Letter from Thomas Burke
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
Volume 15, Pages 650-654
GOVERNOR BURKE TO
Within the British Lines, Wilmington, Oct. 17th, 1781.
Immediately upon the happening of the unfortunate accident by which I fell into the hands of the Enemy, my mind adverted to you as the man from whom our country could derive the most effectual service and who would take every proper measure for bringing about my exchange or if that should be found impracticable for making the necessary arrangements for supplying me and procuring to be treated as a prisoner of War, altho' I did not foresee all the difficulties which I have since experienced on the ground of its being a question whether I am a Prisoner of War or State, yet I was not entirely without apprehensions that some such difficulties might be made; and tho' I could not then, nor yet can discover any good reason for the distinction at so late a period of the War, yet I know too much of mankind, not to be sensible that they often act on principles which neither reason nor foresight can develope, and very often, on no better principles than the impulse of those
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passions which add nothing to the honor or dignity of human nature & I knew it depended altogether on Accident what might be the principle which would direct the hands into which fortune had thrown me; the sequel has too well justified my opinion.
I will not trouble you with a relation of the different extremes of hunger, thirst and fatigue, and the frequent dangers ours lives were exposed to while we were in the savage hands of those who were our first Captors, who, to avoid the pursuit of our friends, traversed by long and rapid marches, vast pathless tracks of intermingled Sand and Swamp very thinly inhabited and which ought not to be inhabited at all, but will begin with our delivery into the hands of Major Craig on the 23rd of September at Livingston's Creek on the North West of Cape Fear, by which time we were completely pillaged of every thing except the few dirty, worthless cloaths we had on, which, with regard to myself, were chiefly borrowed. The British Officers behaved with frank politeness to us and Major Craig treated me with particular respect, in short, we had great reason to rejoice in our exchange of situation, and for the first time after our capture, felt ourselves out of danger of personal violence, with which we had been often threatened, through the savage, ungovernable fury of those people in whose possession we were. Such was the respect paid to me and so easy was my treatment that I began to expect that my confinement would be that of a prisoner of war on the most liberal footing. This continued until the next day after my arrival in Wilmington, in the afternoon of which an Officer presented me with a Letter from Major Craig expressing his regret at finding himself obliged to secure my person untill his superior officers should instruct him whether to consider me as a prisoner of war or of State, and promising to do everything in his power to render my situation as little disagreeable as possible. After I had read the letter he conducted me to a house within the lines, one room whereof was assigned to be my place of confinement and for that purpose was shut up from all communication except by one door leading into the street, there he left me with a Sergeant to watch me constantly, and a Guard to prevent my escape and all access to me. This room is always dry in fair weather, and warm when the sun shines, and the wind is southerly, it has all the advantage of the North East winds which may enter freely and must go out the same way; in short it seems calculated to answer the end of a grotto in winter and a hothouse
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in summer. My traverses, however devious, were in no danger of interruption by furniture and I was likely to have time and subject enough for meditation; my prospect was that of reducing to practice much of what I had read of the Lacedemonian virtue, and I already began to cast my memory back, through the History of that patient austere people in search of some person whom I might propose for my model. I might indeed have chosen any plank I pleased for my lodging, for the Sergeant seemed to be too civil a fellow to dispute it with me, and for any other accommodation, I did not know but that, like many other great affairs of this world, it was under the peculiar care of providence. Major Craig visited me in the evening and pathetically lamented the situation in which he had put me, and expressed much concern that he had nothing of his own with which he could accommodate me. He was so obliging as to permit Col. Read to have access to me at all times, and to reside with me. This Gentleman's care and attention to me have been with unremitting diligence and his representation of the circumstances I was in, to some friends of his and mine soon procured me the necessaries which my confinement required. Mr. William Campbell furnished me with a bed, some furniture and a Negro wench and lent me some money, all which enabled me to keep batchelor's quarters but so different from all I had ever kept before that. I now never have any company, and tho' not shut up in a Seraglio, I am almost as difficult of access as his Majesty of Constantinople; very few, indeed, are suffered to approach me at all, and every one must converse