George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Parke Custis, 8 August 1776

From John Parke Custis

Mount Airy [Md.] August 8th 1776

Hond Sir

Your Letters of the 8th & 24th Ulto came safely to Hand,1 and I should certainly have answered Them before now; if I had not been in Hopes of collecting Something worth relating. I feel the sincerest Pleasure, that my Professions of Gratitude were received in the Light I would wish Them to be,2 I can only express It in words at this Time. I fervently wish to have an Opportunity of fulfilling them by my Actions; I need no more Words to convince You of my Sincerety, for I flatter Myself, you are Satisfied that Deceit makes no Part of my Character. I am Happy to find my Ideas of Land coincide with your’s, Hill inform’d, that a good Part of Colo. More’s Land, was as finely Timber’d as He ever saw, and the Soil very proper for Farming, these Circumstances added to it’s Situation, render It in Opinion a very desirable Purchase; I desired Hill to contract for It on the best Terms He could, with the Advice of Uncles Bassett & Dandridge who were kind enough to Promise all their Assistance; My Land in Hanover as far as I can learn is very indifferent, and is valuable only for It’s Timber.3

You have no doubt heard of the Men of War comeing up Potowmack as far as Mr Brent’s, whose House they burnt with several out houses and some Stacks of Wheat, a Capt. James with 60 Militia were stationd there who all got drunk, and kept chalenging the Men of War to come ashore, and upbraiding Them with Cowardice. Hammond sent 150 Men who landed about 10 oclock under Cover of a Gundola & Tender, the Militia were asleep after their drunking Frolick and did not discover the Enemy untill they landed and their Vessels began to Fire, Capt. James desired his Men to shift for Themselves and ran of without fireing a Gun, a Young Man by Name Combs stayd untill He killd three of the Enemy, Colo. Grayson appearing with 30 Prince William Volunteers, the Enemy thought proper to retire to their Ships, Capt. James is to [be] tried for Cowardice—The Fleet after performing this Exploit, returnd down the River to George’s Island, from whence they have been drove off by Major Price with some Loss; They are gone down the Bay in a most sickly Condition, I have not heard where they have stopt, before they left the Island they burnt several Vessels, and I hear that two Sloops belonging to them have fallen into Capt. Boucher’s Hands.4

This Province has been thrown into much Confusion lately on Account of Elections; in several Counties It has been determined contrary to an express Order of Convention, that every Man who bears Arms is intitled to Vote. This is in my Opinion is a dangerous Procedure, and tends to introduce Anarchy & Confusion as much as Any thing I know, the Latter It has already introduced in the Counties where It has been practised, Men who are by no means Qualifyed, have been chosen, and proper Men left out, I have the Pleasure to inform You that a Majoriety of the Counties have obey’d the Order of Convention; Your old Friend Colo. Fitzhugh is elected for the County He lives in, His military Knowledge will be very usefull in Council, where such Knowledge is much wanting, T. Johnson is left out of every Office at present, He was appointed a Brigadier General, the County He lived in petition’d Him to resign His Commission, that they might elect Him a Burgess, He granted their request, and they deceivd Him, You will I doubt not regret with Me, that so proper a Man should be left out of Office.5

I receiv’d by last Post a Letter from Doctor Attwood containing an Account against me of two Dollars, for Bleeding & sundry Medicines, I well remember when at King’s College to have receiv’d them, but I am much at a Loss to account for Doctor Cooper’s extravagant Charge, & leaveing so many Accts unpay’d. I shall be obliged to You to order Him to be pay’d, I enclose You his Letter which you sent under Cover last Post.6 The Family here & at Melwood join in Compts7 Nelly pre[sen]ts her Love—I am Hond Sir your most Affecte

John Parke Custis

ALS, ViHi.

3For GW’s views about this proposed land exchange, see his letter to Custis of 24 July. James Hill was manager of all the Custis lands in the York River area of Virginia.

