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George Washington, Staying in Character


This being Presidents Weekend, we thought we'd take note of a decision made 230 years ago by General George Washington. Now, at the time it didn't seem major, even important, but for a great man, small decisions can have huge consequences. NPR's Robert Krulwich has the story.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This story begins with a fight. Not a big one. It happened on a farm, Drake's Farm in New Jersey, 230 years ago.

Mr. DAVID HACKETT FISCHER (Historian): This was in the late winter of 1777.

KRULWICH: When, says historian David Hackett Fischer, a group of American soldiers bumped into enemy British and Hessian German soldiers during the American Revolution. They exchanged fire. The Americans left seven wounded soldiers still alive on the field. And one of them, Lieutenant William Kelly, apparently offered to surrender, to be taken captive. But the British refused.

Prof. FISCHER: The British, when they took possession of the field, put these soldiers to death.

KRULWICH: Brutally?

Prof. FISCHER: They were said to have done so very brutally. And here is an account of it. They, quote, "dashed out their brains with their muskets, ran them through with their bayonets, made them like sieves," end quote.

KRULWICH: So the raw impulse of anyone, warrior or otherwise, would be to do it back to them.

Prof. FISCHER: One would think so. But Washington chose to go a different way.

KRULWICH: When word reached General Washington that the British had murdered American soldiers without provocation, he declared that whatever American soldiers may feel, we on the American side, he said, we will not do it to them. On the contrary, he issued orders.

Prof. FISCHER: Orders that captives were to be treated with humanity.

KRULWICH: And what he meant by humanity means you couldn't run them through, turn them into sieves, or chop off their fingers for wedding rings.

Prof. FISCHER: First, it meant that they had a right to life itself.

KRULWICH: So we will not kill wounded soldiers, he said. And then he went on, we will also protect them. We will feed them. We will house them. They will not be harmed, because we are fighting for a cause. And our cause, he said, requires that we behave with honor.

Prof. FISCHER: He said that repeatedly in the course of the war. He often cast it in terms of appealing to the honor of his men, that they had behaved with honor and they had won glory, and they should always conduct themselves in a way that would not diminish that glory or honor.

KRULWICH: And as best you can tell, those orders were honored by the Americans.

Prof. FISCHER: We know that they were and we have the testimony of the Hessian themselves, that they were treated with humanity. We have a lot of writing from the Hessians.

KRULWICH: Washington's troops captured 900 Hessian mercenary soldiers at Trenton, 500 British regulars at Princeton. Those men wrote diaries. They wrote letters which show how surprised they were at being treated so kindly.

Prof. FISCHER: They were amazed. They feared the worst when they were captured.

KRULWICH: And because they were treated so well, they behaved well in turn. There's a story that Professor Fischer tells of a group of several hundred Hessian soldiers who were told, okay, you've been captured, so we want you to go from the front across Pennsylvania, across Maryland, all the way to Virginia. So American soldiers from Pennsylvania marched them to the Maryland border.

Prof. FISCHER: At the border, the Pennsylvania militia told them to march on and meet other militia of...

KRULWICH: But with whom would they march on?

Prof. FISCHER: They would march alone, without a guard. And they did that.

KRULWICH: And several weeks later, how many of those prisoners of war do you think showed up on their own at their assigned destination?

Prof. FISCHER: My memory is that they all showed up.

KRULWICH: All of them. Professor Fischer, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Washington's Crossing," says of the Hessian soldiers who came to America and survived the war, an astonishing proportion in the end decided to stay here.

Prof. FISCHER: It was roughly one out of four.

KRULWICH: One out of four German soldiers who came here to fight the Revolution ended up in effect joining the Revolution. Many of them were prisoners of war who were told, okay, sir, until you're released, you have to go into the wilderness, where you're going to worker for Farmer Jones or Farmer Smith. And the prisoner would do that.

Prof. FISCHER: And he would have been an enemy of the Revolution a few months earlier. And a few months later, he might well be that farmer's son-in-law.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: And so while George Washington may or may not have intended it, his decision not to seek revenge, his choice to do the honorable, the moral and the right thing in war, helped turn an army of invaders into an army of settlers and citizens and neighbors.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News, in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Krulwich
Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.