Elias Boudinot IV: America’s First Commissary General of Prisoners

Elias Boudinot IV, pastel portrait by James Sharples, n.d. (Princeton University Art Museum)

“The prisoner of war is one of the most tragic figures in any conflict.”Larry G. Bowman[1]

Various studies have placed the number of Americans taken prisoner during the American Revolution anywhere from 18,000 to 20,000, with 8,500 to 12,000 dying in captivity.[2] The harsh treatment of Americans taken by the British began after the Battle of Bunker Hill when twenty Americans out of the thirty-one taken captive were reported to have died in prison.[3] The Continental Congress’s first action to deal with the problem of prisoners of war was on October 6, 1776 when it authorized each state to deal with prisoners taken in their state and to negotiate exchanges for its own citizens.[4]

On December 3, 1776, Gen. William Howe reported that during the New York and New Jersey Campaigns the British captured 4,430 American troops. He noted that he released about 2,000 enlisted men, mainly militia, telling them to return to their homes.[5] This still left him with 2,000 prisoners, to be held in what was an already overcrowded New York City. With no special prisoner of war camps, the prisoners were held in local jails, various warehouses, particularly sugarhouses, churches, and most infamously, the prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn. According to British custom, prisoners of war were allotted two-thirds the daily ration of a British soldier. The British did not feel responsible for supplying prisoners with any “amenities” such as clothing, bedding, firewood, etc.; these were to be provided by their own countrymen.[6]

Gen. George Washington called upon Congress to set up a centralized authority to deal with the handling of prisoners of war. On December 27, 1776 Congress authorized the establishment of the post of Commissary General of Prisoners. Washington’s first choice for the position, Col. Clarence Cox, a quartermaster commissary with the Pennsylvania Militia, turned down the offer. Then on April 1, 1777 from his Morristown, New Jersey Headquarters, Washington sent the following letter:

Sir, I am authorizd by Congress to appoint a Commissary of Prisoners … I intend to annex another duty to this Office; and that is, the procuring of Intelligence. The Gentleman ingaged in the department of Commissary of Prisoners will have as much leizure, and better oppertunities, than most other Officers in the Army, to obtain knowledge of the Enemys Situation—Motions—and (as far as may be) designs. Thus Sir, in concise terms, have I given you a sketch of the duties of, and my expectations from, a Commissary of Prisoners; and now, give me leave to ask, if you will accept the Appointment? With very great esteem and regard, I am—Sir Yr Most Obedt Servt. (sic)  Go: Washington[7]

The letter was sent to Elias Boudinot IV, a leading lawyer and Whig politician from New Jersey. At first Boudinot, just as Colonel Cox, turned down the offer. But the Commander-in-Chief retorted with an impassioned plea: “That if men of character and influence would not come forward and join him in his exertions, all would be lost.”[8] Boudinot then relented and became the Continental Army’s first Commissary General of Prisoners.[9]

Elias Boudinot IV was descended from French Huguenots. His father (known as Elias III) was a silversmith who apprenticed in New York City, then went to the island of Antigua. There he married Catherine Williams and eventually moved to Philadelphia where on May 2, 1740 Elias IV was born. In 1753 the family relocated to Princeton, New Jersey where Elias III purchased a tavern, was named post-master and occasionally practiced his silversmithing. Elias IV took up the study of law under the tutelage of Richard Stockton, who in 1757 married his sister Annis Boudinot.[10] In 1760, at the age of twenty, Boudinot was admitted to the Bar in New Jersey, then moved to Elizabethtown where he established what was to become a very successful law practice.[11] In 1762 Boudinot, who has been described as physically attractive, tall, handsome, elegant, eloquent and emotional, married Hannah Stockton, the sister of his mentor and brother-in-law Richard Stockton. With this marriage, Elias raised himself in colonial society and established lifelong contacts.[12]