with me in presence of the Sergeant. Col. Read is so scrupulous an observer of his parole that he even does not tell me the news of the day, which indeed I very seldom venture to ask him lest it should reduce him to a dilemma; my good humour which, thank heaven, never forsakes me entirely, suffered an attack which had well nigh disconcerted it, by the refusing of Mr. Strudwick to see me; in truth, Sir, I promised myself great satisfaction from his visit which he informs me by letter, he made principally with a view of serving me, and he has been kind enough to desire I would command anything in his power; as I believe him perfectly sincere, I would freely avail myself of his friendship, if I could see in what manner he could serve me, but I cannot see it, and he is not at liberty to see me, and therefore cannot well explain himself consistently with the restrictions he may be
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under. I have not requested permission for him, for altho' Major Craig desired me to apply to him in every case wherein he could indulge me, yet having made a few such applications which were with great respect & Politeness refused, I am unwilling any more to involve him in difficulties between his civility and his duty. My Pride, if I have any, has this consolation, that my most trifling movements are considered as dangerous to a Prince who is Lord of so many brave Battalions and so invincible a navy and such inexhaustible resources as is his Majesty of Great Britain, and this perhaps it is that has restored my good humor. I knew before, indeed, that I was upon the axeltree of the Chariot, but never thought I made much of the surrounding dust. You will no doubt perceive, I sometimes smile while I am writing, but I beg you not to conclude from thence that I am upon a bed of roses and that I may well stay there sometime longer. You know, Sir, that tho' I have some firmness, I have also much sensibility of Spirit, that tho' the one enables me to bear, yet the other obliges me to feel my situation, and with peculiar poignancy, that restraint which prevents me from employing such talents as nature has given me, be they what they may, for the bringing to a complete and happy Issue, the cause in which our country is engaged. You know me well enough to believe that I cannot lose sight of what I was, nor cease to compare it with what I now am, and what I have the prospect of being if this absurd and vexatious question should be drawn to any length.
You know I once was, at least I thought myself so, valued, respected, Esteemed; nay, I will venture to say beloved by men of real worth and honor whatever I may be now, I may certainly become the sport of men of very opposite characters for the British nation no more than any other, is free from such in her councils, nay possibly such may be found even in her Armies, and I may even become an object wherewith the prurient petulance of power may be gratified. All this appears to me in prospect, if this question should be protracted to any length, altho' at present I may feel no other inconvenience than that of close confinement, and restraint from pursuing my favorite lines of action which, I hope you will never be able to pronounce upon such evidence as I have, to be sufficiently galling to a liberal temper.
I could say much more to you, but I fear I have tired your patience
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already, for as you have not traversed the raft Swamp you have not yet learned quite so much of it as I have. I will not injure you by thinking it necessary to urge you to hasten my exchange. I will only add that the opinion my Enemies entertain of my power of injuring them, ought to have some weight with my country, since I must be capable of serving her in proportion, but do not take this as a promise. I will be assured always to do my best, but the Enemy think me capable of more than I ever thought myself, altho' I am no pretender to humility, but enough in all conscience on such a subject. I pass to one which deserves and requires a great deal but for which I have not now time nor you I fear patience. Our prisoners, my dear Sir, by the want of the necessaries of Life in a rigorous confinement call for the assistance and attention of their country at least if I may judge from such as I see daily passing by my window to the spring for water, who might well be taken for skeletons, did they not retain life enough to make them appear too ghastly and some languid unanimated motion that shows they have some small remains of strength. I do not write this as a charge against the commanding Officer. I really do not not know how they are treated, for I have no means of information except what I have just mentioned. There is no Commissary of Prisoners at this Post; no other person has a right to inspect their treatment, but as I am persuaded, they want Provisions. I take the Liberty to solicit that some be sent for them. I know no other way whereby they can be supplied.
Remember me to (torn out) and all our friends; and be pleased to write to me as early as you can. My most respectful Compliments to all your Circle. The gentleness and kindness of the Ladies here for me still further endears the whole Sex to me, and I had no weak propensity in regard them before.
If you are offended at this long letter take revenge by writing me twice as long a one as soon as you please, and always believe me most sincerely yours,