The Charles Asgill Affair: Setting the Record Straight


August 21, 2023
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: The Charles Asgill Affair: Setting the Record Straight by Anne Ammundsen (Heritage Books, 2023)

What happened to British officer Charles Asgill at the end of the American Revolution is not a frequently covered topic in histories of the Revolution, and the biographies of General George Washington that cover the “Asgill Affair”often put a inaccurately pro-Washington spin on it. The situation could be considered a dark spot on the recent American victory at Yorktown at best, and a heavy stain on Washington’s reputation at worst. Cambridge professor Robert P. Tombs explains the importance of the event in his Foreword to Anne Ammundsen’s book, The Charles Asgill Affair: Setting the Record Straight: “his [Asgill’s] experiences are able to tell us much about the ethics of 18th century warfare, ideas of gallantry and civilized conduct, the complex relationships between the Americans, the British and the French, and the conflict of human emotions with the demands of realpolitik.” (page xi)

Charles Asgill, the son of the wealthy banker Sir Charles Asgill, 1st Baronet, joined the British army in 1778 and came to America as an officer of the Brigade of Guards in 1781. He joined Cornwallis’s army in Virginia, and was in Yorktown when the British surrendered. He had been in the United States for only four months when he found himself among the officers who remained with the British prisoners of war so that the captive army would remain disciplined.

The “affair” at the center of the book began when a New Jersey loyalist named Philip White was murdered by Patriot soldiers. Patriot Captain Joshua Huddy was implicated in the murder, but loyalists hung him rather than put him on trial in New York City. General Washington was very upset with what happened to Huddy and wrote to British commander in chief Sir Henry Clinton in New York demanding an act of retaliation: the death of a British officer equal in rank to Huddy. This action went against the articles of capitulation that were signed at Yorktown, but British officers were nonetheless gathered at the Black Bear Tavern in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on May 27, 1782. Charles Asgill drew the lot that made him a man marked for execution. Saddened by his random selection, Asgill accepted his fate.

Promised that he would be treated with kindness and honor, Asgill was placed under house arrest in Chatham, New Jersey. Later he was put in close confinement where he was ill-treated and starving. Pleas to Washington were unanswered, who deferred Asgill’s case to the Continental Congress. Congress did nothing for months. Finally, King Louis XVI of France, America’s most powerful ally, intervened on Asgill’s behalf. Asgill was released, and Washington’s major gripe about Asgill was that the young man did not sufficiently thank him. Asgill quickly made his way to New York and then sailed home to London. Once he got to Europe, he and his family later travelled to Paris to personally thank both the French king and queen.

Anne Ammundsen, whose book is a culmination of over two decades of research into the Charles Asgill Affair, uncovered documents written by Washington and Asgill that had long been overlooked in studies of The Asgill Affair, putting an entirely different light on Asgill’s treatment, Washington’s stance and role in his eventual pardon, and a postwar effort to put the whole affair into a perspective that bolstered Washington’s reputation at the expense of Asgill’s. Ammundsen’s research does what the book’s title promises, “setting the record straight.”

Ammundsen goes on to chronicle the events of Asgill’s life after the Revolution. He married Sophia Ogle in 1790, and by 1798 the thirty-five-year-old Asgill became a major general and was stationed in Dublin, where he helped put down Irish rebels. His fascinating life brought him into contact with many figures of the American Revolution: Henry Clinton, Lord Cornwallis, Guy Carleton, George Washington, King George III, King Louis XVI of France, Marie Antoinette, and even playwright Richard Sheridan.

After the history of Charles Asgill’s life, Ammundsen then describes her own journey into trying to find out her possible connections to the people in Asgill’s family. She travelled extensively through England and the United States. Ammundsen’s experiences in researching her past would make any genealogist proud. The book’s appendices include transcriptions of the primary sources that document Asgill’s ordeal as a captive, some well-known, others only recently discovered, including letters from Washington, Charles Asgill, Lady Asgill, and press reports. There is even an eye-witness account of the lottery that Charles Asgill unfortunately participated in, and an unique illustration created for the book showing where all the British officers sat as the lots were drawn.

The Charles Asgill Affair: Setting the Record Straight certainly accomplishes its mission, making Asgill’s story a memorable event of the American Revolution. Not only was Washington’s behavior surprising, the intervention of the French monarchy over the plight of a British officer was completely unexpected. Ammundsen’s research was thorough, and she writes with authority because she has been devoted to Asgill’s plight and his life for years. The second half of the book, in which she describes all the facts she discovered about her own connections of Asgill, is a high point of interest.

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