Evidence of Boudinot’s commitment to the Patriot cause was indicated in that he headed Essex County’s Committee of Correspondence and was a delegate from Essex County to New Jersey’s extralegal Provincial Congress. As late as April 1776, Elias opposed Independence and felt there still could be reconciliation with the Crown. He opposed Dr. John Witherspoon’s call for New Jersey declaring its independence, and to Witherspoon’s astonishment Boudinot’s plea for restraint carried the day.[13] However, with the British arrival at New York Harbor in the June and July 1776, Boudinot became fully committed to the Patriot cause and to Independence.[14]

When Elias Boudinot became the commissary of prisoners he faced a number of daunting tasks. His responsibilities included seeing that British and Hessian prisoners of war were securely housed and their physical needs taken care of until prisoner exchanges could be arranged.  He also had to supplement the rations and basic amenities of Americans held by the British. Finally, in Washington’s “job description” for the position, the commissary was to “procure intelligence,” making him the head of a spy network.[15]

From the start, Elias Boudinot believed his tasks as commissary of prisoners were almost insurmountable. In his journal he noted:

Soon after I had entered on my department, the applications of the Prisoners were so numerous and their distress so urgent, that I exerted every nerve to obtain supplies but invain  – Excepting £600 I had rec’d from the Secret Committee in Bills of Exchange, at my first entrance into the Office – I could not by any means get a single farthing more, except in Continental Money, which was of no avail in New York[16]

Describing the dire situation to General Washington, Boudinot told him there was no way he could help the prisoners except by borrowing money on his personal credit and from friends, to which he said Washington replied,

He greatly encouraged me to the attempt, promising me that if I finally met with any loss, he would divide it with me – On this I began to afford them some supplies of Provisions over and above what the Enemy afforded them, which was very small & very indifferent.[17]

To help perform his duties, Boudinot was at first allotted two deputies (rank of major, pay $50 per month); later this was increased to five and by the end of the war, there was a deputy in each state. One of the first people that Boudinot turned to was Lewis Pintard, a wealthy New York merchant, to whom he happened to be related by marriage. Boudinot offered him a commission as one of his deputies but Pintard turned it down, stating that if he had any “official” status, General Howe would most likely refuse him permission to remain in New York City. Instead he acted as Boudinot’s unofficial deputy or agent. For the rest of the war, Lewis Pintard did much to help the American prisoners of war held in New York.[18] On the British side, General Howe appointed a Loyalist from Massachusetts, Joshua Loring, their Commissary General of Prisoners.[19]

With the maneuvering and skirmishing that accompanied General Howe’s decision to capture Philadelphia (the British entered the city unopposed on September 26. 1777) and then with the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, the British had another 500 prisoners of war who were held in Philadelphia.[20] To deal with these prisoners, Howe appointed a Philadelphia Loyalist, Henry Hugh Fergusson, as Deputy Commissary of Prisoners for Philadelphia. Ironically, Fergusson’s wife Elizabeth Graeme, a noted poetess of the era, was a good friend of the Boudinots, especially with Elias’s sister Annis, who in her own right was one of the leading poets of colonial and Revolutionary America.[21]

Elias Boudinot’s term as commissary of prisoners was to reach a climax during the winter of 1777 and 1778.

In December 1777, the New Jersey Legislature elected him a representative to the Continental Congress. Due to proposed meetings with the British over the treatment of prisoners and with the difficulty in finding a replacement Commissary, he did not actually take his seat in Congress until July 1778.[22] While an elected member of Congress, Boudinot continued his duties as commissary of prisoners and before he resigned his commission, he oversaw significant actions to help improve the lot of American prisoners of war.

