The Luck (and Bad Luck) of Charles Asgill, First Foot Guards

It's not every day that you're sentenced to death by George Washington, only to be saved by the personal intervention of the French King, a monarch of your country's key rival nation. But that's exactly what happened to Charles Asgill of the First Foot Guards in 1782. The following account of a truly amazing swing of luck comes primarily from Robert Lamb's An Original and Authentic Journal of Occurrences During the Late American War: From Its Commencement to the Year 1783, published in 1809, with some additional analysis provided by Linnea Bass and John Houlding. And while it is quite famous and has been discussed at length in other venues, we think it deserves a permanent position in our Guards archive.

Born in 1762 to his namesake, Sir Charles Asgill, First Baronet, the younger Charles was commissioned an ensign in the First Foot Guards in February 1778 and received orders in December 1780 to join the Brigade of Guards in North America. Shortly before he shipped out in March 1781 and one month shy of his 19th birthday, he was promoted to lieutenant and captain.

Engraving of Charles Asgill, from John Andrews' History of the War with America, France, Spain, and Holland: Commencing in 1775 and Ending in 1783, 4 vols. (London: J. Fielding, 1785-86). Library of Congress catalogue number 2001697091.

The army Asgill was join, that of the Earl Cornwallis, had been decimated by the Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse. After nearly six years of war, there seemed to be few chances of glory left for the British in North America. Yet after his arrival, Asgill distinguished himself on the occasion of his company commander's illness, taking charge of the unit and leading a successful attack on a local militia post. Furthermore, it was the kindness he showed toward the wounded militia commander, a certain elder Colonel Gregory, that would later factor into his luck. According to the Hibernian Magazine in 1782, the gallant Guardsman:
Supported [the stricken Gregory] himself with an awful and tender respect most filial, evincing the true greatness of his amiable mind.
Following Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Asgill became a prisoner of war.
And it is then that his luck took a turn for the worse.

In March 1782, a group of Loyalists attacked and captured a Rebel blockhouse in Monmouth County, New Jersey, taking with them as prisoner a certain Captain Joshua Huddy whose company of New Jersey State Troops garrisoned the blockhouse. Huddy was turned over to the Associated Loyalists at New York, a council who at that time was seething over the death of Philip White, a Loyalist captured by the New Jersey militia who was killed while attempting to escape. White’s friends in New York believed he had been murdered, and they yearned for revenge. The Associated Loyalists had Huddy hanged.

Illustration of Huddy's execution at Loyalist hands, as published in 1901 in Our Greater Country; Being a Standard History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent to the Present Time by Henry Davenport Northrop.

News of this reprisal infuriated American Whigs. When the British refused to turn over the officer who had conducted the execution, General George Washington decided to execute a prisoner holding the same rank as Huddy. With the approval of the Continental Congress, Washington had the thirteen British captains with Cornwallis’ captured army draw lots at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in May 1782. Asgill was undoubtedly the unluckiest of the unlucky thirteen. Although he was considered a lieutenant within his own regiment, the Guards’ dual rank system made him a captain in the army.
His luck went from bad to worse once the lottery began. He drew the twelfth lot, and it turned out to be the fatal one - it was labeled (fittingly) "UNFORTUNATE". He was promptly placed in close confinement in New Jersey in supposed preparation for execution.

Asgill's confinement was apparently without its comforts. He was served mostly bread and water, yet such was the friendship he held with a certain Major Gordon of the 80th Foot who commanded the British prisoners belonging to Cornwallis' army, that Gordon volunteered to accompany Asgill during his confinement and suffer the same circumstances of detention in order to "soothe and comfort him in his misfortune". Amazingly, and in what must have been an attempt at gallow's humor, Asgill's guard allegedly remarked that the British officer was indeed "fortunate...for he [the guard] had the honor of guarding Major André after he was taken." Major André had been of course executed as a spy over a year prior for his role in the Benedict Arnold defection.

In a fitting tale of high drama and adventure, Asgill's guards apparently came to love him so much that they offered to allow him to escape to the British lines in New York so long as he promised to care for them in England. Amazingly for a prisoner sentenced to death, Asgill allegedly turned them down under the fear that such an act would provoke further reprisals on other British officers.

As it turned out, Washington delayed hanging Asgill. He may have been influenced by reports of Asgill’s kindness to Colonel Gregory, Asgill's young age (he was frequently and incorrectly referred to as being 17 years old), or that Sir Charles Asgill was reputedly a friend of the American cause. Washington may also have been conflicted by the fact that Asgill's dentention and sentencing flagrantly violated the terms of the Yorktown surrender, of which Article 14 stated that "no article of this capitulation shall be violated by reprisals" (if Washington did care, he explicitly stated the opposite in his letters with Asgill, and instead claimed that British Army had violated so many articles themselves that he could not be bound by this one). At the same time, Sir Guy Carleton, the commander of British forces at New York, played a delaying game by convening a court martial to try the officer who executed Huddy – and then delayed conveying word of that officer’s acquittal to Washington.

