Sir Charles Asgill, 2nd Baronet – British Military Personnel


Sir Charles Asgill, 2nd Baronet GCH (6 April 1762 – 23 July 1823) was a career soldier in the British Army. Asgill enjoyed a long military career, eventually rising to the rank of General. He is best remembered as the principal of the so-called “Asgill Affair” of 1782, in which his retaliatory execution while a prisoner of war was commuted by the American forces which held him due to the direct intervention of the government of France.


===Early life and education===

Charles Asgill was born in London on 6 April 1762, the only son of one-time Lord Mayor of London Sir Charles Asgill and Sarah Theresa Pratviel. Father and son were both educated at Westminster School, London. The younger Asgill went on to study at Göttingen University, Germany, from where, upon leaving, he wrote in a friend’s autograph book “An Honest Man is the noblest work of God. yours sincerely, Charles Asgill, Göttingen April the 4th 1778.”

The son Charles entered the army on 27 February 1778, just prior to his 16th birthday, as an ensign in the 1st Foot Guards, a regiment today known as the Grenadier Guards. Asgill was promoted to the rank of Captain while just 18 years old, receiving his commission on 3 February 1781. Shortly after his promotion, Asgill was ordered to America to fight the rebellious colonists who were embroiled in what is today remembered as the American Revolutionary War.

Captain Asgill fought in the army under General Charles Cornwallis but fell into the hands of the Americans as a prisoner of war following the capitulation of Lord Cornwallis following the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781.

===”The Asgill Affair”===

In April 1782 a Captain of the Monmouth Militia and privateer named Joshua Huddy was overwhelmed and captured by Loyalist forces at the blockhouse (small fort) he commanded at the village of Toms River, New Jersey. Huddy was accused of complicity in the death of a Loyalist farmer named Philip White who had died in Patriot custody. Huddy was conveyed to New York City, then under British control, where he was summarily sentenced to be executed by William Franklin, the Loyalist son of Benjamin Franklin.

Huddy was held in leg irons aboard a prison ship until 12 April 1782, when he was taken ashore and hanged, after first being allowed to dictate his last will. Loyalists pinned a note to his chest reading “Up Goes Huddy for Philip White” and his body was left hanging overnight. Following his burial by Patriotic supporters, a petition was collected demanding retribution for Huddy’s death and presented to American commander General George Washington.

Washington responded to this pressure by declaring that a British Captain would be executed in retaliation for the killing of Huddy. On 26 May 1782 lots were drawn and Asgill drew the short straw.

His mother, the doughty Sarah Asgill (of French Huguenot origin), wrote to the French Court pleading for her son’s life to be spared. The King, Louis XVI, and Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, ordered the Comte de Vergennes, the Foreign Minister, to convey to General Washington their desire that a young life be spared.

Since Asgill was protected by the 14th Article of Capitulation in the document of Cornwallis’ surrender, safeguarding prisoners of war, such an unjustified execution would have reflected badly on the newly emerging independent nation of America. Congress agreed and young Asgill returned to England a free man in December 1782. A year later, together with his mother (who had been too ill to travel sooner), and sisters, he went to France to give thanks to the King and Queen for saving his life. The visit commenced on 3 November 1783. Asgill writes about this experience in his Service Records, where he states:

“The unfortunate Lot fell on me and I was in consequence conveyed to the Jerseys where I remained in Prison enduring peculiar Hardships for Six Months until released by an Act of Congress at the intercession of the Court of France.”

Following Asgill’s return to England lurid accounts of his experiences whilst a prisoner began to emerge in the coffee houses and press. French plays were also written, trivialising his plight to the point of reducing it to a soap opera. Washington became increasingly angry that the young man did not deny these rumours, and nor did he write to thank Washington for his release on parole. Speculation mounted as to his reasons and eventually Washington could take no more of it and ordered that his correspondence on the Asgill Affair be made public. His letters on the matter were printed in The New-Haven Gazette, and the Connecticut Magazine (Vol. I.) Thursday, 16 November, M.DCC.LXXXVI (No. 40.) NON SIBI SED TOTO GENITOS SE CREDERE MUNDO. NEW-HAVEN: Printed and Published by MEIGS & DANA in Chapel-Street. Price Nine Shillings per Annum. The Conduct of GENERAL WASHINGTON, respecting the Confinement of Capt. Asgill, placed in its true Point of Light.