The first big change happened when General Howe moved his headquarters to Philadelphia. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton was left with command of the British and Hessian troops stationed in New York. He gave permission for Boudinot to enter New York City and meet American prisoners without restriction.[23] From February 3 to February 17, 1778, the American commissary of prisoners visited and interviewed prisoners of war. The first person he met with was Gen. Charles Lee, who had been held since December 1776; Lee was living in a private residence in the city and negotiations were underway for his exchange.[24]

Next he went to the New Jail, more commonly referred to as the Provost, where about thirty prominent prisoners both military and civilian were being held.[25] While at the Provost, he met with the notorious British Provost Marshal, William Cunningham to complain of the harsh treatment of the prisoners under his care. Supposedly, Cunningham did not deny the accusations, but rather boasted of his harsh treatment of the rebels.[26]

Also on his agenda were visits to the various sugarhouses and other places of confinement. One of the places where he found the prisoners in deep distress was the Eglise du St. Esprit, the Huguenot Church where his father had been baptized. There he found well over 300 prisoners who complained that they were so crowded that they all couldn’t lay down at the same time. They stated that since October they were given no firewood and as a result they burned all the pews, doors and window frames. They had to “eat raw pork.”[27]

After his visits to prisoners being held in New York City, he traveled to Long Island where some 235 officers were paroled and living in private residences. In these meetings, the officers reported that they were well treated. The one group of prisoners he was not allowed to meet with were those held on the prison ships. These prisoners were under the jurisdiction of the Royal Navy and Commodore William Hotham, the naval commander of New York, refused him permission. He noted, “There are 58 Officers and 62 SeaMen on board the Prison Ships, who suffer greatly and die daily.”[28]

Before Boudinot left he met with Commissary Loring and other British officers. At this meeting they notified Boudinot that many of the American officers were in arrears of the $2/day board they were expected to pay for their upkeep while on parole.[29] Further, they threatened that unless this debt was paid, they would revoke the paroles and return the officers to either the prisoner compounds in the city or to the prison ships. To avoid this, Boudinot pledged to pay all of the officers’ board debt back to December and to continue to pay the board in the future. One of the ways he planned to pay these expenses was for Americans to send flour and wheat to New York City where Pintard would sell it and the proceeds would be used to pay the prisoners expenses; the British agreed to this arrangement.[30]

To further insure that the prisoners’ needs were seen to, Elias Boudinot’s final action before he left New York was to borrow funds on his personal credit to “Furnish 300 officers with handsome suits of cloaths each and 1100 men a plain suit. Also, Blanketts, shirts, etc. and added to their provisions a full half day of Rations Bread and Beef per day for upwards to 15 months.”[31]

While Boudinot was on his inspection of prisoner conditions in New York City, General Howe, on February 5, 1778, sent General Washington a proposal to hold a meeting to come up with an agreement for a general exchange of prisoners. In response, Washington sent a message to Boudinot that when he finished in New York he was to return to “Camp” (Valley Forge) and take part in these negotiations.

The negotiations began at Germantown on March 31, 1778, were adjourned and then resumed at Newtown (Bucks County) on April 6. These meetings lasted ten days. While both sides agreed on some items on the agenda, the main sticking point continued to be the implication that a formal prisoner cartel would have on the recognition of American Independence. Since neither side would give on this point, the result was once again a failure to reach an agreement. With the collapse of the negotiations, Boudinot left Valley Forge and went to Morristown where he believed he was undertaking his last mission as commissary of prisoners.

There he met Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, a British officer on parole and slated to be exchanged.[32] With permission from the British, the pair went to New York City where Campbell was formally exchanged for Ethan Allen. While in New York, Boudinot arranged the exchange of seventy-five officers and fifty-nine privates. Upon completion of this mission and believing his resignation was effective as of May 11, 1778, he let General Washington know that he was getting his accounts in order; however, he was soon to learn that his service as commissary of prisoners was not yet at an end.

On May 23, 1778, Washington sent him a message to return to “Camp”:

This renders your immediatepresence at Camp necessary; which I therefore request Col. Francis Johnson has been nominated to succeed you in your department; but he has not yet accepted the appointment. In any case, your presence and assistance are indispensable, as your successor could not be at once sufficiently acquainted with the state of the department to execute with propriety a matter of such extent and importance, as that which now calls for your attention; and indeed you ought to be sometime with him to communicate the necessary information concerning it, and put him in a train, because General Howe came up with a new proposal for a general exchange of prisoners.[33]

