may well be the tradition of humane warfare, articulated by George Washington after the Battle of Trenton, December 24, 1776. “Treat them with humanity,” Washington directed with respect to the captured Hessians. He forbade physical abuse and directed the detainees be quartered with the German-speaking residents of Eastern Pennsylvania, in the expectation that they would become “so fraught with a love of liberty, and property too, that they may create a disgust to the service among the rest of the foreign troops, and widen the breach which is already opened between them and the British.” (Things unfolded exactly as Washington envisioned). Washington also set the rule that detainees be given the same housing, food and medical treatment as his own soldiers. And he was particularly concerned about freedom of conscience and respect for the religious values of those taken prisoner. “While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of hearts of men, and to Him only in this case are they answerable.”

ON Americans who did not follow this guideline:

The nation’s first commander-in-chief had a firmer and more comprehensive grip on these issues than his successor 230 years later. Washington engaged in no equivocation on the concept of treatment of those under our power. He ordered that “should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injur[e] any [of them]… I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause.” Any officer who failed to heed this direction, he said, would bring “shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.” Departure from this injunction was a grave mistake.

From Obsidian Wings

Scholars expound on Washington’s decision:

KRULWICH: When word reached General Washington that the British had murdered American soldiers without provocation, he declared that whatever American soldiers may feel, we on the American side, he said, we will not do it to them. On the contrary, he issued orders.

Prof. FISCHER: Orders that captives were to be treated with humanity.

KRULWICH: And what he meant by humanity means you couldn’t run them through, turn them into sieves, or chop off their fingers for wedding rings.

Prof. FISCHER: First, it meant that they had a right to life itself.

KRULWICH: So we will not kill wounded soldiers, he said. And then he went on, we will also protect them. We will feed them. We will house them. They will not be harmed, because we are fighting for a cause. And our cause, he said, requires that we behave with honor.

Prof. FISCHER: He said that repeatedly in the course of the war. He often cast it in terms of appealing to the honor of his men, that they had behaved with honor and they had won glory, and they should always conduct themselves in a way that would not diminish that glory or honor.

KRULWICH: And as best you can tell, those orders were honored by the Americans.

Prof. FISCHER: We know that they were and we have the testimony of the Hessian themselves, that they were treated with humanity. We have a lot of writing from the Hessians.

KRULWICH: Washington’s troops captured 900 Hessian mercenary soldiers at Trenton, 500 British regulars at Princeton. Those men wrote diaries. They wrote letters which show how surprised they were at being treated so kindly.

Prof. FISCHER: They were amazed. They feared the worst when they were captured.

KRULWICH: And because they were treated so well, they behaved well in turn. There’s a story that Professor Fischer tells of a group of several hundred Hessian soldiers who were told, okay, you’ve been captured, so we want you to go from the front across Pennsylvania, across Maryland, all the way to Virginia. So American soldiers from Pennsylvania marched them to the Maryland border.

Prof. FISCHER: At the border, the Pennsylvania militia told them to march on and meet other militia of…

KRULWICH: But with whom would they march on?

Prof. FISCHER: They would march alone, without a guard. And they did that.

KRULWICH: And several weeks later, how many of those prisoners of war do you think showed up on their own at their assigned destination?

Prof. FISCHER: My memory is that they all showed up.

KRULWICH: All of them. Professor Fischer, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Washington’s Crossing,” says of the Hessian soldiers who came to America and survived the war, an astonishing proportion in the end decided to stay here.

Prof. FISCHER: It was roughly one out of four.

KRULWICH: One out of four German soldiers who came here to fight the Revolution ended up in effect joining the Revolution. Many of them were prisoners of war who were told, okay, sir, until you’re released, you have to go into the wilderness, where you’re going to worker for Farmer Jones or Farmer Smith. And the prisoner would do that.

Prof. FISCHER: And he would have been an enemy of the Revolution a few months earlier. And a few months later, he might well be that farmer’s son-in-law. (Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: And so while George Washington may or may not have intended it, his decision not to seek revenge, his choice to do the honorable, the moral and the right thing in war, helped turn an army of invaders into an army of settlers and citizens and neighbors.


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  1. NPR did a piece about this. Interesting stuff.

  2. Yeah, that’s what the dude from Obsidian Wings was recapping.

  3. Yeah, I caught that. The coolest thing about the piece is there was no editorializing or comparing it to today. They just presented the history.

    There’s always been a family rumor that we’re descendants of Hessians, but its never been documented.

  4. (That side of the family is from Perry County, PA since about the time it was first settled)

  5. That’s pretty cool.

    Yeah, it’s nice when historians just present things as they were. The hope is that the listener or reader has a keen enough sense to apply what he just learned to his current scenario.

  6. Yeah, either way its cool.

    Dan, sometimes there’s an obvious parallel, sometimes theres not. Sometimes, its just best to let others decide for themselves. Either way, NPR (as always), took the high road.

  7. […] going to look for guidance in regulating military conduct, perhaps a more urgent place to start was his words about the treatment of enemy combatants: First among these may well be the tradition of humane warfare, articulated by George Washington […]

  8. […] in doing what we did to these men when the cost is so high? Compare what George Bush ordered with another George ordered, one George Washington. First among these may well be the tradition of humane warfare, articulated […]

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