It was five weeks before Charles Asgill was able to obtain a copy and sit down to read the account of his experiences, as recorded by George Washington. His anger at what he read and the accusations hurled his way regarding his lack of manners in failing to write a letter of thanks for his release meant that Asgill dropped everything and wrote an impassioned response by return of post. His letter was sent to the Editor of the New-Haven Gazette, and the Connecticut Magazine, dated 20 December 1786, but his haste was such that he erroneously referred to the Washington correspondence as having appeared in the August edition when, in fact, it appeared in the 16 November edition.

Asgill’s 18-page letter of 20 December 1786, including claims that he was treated like a circus animal, with drunken revellers paying good money to enter his cell and taunt or beat him, was never published. Left for dead after one particular attack he was subsequently permitted to keep a Newfoundland dog to protect him.

“I leave for the public to decide how far the treatment I have related deserved acknowledgements … my judgement told me I could not with sincerity return thanks my feelings would not allow me to give vent to.”

These facts were recorded in The Reading Mercury (a British local newspaper) on 30 December 1782 pointing out that Asgill (newly returned home following imprisonment in America) was at the levee for the first time since his arrival in town. The report stated that his legs were still swollen from the chains which had ensured he did not escape his captors and that he had been savagely beaten by his gaoler when complaining that his servant had been badly treated. Even in times of peril for his life, awaiting death at the gallows, he still managed a caring thought for others. These are the facts which General Washington denies – in his contention that Asgill was, at all times, well treated.

Asgill also claimed to have been denied letters from his family.

===Subsequent career===

Asgill was appointed Equerry to Frederick, Duke of York in 1788. In that same year he inherited the Asgill Baronetcy upon the death of his father. In August 1790 he married Jemima Sophia Ogle, daughter of Admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle, at Martyr Worthy, Hampshire. Asgill went to the Continent and joined the Army under the command of The Duke of York in 1794-1795, served the Campaign and was present at the whole of the Retreat through Holland. In June 1797 he was promoted Brigadier General in the 1st Foot Guards and was appointed to the Staff of Ireland.

In his Service Records he states: “was very actively employed against the Rebels during the Rebellion in 1798 and received the repeated thanks of the Commander of the Forces and the Government for my Conduct and Service.”

General Sir Charles Asgill marched from Kilkenny and attacked and dispersed the rebels. The Irish song, Sliabh na mban, remembers this. He remained on the Irish Staff until February 1802 when in consequence of the Peace he was removed and returned to England.

On 18 March 1803, and by now a Major General, Asgill writes:

“I was reappointed to the Staff of Ireland, and placed in the Command of the Eastern District, in which the Garrison of Dublin is included; I was in Command during the Rebellion which broke out in the City in July 1803.

In August 1805 I had the command of a very large Camp which was formed at the Curragh of Kildare; and since that period have continued in the same Command in the Eastern District:- Whenever any Armament or Expedition was preparing I always offered my Services to the Commander in Chief and should have been highly gratified had they been accepted. From the nature of my Command in Dublin (where there is always a considerable Garrison) I have been much in the Habit of strict Exercise of Weapons, and in respect to my competency it is for the General Officers to decide, under whose command I have had the honor of Serving.”

Asgill was appointed Colonel of the 2nd Battalion 46th Regiment of Foot (South Devonshire Regiment) on 9 May 1800. In 1802 the 2nd Battalion 46th Regiment of Foot was disbanded and Sir Charles went onto half-pay as the Colonel of a disbanded battalion. Promoted to Lieutenant General in January 1805, he was appointed Colonel of the 5th West India Regiment on 10 February 1806; Colonel of the 85th Regiment of Foot on 30 October 1806 and Colonel of the 11th Regiment of Foot on 25 February 1807. He was promoted to full General on 4 June 1814.

Charles Asgill died in London. He was buried in the vault at St James’s Church, Piccadilly on 1 August 1823. His wife, Sophia Asgill, predeceased him in 1819 and she too was buried in the vault at St. James’s. St. James’s Church Piccadilly was damaged in the Blitz of London in 1940. After WWII ended, specialist contractors, Rattee and Kett Ltd, of Cambridge, under the supervision of Messrs. W.F. Heslop and F. Brigmore, undertook restoration work which was completed in 1954. Two former employees, who were involved with the restoration work, remembered temporarily removing coffins from the vault prior to repairing the church’s damaged floor and installing under-floor-heating. They stated, in 2003, that the Church has a vault, and that coffins were returned there after the restoration.

