Documenting the American South Logo
Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Letter from Thomas Burke to Nathanael Greene
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
March 28, 1782
Volume 16, Pages 565-569


Halifax, March 28th, 1782.


Your letter of the 24th of last month Continued on its passage to Cross Creek until the 17th of this, when it was dispatched to me by an Express which reached me here on the 24th Instant. It plainly appears to have been opened.

The Subject of it is in the highest degreee interesting to this State and perhaps more peculiarly so than to any other. It is our Misfortune to have amongst us a large Settlement of People who have never thoroughly united with us, and who have always become very dangerous Instruments in the hands of the Enemy. Under cover of that Settlement numbers of the Outlaws of every State have Collected into this, and even many deserters from both Armies. These under pretence of bearing Arms in British Interest Commit the most inhuman Barbarities and the most attrocious Crimes. The injured People are provoked by these Outrages into acts of desperate revenge and the Country is in many places filled with assassinations.

It is in vain to think of Executing the Laws on our friends while those barbarians are to be exempted and subjected only to a Military Exchange. The Consequences is plainly an utter Extinction of Government and an abandoning the Country to blood and Anarchy. No Efforts can be expected from a State in such Circumstances, for no public Resolution can be either formed or Executed.

These observations will shew how extremely inexpedient it is for this State to acquiesce in the Cartel you refer to, even upon principles abstracted from the Violence done to the General Independence by admitting that the Enemy shall be at Liberty to Convert our Citizens into Soldiers for them in the very face of the Civil Government.

But, Sir, some other distinction besides that of being taken in arms will Certainly be necessary even if we should adopt it. Every Criminal will have that protection, be his Crime what may, and every bad member of Society will find an Impunity in taking arms

-------------------- page 566 --------------------
with the Enemy and of Course will not be restrained from Crimes by the Laws or their Sanction.

Thus, Sir, shall this Cartel, which was so well Intended, increase our Domestic evils and distresses and Strengthen the Military force of the Enemy, in short put them in Condition to Infest this State without the expense of men, money or provisions. This must certainly be the Effect should the Cartel be a rule of Exchange for those to be taken in future as well as in time past. When it was entered into it was Certainly eligible so far as it respected persons then in Captivity, but its future effects have always appeared and indeed been found so destructive to this State that it must be admitted with very great Caution by the Magistrate whose peculiar duty it is to Watch over its Safety.

While I acted in that Character, before my Capture, I formed a distinction under which I intended to Co-operate with you as far as my peculiar duty would admit. I intended to pardon all who should appear to me guilty of no offense but bearing Arms with the Enemy, and acting agreeably to the Character of Soldiers, reserving them only as Prisoners of War, but such as should be found to have Committed obnoxious Crimes before their adhering openly to the Enemy, or Inhuman barbarities such as the Laws of War will not Justify afterwards, I intended to resign altogether to the Civil Magistrate, tho’ I had no doubt of my being Justifiable in Submitting them to Military Execution.

On this distinction I mean to act in future with such as shall be taken in Arms. Among those who are now in our Jails or have been Convicted and either Executed or Pardoned on Condition of becoming Soldiers for 12 months, I believe none were taken in Arms; they either Submitted to the Civil Magistrate or were apprehended by the Civil authority after they had been deserted by the Enemy’s Garrison and had laid down their Arms. If, upon the Certificates of the Judges, &c., who are now performing their Circuit duty, I shall discover any who Come within the distinction above mentioned, they shall be held as Subjects of Exchange.

