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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Saturday, September 03, 2011

Washington Appeals the Verdict

In the fall of 1776, as the British military threatened to recapture New York City, Gen. George Washington was concerned that his soldiers were spending too much time collecting property for themselves. He told the Continental Congress:
of late, a practice prevails…of the most alarming nature; and which will, if it cannot be checked, prove fatal both to the Country and Army; I mean the infamous practice of Plundering, for under the Idea of Tory property, or property which may fall into the hands of the Enemy, no Man is secure in his effects, and scarcely in his Person; for in order to get at them, we have several Instances of People being frightned out of their Houses under pretence of those Houses being ordered to be burnt; and this is done with a view of siezing the Goods; nay, in order that the villany may be more effectually concealed, some Houses have actually been burnt to cover the theft.

I have with some others, used my utmost endeavours to stop this horrid practice, but under the present lust after plunder, and want of Laws to punish Offenders, I might almost as well attempt to remove Mount Atlas.—I have ordered instant corporal Punishment upon every Man who passes our Lines, or is seen with Plunder, that the Offenders might be punished for disobedience of Orders…
According to Gen. Washington, after he received Maj. Daniel Box’s report about catching an officer and his men carrying off household goods, he personally ordered Ens. Matthew Macumber to be arrested and tried.

And then the court martial cleared the ensign. Washington was not pleased. He wrote on a copy of the trial record, “It is to be observed that the Men who were to share the Plunder became the Evidences [i.e., witnesses] for the Prisoner.” He noted to the Congress that Macumber’s men had been seen carrying “four large Pier looking Glasses, Women’s Cloaths, and other Articles which one would think, could be of no Earthly use to him.”

In fact, the general judged, the verdict “appeared so exceedingly extraordinary” that he “ordered a Reconsideration of the matter.”

TOMORROW: The court’s reconsideration.


Rebekah Brooks said...

Wow, I just assumed most generals and officers looked the other way when it came to looting.

J. L. Bell said...

Washington seems to have felt that looting would alienate a part of the population whose loyalty/neutrality he hoped to keep or win over, or that it disrupted the discipline of the army, or that it was simply distasteful. As he noted in his letter to the Congress, there were not specific rules in the Continental Army’s articles of war against looting, so clearly a lot of other people didn’t see it as such a problem.