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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Cruel Deed

By James Thacher (1754–1844)

[From Military Journal of the American Revolutionary War. Revised Edition. 1827.]

LORD RAWDON and Lieutenant-colonel Balfour have perpetrated an act which, in all its distressing circumstances, surpasses in enormity and wickedness all others which have come to our knowledge, and which has roused the indignant spirit of every true American to a pitch of desperation. Colonel Isaac Hayne, during the siege of Charleston, served his country as an officer of militia. After the capitulation, no alternative was left but to abandon his family and property, or to surrender to the conquerors. The small-pox was near his plantation, and he bad a wife, six small children, and more than one hundred negroes, all liable to the disease. He concluded that, instead of waiting to be captured, it would be both more safe and more honorable to go within the British lines, and surrender himself a voluntary prisoner. He therefore repaired to Charleston, and offered to bind himself by the honor of an American officer to do nothing prejudicial to the British interest till he should be exchanged. Reports made of his superior abilities and influence, uniformly exerted in the American cause, operated with the conquerors to refuse him a parole, though they were daily accustomed to grant this indulgence to other inhabitants. He was told that he must either become a British subject or submit to close confinement. To be arrested and detained in the capital, was not to himself an intolerable evil; but to abandon his family, both to the ravages of the small-pox then raging in their neighborhood, and to the insults and depredations of the royalists, was too much for the tender husband and fond parent. To acknowledge himself the subject of a government which he had from principle renounced, was repugnant to his feelings; but, without this, he was cut off from every prospect of a return to his family. In this embarrassing situation, he waited on Dr. Ramsay, with a declaration to the following effect: “If the British would grant me the indulgence which we in the day of our power gave to their adherents, of removing my family and property, I would seek an asylum in the remotest corner of the United States, rather than submit to their government; but, as they allow no other alternative than submission or confinement in the capital, at a distance from my wife and family, at a time when they are in the most pressing need of my presence and support, I must for the present yield to the demands of the conquerors. I request you to bear in mind, that previous to my taking this step, I declare that it is contrary to my inclination, and forced on me by hard necessity. I never will bear arms against my country. My new masters can require no service of me but what is enjoined by the old militia law of the province, which substitutes a fine in lieu of personal service. This I will pay as the price of my protection. If my conduct should be censured by my countrymen, I beg that you would remember this conversation, and bear witness for me, that I do not mean to desert the cause of America.”

In this state of perplexity, Colonel Hayne subscribed a declaration of his allegiance to the King of Great Britain; but not without expressly objecting to the clause which required him with his arms to support the royal government. The commandant of the garrison, Brigadier-general Patterson, and James Simpson, Esquire, intendant of the British police, assured him that this would never be required; and added, further, that when the regular forces could not defend the country without the aid of its inhabitants, it would be high time for the royal army to quit it. Having submitted to the royal government, he was permitted to return to his family. Notwithstanding what had passed at the time of his submission, he was repeatedly called on to take arms against his countrymen, and finally threatened with close confinement in case of a further refusal. This he considered as a breach of contract, and it being no longer in the power of the British to give him that protection which was to be the compensation of his allegiance, he viewed himself as released from all engagements to their commanders. The inhabitants of his neighborhood, who had also revolted, petitioned General Pickens to appoint him to the command of their regiment, which was done, and the appointment accepted. Hayne fell into their hands. He was carried to the capital, and confined in the provost prison, for having resumed his arms after accepting British protection. At first he was promised a trial, and had counsel prepared to justify his conduct by the laws of nations and usages of war; but this was finally refused, and he was ordered for execution by Lord Rawdon and Lieutenant-colonel Balfour. The royal Lieutenant-governor Bull, and a great number of inhabitants, both royalists and Americans, interceded for his life. The ladies of Charleston generally signed a petition in his behalf, in which was introduced every delicate sentiment that was likely to operate on the gallantry of officers or the humanity of men. His children, accompanied by some near relations (the mother had died of the small-pox), were presented on their bended knees as humble suitors for their father’s life. Such powerful intercessions were made in his favor as touched many an unfeeling heart, and drew tears from many a hard eye; but, Lord Rawdon and Balfour continued firm in their determination.

The colonel was repeatedly visited by his friends, and conversed on various subjects with a becoming fortitude. He particularly lamented that, on principles of retaliation, his execution would probably be an introduction to the shedding of much innocent blood. He requested those in whom the supreme power was vested, to accommodate the mode of his death to his feelings as an officer; but this was refused. On the last evening of his life he told a friend that he was no more alarmed at the thoughts of death, than at any other occurrence which was necessary and unavoidable.

On receiving his summons, on the morning of August the 4th, to proceed to the place of execution, he delivered to his eldest son, a youth of about thirteen years of age, several papers relative to his case, and said: “Present these papers to Mrs. Edwards, with my request that she should forward them to her brother in Congress. You will next repair to the place of execution, receive my body, and see it decently interred among my forefathers.” They took a final leave. The colonel’s arms were pinioned, and a guard placed round his person. The procession began from the Exchange in the forenoon. The streets were crowded with thousands of anxious spectators. He walked to the place of execution with such decent firmness, composure and dignity, as to awaken the compassion of many, and command respect from all. “When the city barrier was passed, and the instrument of his catastrophe appeared in full view, a faithful friend by his side observed to him, that he hoped he would exhibit an example of the manner in which an American can die. He answered, with the utmost tranquillity, “I will endeavor to do so.” He ascended the cart with a firm step and serene aspect. He inquired of the executioner, who was making an attempt to get up to pull the cap over his eyes, what he wanted. On being informed, the colonel replied, “I will save you the trouble,” and pulled the cap over himself. He was afterwards asked whether he wished to say anything, to which he answered, “I will only take leave of my friends, and be ready.” He then affectionately shook hands with three gentlemen, recommending his children to their care, and gave the signal for the cart to move.

Thus fell Colonel Isaac Hayne in the bloom of life, furnishing that example in death, which extorted a confession from his enemies, that though he did not die in a good cause, he must at least have acted from a persuasion of its being so.

The execution of the worthy Colonel Hayne is universally reprobated as an act of barbarity, justified neither by civil nor military law, and as an unexampled outrage on the principles of morality and Christian benevolence; but in the view of the British commanders, the application of their hackneyed term, rebel, sanctions a departure from all laws, both human and divine.