4The handsome brick plantation house at the mouth of Aquia Creek in Stafford County, Va., where William Brent (1733–1782), a member of the fifth Virginia convention, lived, was burned on 23 July by a landing party that was sent ashore by Andrew Snape Hamond, captain of the British warship Roebuck. The Roebuck had come up the Potomac with two transports and the ship Dunmore to obtain drinking water for Lord Dunmore’s fleet, which was at St. George Island, Md., near the mouth of the river. Entering the freshwater part of the Potomac near Brent’s house, the British vessels began filling their casks from the river at four o’clock on the afternoon of 22 July and finished that work by four o’clock the next morning (see the Master’s Log of H.M.S. Roebuck, 22–23 July, in Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 5:1194). Later in the morning Hamond and Lord Dunmore, who had accompanied the watering expedition in the ship bearing his name, decided to attack Capt. John James’s detachment of Stafford County militiamen camped about Brent’s house. “We were,” Dunmore wrote Lord George Germain on 31 July, “with the assistance of the Roebucks Mariners, Volunteers, Blacks and Whites, able to muster one hundred and Eight Men, with these we landed, under Cover of two small Tenders, and a small Row Galley . . . in which Captn Hamond had put a Six pounder. . . . We were no sooner landed, than the Rebels fled on all quarters from the House and Offices, all of which we burnt, and having done all the Mischief in our power, we reimbarked without the loss of a Man killed and only four or five Wounded, of which Number is Lieut [Hill] Wallace of the 14th Regiment” (ibid., 1312–14; see also Captain Hamond’s narrative for 15 July to 13 Aug., ibid., 6:172–74).

John James was exonerated by a court-martial that met at Stafford Courthouse on 20 Sept. 1776. “The disaster which happened at mr. William Brent’s, on Potowmack river, by the attack made by the British forces, on Tuesday the 23d of July 1776, was owing to the militia’s not being better armed and disciplined,” the court-martial board said. “Capt. James kept his ground until his men had all fled except about 15,” and “he attempted several times to rally his men. . . . the enemy approached under a constant fire of cannon and swivels from a gondola, two sloops and nine boats loaded with men within about 50 yards, before capt. James left his station” (Purdie’s Virginia Gazette [Williamsburg], 27 Sept. 1776). The arrival of Col. William Grayson’s small force from neighboring Prince William County apparently induced the British landing party to retreat before burning Brent’s gristmill (see Extract of a Letter from Dumfries, in Virginia, 24 July, in Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 5:1206–7).

The British watering convoy began its return voyage down the Potomac on 24 July and rejoined Dunmore’s fleet at St. George’s Island five days later. A few hours before the four vessels left their anchorage near Brent’s house, the Roebuck’s log says: “a Boat Came of[f] with 3 of Genl Washington’s Servts” (ibid., 1250).

Purdie’s Virginia Gazette for 2 Aug. reports erroneously that Dunmore returned to St. George Island “on Tuesday se’nnight [23 July] . . . but was beat off by 1200 Marylanders; that he had burnt eight of his vessels, and was seen standing down the bay the Thursday after with all his fleet.” Captain Hamond’s narrative gives a more accurate account of events. On 29 July Hamond says: “The Defence a Rebel Privatier of 20 Guns belonging to Maryland, hearing of the Fleet’s being left at George’s Island under the Protection of the Fowey only, came with 2 Tenders up the River to attack them, and a Battery from St Mary’s was to be opend as soon as she appeared in Sight. The Roebuck’s return frustrated their schemes, and the Rebel Vessels returned to their rendezvous at Baltimore. In about three days the Fleet had taken onboard their water from the Transports, when after destroying about 20 Sail of Vessels that could not be navigated we got under way, proceeded down the Chesepeak Bay, and arrived at the Capes the 4th Augst” (Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 6:172–74).