Boudinot did not arrive back at Valley Forge until June 5 and on the next day, both he and his replacement, Col. John Beatty, went to Germantown to meet with Commissary Loring. At this meeting, Loring officially informed them the British were evacuating Philadelphia and the new commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, would prefer to exchange the prisoners held in Philadelphia rather than send them by ship to New York. The one sticking point from the American point of view was that they felt it would be unfair to those prisoners in New York who were in captivity for a longer period of time. To this Loring stated the prisoners in Philadelphia might be paroled and the actual exchange based on seniority of captivity could be worked out at a latter date. On June 8, 1778, Boudinot agreed to the terms.[34]

By June 16, Boudinot had in his custody all the British prisoners being held in Reading and Easton, Pennsylvania, but there was a snag because most of the Hessians had been sent to Lancaster County where they were hired out to work on farms. Boudinot indicated that it would take more time to round up all of these men and a number of them did not wish to rejoin their regiments. By this time Boudinot was informed that the American prisoners had been boarded transports and the evacuation was to begin the next day. He was then informed that the British privates slated for exchange were to be forwarded to Staten Island. At this, Boudinot felt the British were acting in bad faith and the entire exchange was called off.[35]

Following the failure of this prisoner exchange and the British evacuation of Philadelphia, Elias Boudinot’s time as commissary of prisoners came to an end. He took his seat in Congress, attending his first session on July 7, 1778. Boudinot reported in his journal that one of the reasons he accepted the position was George Washington’s counseling him:

I was chosen a member of Congress but continued in the army till June, when George Washington, knowing I was near $30,000 in advance for the prisoners, urged me to go and take my seat in Congress, where I might get some of the hard money received from General Burgoyne before it was all expended, for if it was once gone; I should be totally ruined.[36]

Upon taking his seat, one of the first things that Boudinot did was present to Congress his account of the money he forwarded for the care of the prisoners in New York from his personal credit. Congressmen Richard Henry Lee and William Duer, on the Account Committee, agreed to Boudinot’s claim and ordered a warrant in the form of hard specie to the amount of $26,000 be issued to Boudinot. Before it was presented, however, Congressmen Francis Dana (Massachusetts) and Henry Marchant (Rhode Island) vehemently opposed this payment. They stated that “Mr. Boudinot had taken up this money at the instance of Gen’l Washington, without the approbation of Congress, he had no right to be paid but in Continental money as other Creditors of Congress.”[37]  Boudinot angrily replied that he borrowed the money on his own credit and he would go home, sell his property to meet his creditors’ demands as far as it would go and then send word that there would be no more credit available for the care of the prisoners in New York from him.

After ten days he reported that he received word from New York that the misery of the prisoners was now increased, and he read the letter he received from his agent (most likely Pintard). Boudinot reported there was an emotional outcry from members, Congress then voted unanimously to approve a warrant for £10,000 specie, which he immediately forwarded to New York to resume caring for the American prisoners of war.[38] In August, after serving less than two months, Boudinot left Philadelphia and did not return to Congress. In New Jersey as a private citizen, he returned to his law practice and the restoring of his financial stability. His respite from public service only lasted until 1781.

The United States, now being governed by the Articles of Confederation, saw Elias Boudinot once again chosen as a representative from New Jersey. In 1782, he was elected by Congress as it President, which under the Articles was the closest position to a chief executive. In 1783, as President of the Congress, Boudinot led Congress when it met in Princeton (June – November) and the signing of the Treaty of Paris (September 3, 1783), which officially recognized American Independence.[39]

While Boudinot did not take part in the adopting of the United States Constitution, he favored it and was elected to the House of Representatives from New Jersey (1789 to 1795). From 1795 to 1805 he was the director of the United States Mint, his last public position. In retirement he turned to religion and was one of the founders and first President of the American Bible Society. Elias Boudinot died 1821 and was interred at the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, Bordentown, New Jersey.

 

[1]Larry G. Bowman, Captive Americans: Prisoners in the American Revolution(Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976), 3. “One of three taken captive perished during the long struggle … The 33% overall death rate was not to be in any of the nation’s wars until the recent Korean Conflict.Richard H. Ammerman, Treatment of American Prisoners in the Revolution, NJ Historical Society, vol. 78, 1960, 257.

