George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 10 July 1778

From Henry Laurens

Philadelphia 10th July 1778


I had the honor of writing to Your Excellency by Major Putnam the 8th Inst.1

Congress while sitting before Noon received intelligence of the following import.

Mr Blair McLenahan said he had seen a Capt. Selby or Selwin off Chincoteague who had fallen in with the French Fleet Eastward of Bermuda—the Admiral had taken him on board & enjoined him to pilot the ffleet to this Coast, the ffleet arrived near Chincoteague in the Evening of the 5th Inst. there they found the Ship Lydia of 26 Guns from New York on a Cruise—she was sunk by a french Frigate of 36 Guns—On Monday Capt. selby was sent on Shoar in order to procure Pilots he engaged six to go on board the French ffleet upon Wednesday—the Fleet consisted of the Admiral Count d’Estaing of 90 Guns—2 Ships of 80—8 of 74—1 of 64.—4 of 36. & said to have 12000 Men—they had taken a Ship of 18 Guns from Providence before they had made the Land.2

War was to be declared against England by France & Spain on the 19th May—they had originally intended for Delaware but hearing that the Enemy were gone to New York they required Pilots to conduct them to Sandy Hook, they had then six Months provision on board. Your Excellency will perceive by the inclosed printed paper that a Fleet had been prepared at Portsmouth in order to intercept or annoy this Fleet3 of which ’tis possible the Count d’Estaing may be ignorant as he sailed from Toulon the 15th April ’tis possible also that a Check may have been put upon that by a Fleet from Brest, be that as it may, Count d’Estaing should be apprized of this important circumstance & also of the strength of the British Marine power in New York, which from the best accounts we have been able to collect is made up of the following Ships—

Boyne 70 Guns. Centurion 50. Roebuck 44.
Eagle 64. Experiment 50. Phœnix 44.
St Alban 64. Preston 50. & many Frigates
Ardent 64. Renown 50.
Sommerset 64. Chatham 50.
Trident 64. Isis 50.
Vigilant formerly 64.

I shall endeavor to reach Count d’Estaing with the necessary advices on the Coast of New Jersey or off the Capes of Delaware4—Your Excellency will, if he shall have proceeded nearer Sandy Hook endeavor to meet him with a Letter where it may reach him, & you will also concert measures for improving the force under Your Excellency’s immediate Command & that under the direction of Major General Gates, in the present critical conjuncture.

Your Excellency will also if you have a more exact Account of the British Fleet at New York make proper corrections upon the list above enumerated. I have the honor to be With the highest Esteem & Respect Sir Your Excellencys Most obedient & most humble servant

Henry Laurens,
President of Congress

It is almost unnecessary to intimate to Your Excellency the propriety of opening & keeping up a correspondence with the Admiral Count d’Estaing.

ALS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA:PCC, item 13. A note on the letter-book copy indicates that this letter was carried by Levellin Barry.

1Daniel Putnam (1759–1831), a son of Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, was commissioned a lieutenant in the 20th Continental Infantry Regiment in January 1776 and became a major and his father’s aide-de-camp in May of that year. He was returning to Hartford, Conn., with Laurens’s acknowledgment of a letter from Israel Putnam to Congress.

2The preceding Monday was 6 July. For another report of Blair McClenachan’s information, with more detail about the engagement with the Lydia, see Royal Gazette (New York), 22 July. Other hearsay reports of the 5 July engagement appeared in the North-Carolina Gazette (New Bern), 24 July. When Vice Admiral d’Estaing’s squadron left Toulon, it consisted of the Languedoc, of 90 guns; Tonnant, of 84 guns; César, Zélé, Hector, Guerrier, Marseillais, and Protecteur, of 74 guns; Vaillant, Provence, Fantasque, and Sagittaire, of 64 guns; and the Chimère, Engageante, Flore, Alcmene, and Aimable, of 26 guns, with about 9,500 seamen and 1,000 soldiers. The Flore returned to France before the fleet reached American waters. “Capt. Selby,” who had joined the French fleet by 27 June, may have been William Selby, Jr., of Pitts Landing, Virginia. The fleet took the merchant ship Charlotte, out of New Providence Island in the Bahamas, on 30 June (see Extrait du journal d’un officier de la marine description begins Extrait du journal d’un officier de la marine de l’escadre de M. le comte d’Estaing. N.p., 1782. description ends , 9).

3Laurens enclosed a copy of a letter from the American commissioners in France of 18 May, which was read in Congress on 8 July and ordered published ( JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 11:675). Printed in the Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser (Philadelphia) of 9 July, the letter gave intelligence “that eleven British ships of war, viz. One of 90 guns, nine of 74, and one of 64 guns, are in the road of St. Hellens, near Portsmouth, bound for North America” and asked that the recipients publish the information and inform the French fleet.

4For Laurens’s letter to d’Estaing of this date, see Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:12–14.

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