During the intervening six months, Asgill sent word of his impending fate to his parents. His mother appealed to the French court to intervene on her son’s behalf, and her heart-rending letter sent to France's Foreign Minister. Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes, is indeed rife with melodrama:
No words can express my feeling, or paint the scene. My husband [Sir Charles Asgill, First Baronet] given over by his physician a few hours before the news arrived, and not in a state to be informed of the misfortune: my daughter seized with fever and delirium, raving about her brother, and without one interval of reason, save to hear heart aggravating circumstances.
Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes painted in 1781 by Antoine-François Callet. De Vergennes was the Chief Minister to King Louis XVI at the time of Asgill's detention and the conduit through whom Lady Asgill appealed.

Lady Asgill, however, also conveyed the very logical argument that such an execution based on reprisal was a miscarriage of justice against an innocent man. All this apparently touched the heart of not only De Vergennes, but of the French Court. Shortly after Carleton released the news of an acquittal for the officer who killed Huddle and the Asgill's death sentence was finalized, a letter from the French Minister (with the noted knowledge and consent of King Louis XVI) arrived for Washington stating that:
The goodness of their majesties' hearts induces them to desire, that the inequities of an unfortunate mother may be calmed, and her tenderness re-assumed...the character of your excellency is too well known, for me not to be persuaded that you desire nothing more than to be able to avoid [this] disagreeable necessity. 

Washington referred the matter to Congress, which voted unanimously on November 7, 1782, to grant its French ally’s request and ordered Asgill set free. It is worth quoting General Washington's letter November 13, 1782 letter to Captain Asgill, as it is clear the General had no personal wish to execute the British officer:
Sir, it affords me singular pleasure to have it in my power to transmit you the enclosed copy of an act of which you are released from the disagreeable circumstances in which you have so long been...I beg you to believe, that my not answering it sooner did not proceed from inattention to you or a want of feeling for your situation...I cannot take leave of you, Sir, without assuring you, that in whatever light my agency in thsi unpleasing affair may have received, I never was influenced through the whole of it by sanguinary motives, by by what I conceived a sense of my duty, which loudly called upon me to take measure, however disagreeable, to prevent a repetition of those enormities which have been the subject of discussion; and that this important end is likely to be answered without the effusion of the blood of an innocent person, is not a greater relief to you, than it is to, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant, (signed) G. Washington
Asgill arrived at New York on November 19, 1782, and sailed for home, arriving in England before the end of the year. He and his parents would later travel to France to personally thank De Vergennes and the King and Queen.

General Asgill at 60 years old. A colorization of a 19th-century mezzotint by Charles Turner following an 1822 portrait by Thomas Phillips.

He later succeeded to the title of Second Baronet Asgill, of London, with his father’s death on September 15, 1788, and eventually reached the rank of (full) General in 1814. During his illustrious career, he at one point held the colonelcy of the 46th Regiment of Foot, the 5th West India Regiment, the 85th Regiment of Foot, and the 11th Regiment of Foot, and participated in the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. He died in 1823 without having married, and his baronetcy became extinct, over forty years after his initial brush with death. Maybe he wasn't so unlucky after all.

Note on the 1786-published engraving: According to research conducted by Linnea Bass and John Houlding, this engraving was apparently based on a portrait miniature whose present location is unknown. Asgill wears a scarlet frock coat with dark blue facings. The collar and lapels are edged with gold lace, but the buttonholes on the facings are plain. His buttons are gilt. The collar buttons down over the top lapel button. Curiously, Asgill sports a gold epaulette on his left shoulder. A battalion company officer in the Foot Guards would have worn a single epaulette on his right shoulder. It is not known if Asgill was assigned to the 1st Foot Guards grenadier company after his return to England. If he was, it seems odd that he is shown wearing a cocked hat rather than a bearskin cap. The temporary light infantry company that served with Brigade of Guards in the American War was dissolved after the cessation of hostilities. Thus either the artist took some liberties in depicting Asgill’s uniform, or the latter was a grenadier when he posed for his portrait.

Asgill also wears a white ruffled shirt, a black neckstock, and a white waistcoat. His black cocked hat is plain, except for a gilt button and gold lace loop securing the cockade on the left front. Asgill wears his hair en queue with side curls. The hair also looks like it could have been powdered.