[2]Howard Peckham, Toll of Independence(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), 130.

[3]Bowman, Captive Americans, 6. For a good overview of fate of prisoners of war on both sides see: Gary Shattuck and Dan Hagist, “10 Facts About Prisoners of War,” Journal of the American Revolution, April 27, 2015.

[4]Major General Henry G. Corbin and Raphael P. Thian, Legislative History of the General Staff of the Army of the United States, 1775 to 1901(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901), 639. Found at books.google.com; Congressional Serial Set. Also found at this site are all the resolves of Congress regarding the Commissary General of Prisoners, 1776 – 1782. It is interesting to note that Elisha Boudinot, Elias’s younger brother, was appointed Commissary of Prisoners for New Jersey in December 1778.

[5]Bowman, Captive Americans, 12.

[6]Bowman, Captive Americans, 18.

[7]George Washington to Elias Boudinot, April 1, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov.  Spelling as found in the original.

[8]Ibid., fn. 3.

[9]On June 6, 1777 Congress confirmed Boudinot’s appointment with the pay ($60 per month) and rations of a colonel, retroactive to May 15, 1777, although Boudinot accepted on April 15, 1777. See, Legislative History of the General Staff of the Army of the United States, 1775 to 1901, 639.

[10]Richard Stockton was one of the five signers of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey.

[11]One of the oldest towns in New Jersey, today it is Elizabeth, New Jersey; while it is presently located in and the county seat of Union County, at the time of the American Revolution it was part of Essex County.

[12]Donald W. Whisenhunt, Elias Boudinot(Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1975), 9 – 10.

[13]Elias Boudinot, The Life, Public Services, Addresses and Letters of Elias Boudinot, L.L., Jane J. Boudinot, ed. (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1896), 14-22, archives.org.

[14]When future Gov. William Livingston was named brigadier and commander of the East Jersey Militia he named Boudinot as an aide-de-camp. With the British in New York, Boudinot moved his family to a farm he owned in Basking Ridge, New Jersey; the town was also the home of William Alexander (Lord Stirling). Barbara L. Clark, The Story of Elias Boudinot IV, his family, his friends and his country(Philadelphia: Dorrance Press, 1977), 45.

[15]The commissary of prisoners reported directly to George Washington and in Congress he answered to the Board of War and the Secret Committee.

[16]Elias Boudinot, Journal or Historical Record of American Events during the The Revolutionary War(Philadelphia: Frederick Bourquin, 1894), 10.

[17]ibid.

[18]Burrows, Captive Americans, 85-86. Also, see Joseph Lee Boyle, “Their Distress is almost intolerable,” The EliasBoudinot Letterbook 1777-1778” (Westminster, MD: Stackpole Books, 2008), 4, 7, et.al. (check index for all correspondences from Boudinot to Pintard).

[19]Joshua Loring’s wife Elizabeth Lloyd, also from Massachusetts, has been characterized as the mistress of General Howe; while it has been accepted that she was Howe’s mistress, there are no factual accounts of this relationship being more then companionship. Stephen Davidson, The Redcoat and the Scarlet Woman: Part Two,“Loyalist Trails” 2010-31: August 1, 2010.

[20]George Adam Boyd, Elias Boudinot: Patriot and Statesman 1740 – 1821(New York: Greenwood Press Reprint, 1969), 40.  While Colonel Boudinot was on Washington’s staff and was usually with the General at his headquarters, he was not at Brandywine for it was reported that on September 7, 1777 outside of Wilmington, his horse tripped, he was thrown and supposedly was unconscious for seven hours. He went on sick leave back  to New Jersey; returned to duty in late October.

[21]Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 121. For an interesting insight to Elizabeth Graeme and some of the consequences of marrying Fergusson, see Larry E. Tise, The American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800(Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), Chapter 10, 161-168.