Curiously, when monumental inscriptions were drawn up in the mid-19th Century, and again in the early 20th Century (prior to the bomb damage to the church) no monumental inscriptions have been recorded for either Charles or Sophia Asgill. It would seem, therefore, that the General did not place a memorial to his wife, and nor did the Asgill family place one for him after his death. This is strange since Charles Asgill was one of the notable men of his age. He loved his wife, referring to her as “my beloved wife” in his will, in spite of the fact that history has recorded her as a woman of great beauty, a flirt, and enjoying the company of other men, notably Thomas Graham, 1st Baron Lynedoch with whom she shared a lifetime of secret correspondence.

The character, “Lady Olivia” in Leonora (Maria Edgeworth) was rumoured to be based on Lady Asgill, thereby portraying her as a “coquette”! Rumours circulated thus: “Lady Olivia in ‘ Leonora ‘ is now supposed by all Dublin to be a portrait of Lady Asgill”. The following letter sheds light on Sophia: Maria Edgeworth’s letter to her aunt Mrs. C. Sneyd at Byrkley Lodge, Lichfield, dated 3 December 1809. To my dear Aunt Charlotte, …She [Miss Whyte] told us a great many good anecdotes of Lady Asgill – of whom she has seen a great deal, and it was for some time difficult for us to determine whether she was her friend or her enemy but at last this point was determined by her account of a battle royal between these two belles at Miss Whyte’s own table lately in Dublin. Lady Asgill began the attack thus “ Miss Whyte do you know the good people of Dublin are beginning to abuse you quite as much as they abuse me”. “Oh no, I hope not quite so bad as that” – quoth Miss W. “Why though they abuse me, I’m certainly very popular” reasoned Lady A – “for if I invite 60 people to my dinners or my concerts not one of the 60 send an excuse. They all come to my parties”. “Oh that is no proof of popularity” replied Miss W “for your ladyship knows that if one came down from the gibbet and gave good dinners and good music they might be sure of having everybody at their parties.” The conversation went on from popularity to notoriety – then the word famous was brought in by some of the company and a Mrs Parkhurst (the English lady who brought in the message about comedy from Sheridan) brought in the word infamous. I don’t exactly know how but Lady Asgill, who has, it is said, infinite command of temper, coolly in her high keyed voice “Does Mrs Parkhurst mean to say that Miss Whyte and I are infamous?”.

Upon his death the Asgill Baronetcy became extinct. Most biographies claim he died without issue (excepting A New Biographical Dictionary of 3000 Cotemporary (sic) Public Characters, Second Edition, Vol I, Part I, printed for Geo. B. Whittacker, Ave-Maria Lane, 1825 which states Sophia bore him children). This book of 1825 would probably have been collated and prepared for printing during Asgill’s lifetime as his entry is written in the present tense.

==John Asgill==

John Asgill, 1659–1738, (known as “Translated” Asgill) was a relative [first cousin, five times removed], both being descendants of Joshua Asgyll MA, DD, born 1585. He maintained that: “according to the covenant of eternal life, revealed in the Scriptures, man may be translated from hence, without passing through death, although the human nature of Christ himself could not be thus translated, till he had passed through death.”


Images of General Sir Charles Asgill may be found at the following locations.

=== 1784 engraving ===

It is clear that the original engraving is the French version, published in 1784 signed “de Loraine del./Chevillet sculp.” The English book plate was obviously engraved after it. Chevillet is a well-known engraver; “de Loraine” is no doubt a misspelling of de Lorraine, and probably refers either to August de Lorraine or his son Jean-Baptiste de Lorraine (1737–), both active (but obscure) engravers in Paris in the 1770s. It is possible that de Lorraine made his drawing (which Chevillet engraved) from yet another image, but unlikely that that will ever turn up. 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 but engravers usually reversed the images, and while they sometimes remembered, e.g., to move a cockade, they could easily have forgotten the epaulette, since in French uniforms single epaulettes were usually on the left shoulder.

Page 355 from the Inventaire du Fonds Français describes the print, engraved by Chevillet after de Loraine.