There are, Sir, among us, numbers of men who have been in Arms with the Enemy. Many alleged that they were forced, by threats of the severest Violences to their persons and families, and many that they have been deceived by false representations and

-------------------- page 567 --------------------
misled by false hopes. All seem to be Sensible of the folly of trusting to the protection of the Enemy. Great Numbers have submitted themselves Voluntarily to the Civil Magistrate and are now under Recognizances to appear and Stand a trial for their lives. They have Chosen rather to trust to the mercy of this Country than to the protection of the Enemy. Sensible that the proofs against them are so clear and strong that they must be Convicted, and willing as soon as possible to draw a Veil over their past offenses and to give them an opportunity of reinstating themselves in the protection of Government, or of removing under that of Great Britain if they preferred it, I very soon after my return formed a Resolution of reducing them all, either to the Condition of Soldiers or Prisoners of War, excepting only such persons as I should find to have Committed such Attrocious Offenses as Merit death either in a Soldier or a Citizen. This Resolution was approved by the Council of State, and I have put it in train for Execution. Your Cartel affords one other reason for inforcing it. If there be any People amongst us devoted to the Enemy our Safety requires that they be discovered, Secured and finally removed. We cannot certainly be expected to let them remain in peace in the heart of the Country and ready to attack us with peculiar advantage whenever the Enemy find it Expedient. This would undoubtedly be absurd, and Should the Enemy require it, it would argue either their extreme Ignorance or Contempt of our Understandings.

The removing the families must be a Necessary Consequence of the Election of such as Choose to adhere to the Enemy, and in a little time, there will remain no such thing amongst us as a man who can be deemed Militia of the Enemy. Unless, indeed, things shall be so managed as to give impunity to all who may Join them, and so Create a Spring of force for them in our bosoms.

The State must then be, what Civil Government must always Suppose it, Composed entirely of Citizens who own allegiance. It will always be the duty of the Presiding Magistrate to bring it to this Situation, and it is, and always has been, an object with me. Should we decline it in order that there might always be Militia Enemies found to give in Exchange for Militia friends, it would be exposing the Country at home for desolation for a Comparitively trivial object, and must soon end in keeping everybody at home to

-------------------- page 568 --------------------
defend their families from Internal Enemies of the Most Savage & relentless tempers. This would be as wise to preserve and improve the breed of Rattle Snakes in order to have a Cure for such as should happen by chance to be bitten by one. When we shall no longer have Militia Enemies, should it be asked who shall be exchanged for the Militia who venture their lives for their Country, what must be the Answer? If it be said Militia, and it be the fact that the Enemy have none, where are the hopes of Exchange? Must this not lead to an Alternative of either giving regulars in Exchange or disusing Militia altogether? Assuredly the latter cannot be admitted, and how can the former be denied? The distinction, wherever it began, between Militia and Regular in the matter of Exchange is, in my opinion, inapplicable to a free Government and least of all to ours whose principal Strength must always Consist in our Militia, and without which the Militia cannot be defended. My view in examining this matter so minutely is to point out what appears to me Irrefragable Arguments against making the Cartel a rule for future observation relatively to this State, tho’ when entered into it might have been advisable relatively to the Circumstances then Existing, and expedients may be fallen upon to give it its operation for the present under such limitations as the Enemy cannot refuse unless they will take upon themselves to support Attrocious Crimes and Savage Cruelty, which are always punished in an Enemy by retaliation, and which I cannot Reconcile to my duty to Suffer with Impunity.

You are, therefore, Sir, not to expect that I will Suffer any of those people who are obnoxious to the Laws of all Societies, and who, while the call themselves the adherents of Britain, Commit barbarous Murders and Outrages on all Ages and Sexes, should they fall into our hands, to be exchanged as Soldiers or in any view to be Considered as entitled to that honorable Character. Should you remind me that many of our Citizens are now in the hands of the Enemy, I must answer that many of their Soldiers are in the hands of the United States, and as our Citizens have become prisoners not in a peculiar but general Cause they ought, and I doubt not will, be protected by the Laws and execution of Retaliation, without obliging this State to renounce or dishonor her Independence and Civil Government or to Subject the People to incessant alarms and attrocious outrages for their relief.

-------------------- page 569 --------------------

I hope, upon the principles and Distinctions I have mentioned, that your views may be answered, and so far I shall willingly Co-operate with you while I remain in the Magistracy, tho’ I neither wish nor Intend to Continue longer than the approaching Session of the General Assembly, after which I hope the matter will fall into some Abler hands.