General Washington on Chaplains Taken Prisoner

Beginning in 1780, General Washington began as series of correspondence related to the status of chaplains who might be taken as prisoners on the battlefield. Washington wanted both sides to release clergy captured during the conflict. The letters anticipates an understanding that will continue to mature until it comes to full fruition in in the Geneva Conventions.

First, the negotiation:

Mr Beatty shall have my instructions to interchange a certificate with Mr Loring assenting to the proposal that chaplains belonging to either army when taken are not to be considered as prisoners of war, but immediately released.

George Washington to Arthur St. Clair, 2 April 1780

Mr Loring the British Commissary of prisoners is to send you out a writing declarative on the part of the enemy that no chaplains belonging to the American Army when taken shall be considered as prisoners of war but immediately released. As an interchange of writings is to take place between you and Mr Loring, you will send me his and a draught of the one you mean to return him, that both may be examined before they are confirmed by a mutual interchange.

George Washington to John Beatty, 4 April 1780

Then the rather uneven implementation. In June 1780, Washington had to write an American commissary of prisoners, directing him to release a British chaplain.

I lately recd a letter from a Mr Frazier at Rutland, a Chaplain to the 71st Regt— As it was mutually agreed at the last meeting of the Commissioners to release all Gentlemen of his Cloth, you will be pleased to take the first opportunity of giving the necessary orders to that effect.

George Washington to Abraham Skinner, 4 June 1780

Again in in 1781, Washington had to intervene on the behalf of two German chaplains serving with the British forces.

I have recd yours of the 5th inclosing letters from two Chaplains of the German Regts on the subject of their exchanges. I beg leave to inform you that at a meeting of Commissioners last year at Amboy it was stipulated that all Gentlemen of that Function should be mutually released and that they should not be subjects of capture in future—you will therefore signify this to Colo. Wood and desire him to permit not only them but any others to go to New York.

George Washington to Board of War, 9 July 1781

Ignorance and misunderstanding associated with the agreement ran in both directions. Washington wrote and American chaplain being held by the British that he was supposed to be set free.

I have received your Letter of Yesterday—It is a fact that, by particular Agreement with Sir Hry Clinton, the Chaplains both of the American & British Armies, are exempted from Detention by Capture, or Parole—pleading therefore that Stipulation, I know no Reason the Enemy can have for detaing you a Prisoner of War—or holding you under Parole—but should suppose you at your Liberty—several of their Chaplains have been released without any Compensation. As to Want of Pay—it is the comon Misfortune attending the Army—& which cannot at present be relieved by me—Measures are however, taking to put the Pay of the Troops upon a better Footing, than has for some Time past been experienced. I have found it very difficult to obtain a few Horses which were wanted for myself & some Gentlemen of the French Army—so that it is not in my Power to afford you Assistance in that Respect.

George Washington to John Hurt, 25 September 1781

Even after the American victory at Yorktown, the issue persisted.

I shall have no objection to the exchange of the foreign Officers you mention in your favor of the 10th Inst. provided it does not contravene the spirit of the Resolution of Congress which directs Exchanges to be made according to priority of capture. Nor for my own part, shall I make any difficulty in acceding to a late proposal of Sir Guy Carleton for considering Chaplains, Surgeons & Hospital Officers in future as not proper Subjects to be retained as prisoners of War unless any of them should hold Commissions in the Line—indeed, I do not see that any very ill consequences would ensue from liberating those already in our possession.

George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, 16 August 1782

In this particular letter, Washington includes what should be a rather obvious exception to the rule: unless any of them should hold Commissions in the Line. It was not unusual, at least on the American side, for chaplains also to serve as combatants. Those who choose to do so forfeited their non-combatant immunity from imprisonment.

Finally, Washington gave his negotiators guidance on the matter in September 1782.

By the 8 Section of the same Resolve it is said “Chaplains, Surgeons or Hospital Officers who shall be Captured in future may not be considered as Prisoners of War” the construction to be put upon this is, in case a General Cartel should be established—Chaplains under a former stipulation have been mutually released.

George Washington to William Heath, 23 September 1782

Today, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, chaplains and medical personnel taken on the battlefield may be detained until the conclusion of hostilities, subject to negotiation between the parties involved, but they are not considered prisoners of war. Some different rules apply. They are required to be given access to prisoners of war similarly detained in order to continue their religious and medical functions. In accordance with Army regulations, chaplains do not bear arms, even in the defense of other non-combatants.

This is one chapter of the series, George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems.