George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum, 13 April 1777

From Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum

Providence April 13th 1777.


The 5th Instant I received your Excellency’s Favor of the 12th Ulto;1 As I had previous thereto virtually comply’d with the Contents, can now only say, I delivered the inclosed Orders to Colonels Crary & Angell.2 From the first of January last, to the Rect of your Favor of the sixth, of March, the particular Command of the Post at Howland’s Ferry, Tiverton, devolved upon me by Order of General Spencer. The strict Attention necessary to be paid to that important Station, thirty two Miles Southeast from Providence, prevented me from knowing it was your Excellency’s Pleasure the Troops raising here should receive the small Pox by Innoculation. I never heard it mentioned ’till the Eighteenth Ulto, when I was honored with your first Favor.3 Upon the Receipt of it, I immediately left my Post, repaired to Providence, laid it before General Spencer, & the Governor & Council of War. It was not a positive Order; It was a Recommendation: It was not in my Power to act therefore, without the Approbation of those Gentlemen. They did not consent to the Measure at that Time, as they deemed the Troops essentially wanted for another Purpose.4 The Shores, in two or three Days after that, were almost destitute of Men, wch still delay’d the Innoculation. Genl Spencer daily expected Troops from Connecticutt; They did not arrive ’till about the Twenty eighth of March, when I recd your Order of the sixth, wch was the first absolute Order for my proceeding at all Events. Your Excellency has Seen by this Time, I presume, that your Orders of the sixth have been fully comply’d with. The Rout by me ordered was by Fish Kill, & so to Morristown. It is impossible therefore literally to comply with your Orders of the third instant, wch were this Evening received, I having just returned from the Hospitals, fourteen Miles from this Place. I should not have troubled your Excellency with this long Narrative of Facts, was it not to convince you, beyond a Doubt, that I have not been guilty of any, the least kind of Delay, wch needs an Excuse. Nothing could give me more disagreeable Pain, than your Excellency’s severe Censures, but a Consciousness of deserving them. Being perfectly free however from the latter, and as a full Knowledge of all the Circumstances will be sufficient to obliterate the former, I feel no Uneasiness about the Event, so far as it may respect me personally. I hope your Excellency will recollect your last Letter.5 Was I not convinced that the Contents originated from a Misapprehension of the Times when your Orders came to me, I should have esteemed them cruel beyond Expression. However, the common Maxim “Humanum est errare” may in some Degree apply to the first Character upon the Continent, as well as to that of a private Gentleman. Sir, I have no Commission from the Continent. Ever since my leaving Pumpton on the seventh of December, by Order of General Lee, I have not spent an Idle Hour, but in my sleeping Moments. My Command has been complicated, difficult and troublesome. In short, I have not had Leisure enough to correspond with a single Officer in the Western Army. And whatever Opinion your Excellency may form of me, I am positive that the Recruits have been forwarded and sent into Hospitals one Week sooner on Account of my particular Exertions. I can, with unremitted Attention, get e[ve]rything prepared for the March of the next Detachment, by the Time they will get thro’ the small Pox. No other Person here can effect it. The two Colonels are now in Hospital; Lt Colo. Comstock is unfit for Duty by means of having the small Pox severely; And Lt Colo. Olney Commands the Detachment sent forward6—Your Excellency will consequently Judge, how necessary my Application to Business here may be. The General Assembly will set next Thursday;7 My Solicitations with them will possibly be attended with Advantage to the Service. Had not the Detachment marched a considerable Distance, I shoud proceed immediately to overtake them and alter their Rout; But as I am not order’d to proceed to Peeks Kill, I presume your Excellency will justify me in remaining where I am. General Spencer & the Governor, I conclude, will justify my past Conduct. If your Excellency should be satisfied, I shall be happy in religiously obeying your future Orders; If not, I can serve my Country in some other Way, as I imagine it is in your Power to withhold a Commission you may think me unworthy of. The next Detachment will consist of near two Hundred & fifty. Should any small Parties fall in, that have had the small Pox, previous to the March of Party now in Hospital, they shall be immediately sent forward. Since the Returns wch I inclosed Your Excellency, about forty Men have been recruited.8 I shall inclose Weekly Regimental Returns, as soon as I can procure them. Just as I am finishing this, your Excellency’s Favor of the Twenty ninth Ulto comes to Hand, upon perusing wch I find Nothing but what is answered in the foregoing, except your Directions concerning a Brigade Major. I have with me a worthy Young Gentleman, Major Sterry, who hath, with Reputation & Judgement acted in that Character in the State Service, the Winter past.9 I have the Honor to be your Excellency’s most obdt most humble Servt

J. M. Varnum


2These enclosures have not been identified. Lt. Col. Archibald Crary temporarily commanded the 1st Rhode Island Regiment pending the exchange of its commanding officer, Col. Christopher Greene. Greene was exchanged the following summer, and in June, Crary was appointed colonel of the 2d Rhode Island State Regiment (see Nicholas Cooke to GW, 9 Feb. 1777, and Bartlett, R.I. Records description begins John Russell Bartlett, ed. Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England. 10 vols. Providence, 1856–65. description ends , 8:127, 263). Israel Angell (1740–1832), a cooper from Providence, served a major of Col. Daniel Hitchcock’s 2d Rhode Island Regiment from May to December 1775 and Hitchcock’s 11th Continental Regiment during 1776. Promoted to lieutenant colonel of Hitchcock’s new 2d Rhode Island Regiment on 1 Jan. 1777, Angell became colonel of the regiment following Hitchcock’s death on 13 Jan., and he commanded it until 1 Jan. 1781, when the two Rhode Island regiments were consolidated under Col. Christopher Greene. Angell retired from the army at that time, and he subsequently settled in Johnson, R.I., as a cooper and innkeeper.

4Gov. Nicholas Cooke says in his letter to GW of 18 Mar. that Varnum at that time was taking steps to inoculate the state’s Continental regiments.

5Varnum is referring to GW’s letter to him of 3 April.

6Jeremiah Olney (1749–1812) of Providence, who had served as a captain in the 2d Rhode Island Regiment during 1775 and the 11th Continental Regiment during 1776, succeeded Israel Angell as lieutenant colonel of the new 2d Rhode Island Regiment in January 1777. On 1 Jan. 1781 Olney became lieutenant colonel of Col. Christopher Greene’s consolidated Rhode Island regiment, and after Greene’s death the following May, Olney was named lieutenant colonel commandant of the regiment. He served in that capacity until the end of the war. In 1790 GW appointed Olney collector of customs at Providence.

7The following Thursday was 17 April.

8These returns have not been identified.

9Cyprian Sterry (1752–1824), who served as an ensign in the 2d Rhode Island Regiment during 1775 and as quartermaster of the 11th Continental Regiment with the rank of second lieutenant during 1776, was appointed in December 1776 to be brigade major of the brigade that the general assembly authorized to be raised for defense of the state.

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