A copy of an illustration in John Andrews’ book, History of the War with America, France, Spain, and Holland: Commencing in 1775 and Ending in 1783, 4 vols. (London: J. Fielding, 1785–86) is held at the New York Public Library. The uniform 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. 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.

=== 1822 mezzotint ===

This is a mezzotint by Charles Turner (engraver) after the original oil painted by Thomas Phillips RA, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy London, in 1822, the year before Asgill died.

“The mezzotint was published by Charles Turner himself and in the absence of any inscribed information to the contrary, one can only assume that it was issued for sale. The fact that the publication date of the engraving (26th April 1822) pre-dates the oil’s exhibition at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition suggests that Turner would have collaborated with Thomas Phillips in its issue, with both presumably anticipating a return on the proceeds from its sale.” Paul Cox, Assistant Curator (Archive & Library) National Portrait Gallery, London.

The National Army Museum, London, holds a copy of this image (1981-03-61 image number 73819). In his will, General Asgill left this portrait to his brother-in-law, Admiral Sir Charles Ogle. Asgill states in his will: “And I give to the said Sir Charles Ogle, 2nd Baronet, for his, my portrait painted by Phillips, and at his decease I give and bequeath the same portrait to his son Chaloner Ogle, requesting it may be preserved and retained in his family.” It thus seems clear that Asgill wanted the Ogle family to treasure his portrait and preserve it in perpetuity; however, the present location of this portrait is unknown.

Admiral Sir Charles Ogle disinherited his son, Chaloner Ogle, 3rd Baronet, so it is unclear what then happened to the portrait. It possibly went instead to his daughter, Sophia Ogle, who married her cousin the Rev. Edward Chaloner Ogle who succeeded to Kirkley Hall in 1853.

After Asgill died, Admiral Ogle wrote to the artist saying:

“Sir Charles Ogle requests Mr Philips will have the goodness to deliver the picture of the late Sir Charles Asgill to the bearer Mr Goslett – If Mr Philips has any demand on Sir Charles Asgill, he is requested to send it to Mr Domville. Fm C ….? ….? (illegible) 42 Berkeley Sq, Oct 23 1823.”

Clearly the Admiral thought there was a possibility that the General had not paid Phillips for the portrait at the time of his death, and it would also seem likely that Asgill had not actually taken delivery of same.

=== Uniform of British Army in 1820 ===

The National Library of Ireland holds a William Sadler caricature depicting, amongst others, Sir Charles Asgill in the uniform of the Colonel of the 11th Foot Guards

==The Asgill Affair in drama==

* d’Aubigny, Washington, or, The Orphan of Pennsylvania.

> Melodrama in three acts by one of the authors of The Thieving Magpie, with music and ballet, shown for the first time, at Paris, in the Ambigu-Comique theatre, 13 July 1815.

* Henri de Lacoste, Washington, Or, The Reprisal.

> A factual drama in three acts staged for the first time in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Impératrice on 5 January 1813. Henri de Lacoste, Member of the Légion d’Honneur and l’Ordre impérial de la Réunion. In this play we see Asgill fall in love with Betty Penn, the daughter of a Pennsylvanian Quaker, who supports him through his ordeal awaiting death.

* Benoit Michel de Comberousse, Asgill, or, The English Prisoner.

> Drama in five acts and verse. Comberousse, a member of the College of Arts, wrote this play in 1795. The drama, in which Washington’s son plays a ridiculous role, was not performed in any theatre.

* Marsollier of Vivetieres, music by Nicolas Dalayrac, Asgill, or, The Prisoner of War.

> One act melodrama and prose, performed at the Opera-Comique for the first time on Thursday, 2 May 1793. In this play we are presented with a gaoler full of feeling; a poor mason who shows courage and generosity; a humane and philosophic clergyman and two young people whom the unhappy Asgill has promised to marry when he is free.

* J.S. le Barbier-le-Jeune, Asgill.

> Drama in five acts, prose, dedicated to Lady Asgill, published in London and Paris, 1785. The author shows Washington plagued by the cruel need for reprisal that his duty requires. Washington even takes Asgill in his arms and they embrace with enthusiasm. Lady Asgill was very impressed by the play, and, indeed, Washington himself wrote to thank the author for writing such a complimentary piece, although confessed that his French was not up to being able to read it. A copy of this play is available on the Gallicia website:

* Gallicia listing of 78 references to Charles Asgill in French Literature