In April 1783 the first evacuation fleet left for Nova Scotia. A week later the British Commander, Sir Guy Carleton Carleton, sailed up the Hudson River to Orangetown for a conference with General Washington to discuss the evacuation. As the victorious commander, Washington opened the meeting by reiterating the resolution of Congress regarding “the delivery of all Negroes and other property.” In response, the defeated Carleton indicated that in his desire for a speedy evacuation he had already sent off some 6000 refugees, including “a number of Negroes.” Observers from both sides noted the general’s consternation as he remonstrated with Carleton that the action was against the express stipulation of the treaty. Calmly, Carleton offered an unapologetic explanation, saying that in his interpretation, the term property meant property owned by Americans at the time the treaty was signed, so did not include those who had responded to British proclamations years before. Never would the British government have agreed “to reduce themselves to the necessity of violating their faith to the Negroes,” he told Washington. Warming to his subject, he further insisted “delivering up Negroes to their former masters … would be a dishonourable violation of the public faith.” In the unlikely event that the British government put a different construction on the treaty, he promised compensation would be paid to the owners and to this end he had directed “a register be kept of all the Negroes who were sent off.” Protesting as he was bound to do, Washington understood the depth of feeling behind the words “dishonourable violation of the public faith.” By the time the meeting came to its inconclusive end, he had privately conceded defeat.1
That night, Washington sat at his desk and wrote to the governor of Virginia and to his cousin to say he was now convinced “the slaves who have absconded from their masters will never be restored to them.” Whatever his private feelings on the matter, Washington determined to follow through on his instructions from Congress to prevent the removal of runaways. In a second letter he reiterated his position to Carleton, in expectation of a meeting at dinner the following night. Carleton did not attend the expensive meal that Washington had provided, pleading illness. Having taken to his bed with fever, Carleton had a brief private meeting with Washington in his cabin. His written response arrived a week later. “I had no reason to think the embarkation or any circumstances attending it could have been a matter of surprise to Your Excellency,”
Carleton wrote in icy prose; “the Negroes in question, I have already said, I found free when I arrived at New York, I had therefore no right, as I thought, to prevent their going to any part of the world they thought proper.” Should Washington fail to comprehend his intransigence on this point, he added a thinly veiled warning: “I must confess the mere supposition that the King’s minister could deliberately stipulate in a treaty, an engagement to be guilty of the notorious breach of public faith towards people of any complexion, seems to denote a less friendly disposition than I would wish, and, I think, less friendly than we might expect.” Washington was right to have conceded that the case for Article Seven was lost.2
Delegates to Congress from Virginia and South Carolina were incensed but Congress was so impoverished and so weak that “no enemy need be afraid of insulting us,” a delegate from South Carolina fumed. Carleton remained unperturbed, forwarding the protests from Congress to the Secretary of State in England, and also a letter from American commissioners appointed to inspect the embarkations, who protested that 73 out of 100 people they had inspected were American property yet they had all been permitted to leave. Carleton’s confidence in his action was borne out when he received the opinion of the Secretary of State that the evacuation of runaways was “certainly an act of justice due to them from us” that could in no way be deemed an infraction of the treaty.3
As the pace of evacuations quickened, all available vessels were pressed into service to take refugees to Nova Scotia, Jamaica, the Bahamas and England. The American commissioners continued the fruitless task of supervising embarkations until the end of October, when the inspections were finally abandoned. Subsequently, General Washington was to characterize the whole exercise as “little more than a farce.”4
The process of removing 30,000 troops, and as many Loyalist refugees, put considerable strain on the logistical resources in New York. The Black Pioneers, were not permitted to leave for Nova Scotia until October, when all the British Hessian and Loyalist regiments had been evacuated. Nearly all black workers on the musters of the Royal Artillery Department and the Wagon Master General’s Department were kept on the job right up to final embarkation and were among the very last to go on November 23, 1783, when the final vestiges of the British army departed to join the evacuation fleet waiting off Staten Island.
1 Substance of a Conference between General Washington and Sir Guy Carleton, May 6, 1783, Writings of Washington vol. 26, 402-6.
2 Washington to Harrison, May 6, 1783; Washington to Carleton, May 6, 1783, to President of Congress, May 8, 1783, in Writings of George Washington vol. 26, 401-114. For Carleton’s reply see Carleton to Washington, May 12, 1783, CO 5/109 , f. 313, NA.
3 Madison to Jefferson, May 13, 1783, Madison Papers, vol. 5, 39-40; Izard to Middelton, May 30, 1783, Letters of Delegates to Congress, vol. 21, 287-8; Notes on Debates, May 26, 1783, Madison Papers, vol. 6, notes on debates, 80. Carleton to North June 21, 1783 and North to Carleton, August 8, 1783, CO 5/
4 Washington quote, Writings of George Washington vol. 28, 283.