[22]Col. Francis Johnson, 5th Regiment, Pennsylvania Line, was offered the position, but turned down; it was then offered to Maj. John Beatty, 3rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Line, who did accept. Beatty was taken prisoner of war at the surrender of Fort Washington. Beatty served from May 1778 – April1780. Following John Beatty the other commissaries of prisoners were: Col. Joseph Ward (April 15, 1780) and Abraham Skinner (September 15, 1780).

[23]Boyle, Letterbook, 52. While in New York City he stayed with his agent Lewis Pintard.

[24]General Lee was finally exchanged on April 21, 1778 for Gen. Richard Prescott.

[25]The most prominent prisoner held at the Provost Jail at this time was Ethan Allen. The Provost was where Boudinot’s brother-in-law, Richard Stockton, the only signer of the Declaration of Independence arrested by the British, was held for a month or two (December 1776 –January 1777). After Boudinot’s complaint of the officers being held in “close confinement” in the Provost, Clinton agreed to parole them to Long Island.

[26]William Cunningham, who is often referred to as “the notorious” Provost Marshal, served General Howe by running prisoner of war installations, first in New York City then in Philadelphia. For an overview of Cunningham’s life see: William Cunningham: The Provost Marshal, accessgenealogy.com, July 15, 2011.

[27]Boyd, Elias Boudinot: Patriot and Statesman 1740 – 1821, 59.

[28]Most of the prisoners being held on the ships were privateers captured at sea. After Boudinot left New York, the Royal Navy gave Lewis Pintard permission to send these prisoners supplemental rations. David L. Sterling, Prisoners of War in New York; A Report by Elias Boudinot, William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 3, July 1956, 376-392.

[29]The sum of $2 per day board was agreed by both sides as what a paroled officer would be charged for his upkeep.

[30]Boyle, “Their Distress,“55.

[31]William W. Attenbury, Elias Boudinot: Reminiscences of the American Revolution, Read before the Huguenot Society, February 15, 1894, 24, babel.hathitrust.org. Also see: Helen Jordan, “Colonel Elias Boudinot in New York City, February, 1778,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography24 (1900): 453–66.Online at: archive.org/

[32]Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, of the 71st Highlanders, captured when his transport Georgemistakenly entered Boston Harbor, June 16, 1776. Following his exchange he took part of the capture of Savannah in 1779. He was appointed Governor of Jamaica, in 1782, then Governor of Madras from 1786-1789; he died in Scotland in 1791. See: J.L. Bell,boston1775.blogspot.com/2015/07/a-tolerable-cannonade-ensued.html, July 22, 2015. See also: Boyd, Elias Boudinot: Patriot and Statesman, 63.

[33]Washington to Boudinot, May 23, 1778, Founders Online: Letters.

[34]Boudinot to Washington, June 28, 1778, Founders Online: Letters.

[35]Ibid.

[36]Boudinot, Journal, 68-69. Boudinot notes here how he formed a plan for General Burgoyne to pay for the upkeep of the Saratoga prisoners and in the beginning of 1778 Congress received $40,000 in “hard money.”

[37]Boudinot, Journal, 70.

[38]Boudinot, Reminiscences, 24.

[39]The move was because 300-400 Continental soldiers marched to Philadelphia and threatened Congress with violence if they didn’t receive their back pay. When Boudinot’s request for the Pennsylvania Militia to provide Congress protection was denied, they adjourned to Princeton. See: Boudinot, The Life, “Mutiny of Pennsylvania Troops,”329-30.

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1 Comment

  • I grew up, literally, a few blocks from Boudinot mansion in Elizabeth, NJ. There is a wonderful book about “Elizabethtown As We Were” which talks extensively about it’s role in the Revolution. Supposedly they were looking for a secret tunnel from his house to the Elizabeth river near his home. This would allow unloading of supplies secretly for our military and citizens. The city was home to Aaron Burr, Hamilton, Jonathan Dayton and the James Caldwell, the Fighting Parson. Growing up here is how I became a Revolutionary War fanatic. I was in awe to walk the same streets and see the same buildings that these patriots did.

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