Maj. Thomas Price, who commanded the Maryland forces at St. Mary’s City near St. George Island, sent the Maryland council of safety frequent intelligence reports about Dunmore’s fleet but did not attack it (see Price to the Maryland Council of Safety, 29 July, ibid., 5:1275, and the Maryland Council of Safety to Henry Hooper, 2 Aug., ibid., 6:23). John Thomas Boucher, a shipmaster from Georgetown, Md., in March 1776 resigned his commission as a first lieutenant in the Maryland navy to accept an appointment in the Virginia navy as commodore of the Potomac fleet and commander of the ship Congress. Boucher remained in the service of Virginia until November 1776 when he returned home to Georgetown. In 1781 he took command of the Maryland armed brigantine Alexandria.

Andrew Snape Hamond (1738–1828), a veteran naval officer who had been captain of the forty-four-gun Roebuck since July 1775, joined Dunmore’s fleet at Norfolk on 19 May 1776 and remained in Virginia waters until 5 Aug. when he sailed to New York. The Roebuck arrived at Sandy Hook on 13 Aug. and subsequently participated in the New York campaign. After refitting the Roebuck in the West Indies during the winter of 1777, Hamond resumed service with the British fleet and took part in the movement of General Howe’s army up the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1777 and in the attacks on American forts on the Delaware River that fall. In 1778 Hamond was knighted for his services, and after assisting in the reduction of Charleston in the spring of 1780, he returned to England, where on 15 Dec. 1780 he was appointed lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia. Hamond served in that capacity at Halifax until the end of the war. He was comptroller of the Royal Navy from 1794 to 1806 and sat in Parliament as a member for Ipswich from 1796 to 1806.

5William Fitzhugh (1721–1798) of Rousby Hall in Calvert County, Md., a wealthy planter who had been a member of the colony’s council from 1769 to 1774, did not serve in the first eight Maryland conventions, but early this month he was elected one of Calvert County’s delegates to the ninth convention, which convened on 14 Aug. to establish a new government for the state. Fitzhugh continued representing Calvert County in the Maryland house of delegates from 1777 to 1783 and was speaker of the house from 1778 to 1779. A resident of Stafford County, Va., until 1752 when he married Ann Frisby Rousby of Maryland, Fitzhugh had served with GW’s half brother Lawrence Washington on the Cartagena campaign in 1741 and had been involved in GW’s efforts to obtain the adjutancy of the Northern Neck in 1752 (see GW to Robert Dinwiddie, 10 June 1752, in Colonial Series description begins W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series. 10 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1983–95. description ends , 1:50–51).

Thomas Johnson (1732–1819), an Annapolis lawyer who was a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776, represented Anne Arundel County in the first eight Maryland conventions, and although the Anne Arundel voters did not reelect him to the ninth convention, he succeeded later this month in obtaining the seat vacated by a Caroline County delegate who resigned from the convention to accept an appointment as a colonel in the flying camp. Johnson, in addition to his other offices, had been appointed senior brigadier general of the Maryland militia on 6 Jan. 1776, and on 27 June the convention made him commander of the troops that Maryland was to furnish for the flying camp. A week later the convention decided that Johnson was more needed in the Continental Congress than in the flying camp and named a new commander of the state’s contingent. Johnson retained his commission as brigadier general of the militia, however, and during the following winter he led a corps of militia reinforcements from Maryland to GW’s headquarters in New Jersey. Johnson returned to Maryland in March 1777 to assume the governorship of the state. He served in that office until November 1779, when he permanently moved his residence to Frederick, Maryland. Owner of extensive landholdings in western Maryland, Johnson had discussed plans for improving the navigation of the Potomac with GW before the war, and in 1785 he joined GW and others in establishing the Potowmack Company for that purpose. Johnson was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1791 to 1793.

6This letter has not been identified. Thomas Bridgen Attwood was a druggist in New York City. Rev. Myles Cooper (1737–1785) was president of King’s College (now Columbia University) from 1763 to 1775. An uncompromising Loyalist, Cooper had sailed to England in May 1775 and never returned to America.

7Melwood, located about three miles from Mount Airy, was the home of Ignatius Digges (1707–1785) and his family. GW had visited Melwood several times before the war (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 3:54, 129, 178).

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