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Letter from Thomas Burke to Nathanael Burke
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
April 12, 1782
Volume 16, Pages 278-283

[From Executive Letter Book.]

Hillsborough, April 12th, 1782.

Dear Sir:

I received yours of the 18th of March and after it that of the 4th, on the same day.

You will perceive by mine of the 5th of March that I had received your letter enclosing the correspondence with General Leslie and what are my sentiments and resolutions thereon.

I am exceedingly obliged to you for the interest you take in my affair which has given me more uneasiness than any other incident of my life because of my apprehensions lest I should not find it practicable to convey just ideas of the circumstances, and consequently the malicious may find room to attribute my conduct to improper motives, a fate I fear, it will not possible be for me to avoid.

As to what may follow should the Enemy inflexibly insist on my return, they will probably lose thereby every advantage from my capture.

I, myself, never had a doubt that my escape was justifiable, and I always deemed the proposition I made to General Leslie merely voluntary and intended only to prove my motives were not dishonorable. No proposition can be clearer to me than that a prisoner of War surrenders to preserve his life from a prevailing Enemy, and that the immutable condition of his surrender is the protection of his life.

That this condition must be annexed to every engagement into which he enters as a prisoner of War, and that no engagement as such a prisoner can oblige him to surrender his life to an assassin or executioner.

These positions, I am persuaded, cannot be controverted, but the difficulty must always be in proving that the danger exists. From the nature of the case positive proof is unattainable and the risk the experiment would be to submit to the evil.

No application could be made even to the Country of the prisoner,

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because he is within the Enemy’s power and they cannot be supposed to admit it.

Indeed, by-the-by, the letter I wrote giving notice to my Country was suppressed by the Enemy.

All that can be expected is such circumstantial proof as will satisfy the wise and candid and to such as know the character, principles and practices of the people I was exposed to, and shall attend to the peculiarity of my situation, my danger will never appear doubtful.

Indeed, I have no doubt that had I remained until after some events that have taken place I should have been sacrificed with so little ceremony that you could only attribute it to the rage of the irregulars. The matter must, upon the whole, be left to each man’s strictures.

I shall regard those of the candid and sensible with great deference; those of the arrogant, ignorant and malicious, I must learn to despise. I have no other doubts of your success in the exchange, should the Enemy admit it except what I suggested in my letter of the 5th of March.

If they persist in refusing it on reasonable grounds, I believe it will be best to let the matter rest at the point of negotiation. But you are by far the best Judge of the whole matter.

They unfortunately place a higher value on me than my own Country did, but a little time will make me of no value to either, except as a mere obscure individual, for I am preparing as fast as possible to take a final leave of all public business, happy that our affairs are in so promising a situation that I can indulge my inclination for retirement without giving room to suppose that I am moved by apprehensions for our success.

When you conversed with me in your Chamber at Mrs. Asham’s on this affair, and read to me the advice you intended to give me, I asked you if, after writing the letter you recommended, I should be at liberty to act, and you will probably recollect that the result of our conversation on this point was an answer in the affirmative; that the expression my Government not Country or State related plainly to my office, and not the region; that as it was left to General Leslie to answer and bring the matter to a point as soon as he pleased. It was vested upon him altogether, and if he neglected or refused to answer me, I had no farther concern with him

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After this I had no doubt that I had reserved, as I intended the liberty of acting as I found it necessary for the public service, and when I left you it was my intention, and I avowed it to every one I conversed with, after that conversation to dispose of my time and talents in such a manner as would best promote the common cause, nor did I in the least doubt that I had your opinion in favour of this resolution, and from thence I drew much consolation. I remained full of this opinion until I received your letter of the 18th of March.

That letter seems to bring it into doubt, though it also admits of a construction that you lament the consequences of my having acted pursuant to an opinion which was intended to place my conduct in as favorable light as possible.

It will really give me deep concern if all this time I have been acting contrary to an advice which I intended to follow as closely as possible, or if I deviated from it, it should be by not acting at all. This deviation I probably should have made had I not found myself on my arrival in a very critical dilemma. This change of resolution in a character so inflexible as mine will no doubt appear extraordinary to you.

I will in some part account for it, though the entering into all my reasons for it would be tedious and uninteresting.

I became acquainted with such circumstances as opened my eyes to the folly of having devoted my time and care to the service of the public in prejudice to my private affairs to such a degree as to threaten consequences extremely distressing. It was easy to perceive that I was sacrificed to difficult, dangerous and important trusts only because I was supposed to have the talents to execute them.

