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Letter from Thomas Burke to Nathanael Greene
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
January 19, 1782
Volume 16, Pages 184-186

[From Executive Letter Book.]


The circumstances of my capture and close confinement as a Prisoner of state being as I suppose already well known to you, I shall not trouble you with relating them.

Some short time after my arrival on Sullivan’s Island, I wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Balfour, then Commandant for his Britannic Majesty at Charleston, refuting a publication made by Major Craig, at Wilmington, which contained the only reasons I had ever heard of my being considered and treated as a Prisoner of State and requiring him to be explicit as to the principles upon which I was treated so differently from all other citizens, and even Magistrates of my own rank taken in America, in order that I might lay the matter fully before the Councils of my Country. In consequence of his application, I was on the sixth of November admitted on parole as a prisoner of war on James Island. Some time after a considerable number of those abandoned men, who had in the several States attached themselves to the British Army, in order to elude the Laws which everywhere pursued them for atrocious crimes, were thrown upon that Island, the better to secure them from falling into the hands of the Troops under your command. The Island became presently filled with their enormities and the British officers endeavored in vain to restrain; to detect or punish them. In one of these excursions they fired deliberately on a few of the inhabitants who were at my quarters by which one man was killed and another wounded within a very few steps of me, and although a British officer who was among the people on whom the fire was made, seized one of the offenders and held him until they had got within their own encampments, yet no one of the murderers has yet been discovered, much less punished. I considered myself as in peculiar danger from those men. I well knew their vindictive cruelty and particular malice against persons of my political rank and character and it was evident that they felt themselves secure of impunity for to add to my danger many of them were outlaws from the State whose Magistrate I had been. In short, Sir, it was but too probable that

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they would have conceived fatal designs against me, and it was apparent that they risqued nothing in the execution. Being thus in hourly danger of assassination, I wrote on the 30th of last month, to Lieutenant General Leslie a letter of which a copy is inclosed.

I requested a parole within the American Lines, but if he deemed that inexpedient, I informed him that my situation exposed me to danger from the refugees and that they had even rendered my subsistence difficult.

This letter was enclosed in one to the same purpose addressed to Major Frazer, the Town Major who was obliging enough to promise that he would take care that any application of mine should be conveyed immediately to the General.

No answer was ever returned nor do I know that any notice was taken of it. I was still neglected in that dangerous situation which I have described.

My parole having been strenuously solicited by Colonel Hamilton, Mr. Cruden and some other gentlemen who had formerly known me, at length Genl. Leslie in excusing himself to them for refusing the favour they requested, acknowledged that Major Craig insisted on my being retained as a subject for retaliation, should any of the men who had attached themselves to him in North Carolina, especially Fanning, be executed. This I was informed of on the thirteenth, as the reason of the ill success of the application made by those Gentlemen.

I well knew that every principle of Justice and good policy required examples to be made of the men who had been instruments of Major Craig’s sanguinary mischief and I could not admit that regard to me should prevent my Country from so necessary an exercise of government, yet I well knew that my situation would embarrass them. I therefore wrote to Mr. Willie Jones requesting through him that the execution of the Laws might not be one moment suspended through regard to me, and having dispatched the letter of which this is an extract, with some others, open, to Charleston to be inspected and to go by a flag which was ready to sail, I examined all the circumstances of the treatment I had received, and it appeared to me that General Leslie’s contemptuous neglect of my personal safety and his intention of making a Prisoner of War and an officer of high rank the subject of retaliation for atrocious

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criminals on whom the muncipal Laws must be executed had entirely canceled the parole I had given and left me at liberty to make my escape. My dilemma was very distressing and could the nature of the affair have admitted, I should have consulted you and requested your advice and that of your officers before I made choice of an alternative. But this was impossible and I every hour expected to be put into close confinement. I determined therefore to take measures for effecting my escape, in which I succeeded on the night of the sixteenth of this month.

As I am exceedingly anxious that all my actions should be approved of by men of honor and understanding and as I have the very highest respect for the opinions of you and your Corps of Officers, I request the favour of you to lay this matter before such of them as you deem convenient, and let me know your own and their sense thereon.

I am, Sir, &c.,