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The Winter Games
“I most sincerely wish, it were in my power to procure the immediate Release of all our Officers and Soldiers who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of ...

The Winter Games

“I most sincerely wish, it were in my power to procure the immediate Release of all our Officers and Soldiers who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of our Enemies,” General Washington wrote to his friend Jonathan Trumbull on February 1, 1777.

Prisoner exchanges were among the most elusive games the Continentals played with the British. Washington continually called on General Howe to demonstrate evenhandedness in prisoner of war concessions. Equal rank trades proved next to impossible. Washington tried asking for those Americans who had been in captivity the longest, but the British did not always play the winter games fairly. Trading was closer to a sport than a negotiation.

“That I might avoid any imputation of partiality, for the Officers of any particular State; I have in all my Letters to General Howe … directed an equal proportion of officers of the Eastern and Southern States, to be sent out,” Washington reported.

“But without paying any regard to my request, they have given Pennsylvania more than her proportion, having never discharged one of the Maryland Officers taken upon Long Island,” he lamented to Trumbull.

Washington completed his letter to Trumbull. But before he could dispatch it, he received a written message from the imprisoned General Lee. “Lord and General Howe have given me permission to send the inclosed to the Congress,” Lee explained to Washington, imploring him to forward his letter.

Whether Lee was a pawn or a true broker, no one knew. He asked Congress to send two or three gentlemen to New York for negotiations. Congress refused. They were not going to play another game of tic-tac-toe diplomacy with the British.

John Adams described the request as “artful stratagem of the two grateful [Howe] brothers to hold up to the public view the phantom of a negotiation, in order to give spirits and courage to the Tories.” Adams believed the maneuver was mostly an attempt by Howe to show the British government he had tried to end the war through conciliation.

“I confess it is not without indignation that I see such a man as Lee suffer himself to be duped by their policy so far as to become the instrument of it,” John Adams wrote. He noted that the failed Staten Island negotiations “did us a great and essential injury at the French court, you may depend upon it. Lord Howe knows it, and wishes to repeat it.”

Indeed, consideration of France’s possible response was behind Congress’s maneuvers in the winter games. If America even gave the appearance of negotiating with the English, how could they win French support for independence? Congress was unwilling to participate in Britain’s shell game.


Father, give me the diligence to know which possessions to prize and which ones to let go. Reestablish my priorities and make me nimble to shift and adjust.

“The lazy man does not roast his game, but the diligent man prizes his possessions”

(Proverbs 12:27).

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