I could say harsh things, Sir, but it would be to no purpose. I had not reached Salem before I had fully settled it with myself to seek for a quiet retirement wherever it could be found.

Full of these sentiments, I waited the Assembly of the Legislature in patience and silence, to whom I intended to resign.

They did not meet, and I intended to have removed into some other State until the next meeting in order to prevent the embarrassments arising from my presence. When we perceived that no House could be made, the Speaker of the Senate suggested to me

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that his office, which threw on him the administration, must expire with the Assembly to which he was Speaker, to which the Annual election would put a period. After that, if I refused to act, there could be no Executive. I perceived that great derangements might ensue and much injury to the public could be scarcely avoided. I perceived much to be done in consequence of your letters and acquisitions for the support of the Army and that preparations were necessary for a vigorous campaign. I could not reconcile it to myself to suffer these evils to happen if I could by any means prevent them, even if I was under no Engagement to the Public, but I was under an engagement to discharge my duty unless I was disqualified. I could not be disqualified unless my escape was unjustifiable and I was consequently still a prisoner.

I really neither could then nor could now be of opinion that my escape was not justifiable. If I could I would go into the Enemy’s lines at all hazards.

You see now my dilemma. I could not justify declining to act, and thereby leaving the public without a necessary Magistrate, without establishing contrary to my judgment, that my escape had been unwarrantable and that I was still a prisoner and ought to go to the Enemy.

I found myself under the necessity of postponing my determination until a Session of the Assembly could be held, but every day since has more and more confirmed my resolution of retiring as soon as the Legislature could elect a successor.

Upon the whole, Sir, necessity obliged me to act, but I always consoled myself with the idea that I had your approbation.

I sent orders to the Commissary General to send foward immediately the beeves you required, and which by returns in my possession appear to be on hand, also to deliver the Pork to the Quarter Master General to be transported as you desired.

I also directed him to commute as much of the specific supplies as could be spared into West India commodities to be sent you also.

I required his precise answer to be transmitted to you, and you have it here enclosed. You perceive he deems the West India commodities of more importance to you than Pork, and, therefore, proposes rather to commute it for them. If you are of a different opinion we shall prevent him; if you agree with him he shall be

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empowered to proceed. I shall see him in a few days and hope to be able to adjust the matter with him more to your satisfaction.

No person seems to think of contracting, nor is it to any purpose to enquire for any contracts until assurances of payment can be given. Then, be assured, Sir, contractors will be readily found. I can only conjecture upon what the Assembly will do, but I hope they will fall upon some mode substantially to comply with Mr. Morris’ requisitions.

I am concerned that you have not been furnished with the supplies from this State that you required especially, as I know that we abound in the articles you want except Rum, which is scarce for the present.

But our business is seldom well timed, and, therefore, we lose the advantage of our resources. All the collections were to be made after my return, and then the season was so far advanced that the fattened animals had then been all sold, and it was too late to stall the beef because the long forage was exhausted, nor could the hogs be fattened before the weather would become too warm to save them. A considerable quantity has, however, been collected, but very short of what might have been if required in due season.

I have just received reports of the landing of some British troops at Beaufort in this State, but not authenticated. I can see no object for them and can scarce credit it.

There is still in this State a Colonel Fields of Colonel Hamilton’s Corps, as I am informed.

He ought to have been exchanged for Colonel Little of our line, at the former exchange under the Cartel, but the Enemy’s Commissary of prisoners has shuffled the matter off to this hour and he remains still here on parole, and Colonel Little still remains a prisoner. I enclosed you some papers from Salem which explained the treatment the latter received from the Enemy.

In order to teach them not to trifle, I shall order this Mr. Fields into close custody, unless they will bring the affair to a conclusion immediately. If they refuse to exchange him, he must be considered as a Traitor.

This, I should have long since have done, had I not expected that some measures would have been taken with him in another line. He has always been considered as a dangerous man. I request,

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Sir, that you will inform the Commissary of Prisoners to inform the Enemy of this resolution, and that they must send the Certificate of Colonel Little’s exchange for Fields by the return of the Messenger who carried my letters respecting Bryant, otherwise I shall execute my resolution.

I am, Sir,
With Esteem,
Your Obedient,
Humble Servant,