This Day in History: General George Washington approves a plot to kidnap Prince William Henry
On this day in 1782, General George Washington approves a plot to kidnap Prince William Henry, Son of King George III.
Wait a minute. Wasn’t the war supposed to be over by this time? The American victory at Yorktown had occurred months earlier, during the fall of 1781. Why on earth would Washington be considering a plan to kidnap the Prince at all, much less as late as the spring of 1782?
The two years following Yorktown were more tumultuous than you might expect. The peace treaty between Britain and America was still being negotiated. The British still held several important American cities, and the American army had not disbanded. The war would not really be over until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.
It was during this period of time that the plot to kidnap Prince William was hatched.
The Prince had been in New York since September 1781. He was the first Royal to visit the colonies, which was a novelty in and of itself. The Prince spent much of his time aboard a British ship, but he sometimes shared quarters on land with Commodore Edmund Affleck. One American spy noted that Affleck’s quarters were only lightly guarded. Thus it was that a plan was hatched to kidnap the Royal.
Such kidnappings had not been too uncommon during the War. Generally speaking, the purpose of a kidnapping was to obtain a high ranking official who could be traded for prisoners of war. At the time, Washington was greatly concerned about the many Americans still suffering aboard British prison ships, so it seems likely that his intent was to retrieve these Americans in exchange for the Prince.
Washington wrote his spy, Matthias Ogden: “The spirit of enterprise so conspicuous in your plan for surprising in their quarters, & bringing off the Prince-William Henry & Admiral Digby, merits applause; and you have my authority to make the attempt . . . .” He added a caveat that the Prince should be treated respectfully and to caution Ogden “against offering insult or indignity to the persons of the Prince, or Admiral should you be so fortunate as to capture them.”
In the end, British spies got wind of the plan. More guards were assigned to protect important personages in the city. The Americans’ plan was abandoned.
Primary Sources and Further Reading:
Christian M. McBurney, Washington authorizes plan to kidnap future King (Journal of the American Revolution; Jan. 8, 2014)
Letter from George Washington to Matthias Ogden (March 28, 1782)
William M. Fowler Jr., American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 (2011)