J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gen. Heath Thinks a Prisoner Exchange “Rather Impolitic”

As I detailed over the last two days, British Commissary of Prisoners Joshua Loring proposed a prisoner exchange of Dr. James McHenry for Dr. Benjamin Church, and on 2 July 1777 the Massachusetts General Court voted to accept that deal.

This idea didn’t go over well with Gen. William Heath, the Continental Army officer in charge of Boston’s defenses. In a letter dated 5 July, he wrote to the Massachusetts Council:

Gentlemen, — I was much surprised yesterday on hearing that Doctor Benja. Church, who has for some time been confined for practises inimical to his country, is soon to be sent to the enemy in exchange for a gentleman late belonging to our army who is now a prisoner in their hands.

As I think no one can doubt that Doctor Church is fully acquainted with the state of our publick affairs and can communicate to the enemy intelligence which may be greatly detrimental to the United States at this juncture of our publick affairs, I beg leave to submit to your wisdom whether his exchange at this time will not be rather impolitic, and whether for several reasons which it is needless to mention it is not highly proper to procrastinate the exchange.
Heath then went on to request more troops, as most American generals did whenever they had an opportunity.

That same day, the General Court approved a new resolution:
Upon The Petition of a number of Inhabitants of the Town of Boston & other Towns within this State praying that Dr. Benj: Church may not be permitted to go in the Cartel now about sailing for Rhode Island.

Resolved that the Sheriff for the County of Suffolk be & he hereby is impowered & directed to retain the sd. Dr. Church in safe Custody untill the further Order of this Court any previous Resolve or Order to the contrary notwithstanding —

& that the honble Council be requested to transmit to the honble Continental Congress the Letter from Josh: Loring Commissary of Prisoners at New York proposing an Exchange of the sd. Dr. Church for a Dr. McHenry now a Prisoner with the Enemies of these States & to request the Direction of Congress upon it.
That all sounds like how we’d hope a republic works, right? A citizen expresses concern about the government’s action, the people’s representatives consider the issue anew, and they seek more information and direction from other authorities.

TOMORROW: Except that things played out more violently than that.

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