George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, 4 August 1778

From Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens

Providence 4th August 1778


I had the honor of receiving your Excellencys letter of the 28 Ulto the day before yesterday. The following is a short journal of what has passed since the date of the letter which I wrote from point Judith.1

July 25. Our situation at the point being dangerous from the facility with which the enemy might land a party in our rear and cut off our retreat, I sent the greater part of our pilots to quarter three or four miles out of the cul de Sac—and reserved only a sufficient number for

attending to the signals which we expected—their safety was provided for by a horse patrole of militia. A twenty gun Sloop went into Newport harbour.2

26—Recd an open letter from General Sullivan for the Admiral containing his plan of operations.3

He informs Count d’Estaign that three entrances to Rhode Island—one East of the Island called Seakonnet or the Eastern passage in which there are 2 gallies and one small frigate. Another on the west of the Island between it & Connanicut I.—called the main channel, in which there are 2 frigates—besides 3 gallies and 2 or 3 frigates at New-Port. a third on the west of Connanicut Island—called the west passage in which there are 3 Frigates That the enemys land force amount to 7000 men including three regiments on Connanicut. He proposes that the Admiral should detach a proper force up the east and west channels to take the frigates & galleys stationed there which force might afterwards serve to cover the passage of the American troops—from Bristol and Tiverton—And that the main body of the Squadron shd block up the principal or middle Channel—so as to prevent the escape of the enemys ships—and the arrival of succours.

his design is to pass all the enemys works on the north part of the Island—leaving a sufficient detachment to observe the troops stationed in them—and to advance rapidly to the attack of the redoubts which immediately environ the Town—at the moment of this attack he wishes the Count to begin his upon the batteries which defend the harbour to cannonade the Town—and land his troops in the most favourable place for seconding the American attack.

He refers the Count to a sketch of the country sent by me—as this did not appear to be sufficiently accurate and detailed to be satisfactory I wrote to the general entreating him if possible to inform the Admiral as nearly as he could—the strength of the profiles in each battery—height of parapet—height of the ground above the surface of the water—distance to which they might be approached—number of guns and their callibers—observing that tho’ from the sketch both the entrance and bason of New-port harbour appeared to be subject to a dangerous cross-fire—yet upon a more minute investigation they might be found contemptible compared with the force to be employed against them—I likewise enquired whether the right and left flank of the enemy’s chain of redoubts were not so situated—as to admit of vessels anchoring near enough to fire ricochet along the line.

27th. Two deserters crossed from Rhode Island—they say that the scarcity of provision occasions murmuring among the troops—that the new levies are employed in mowing—that the French fleet is expected—and the troops are busily employed in raising new works.4

28—A Ship and sloop appear off block Island—two british Frigates beat out of the harbour at New-port—but returned towards evening—thick hazy weather.

29—The Fog cleared away and the appearance of the French Squadron was as sudden, as if they had been brought to view by raising a curtain—The gentleman who had the superintendence of the pilots did not choose to venture them till the signal agreed upon should be given—I went on board the admiral with my dispatches—He informed me that his intention was to have gone into New-port harbour and fired the signal there—the receipt of Genl Sullivans letter—the expediency of distributing pilots among the ships—and the advanced hour of the day—induced the admiral to anchor his squadron off the main channel and order two frigates with a tender up the Eastern Channel and the Sagittaire a Ship of the line up the west.5

30—The orders relative to the ships and frigates could not be executed till the morning—the Sagittaire was fired upon from a two gun battery of twenty four pounders on the west side of Connanicut—she returned a broad side and passed it—from an explosion which we discovered immediately after we judged that the enemy had blown up their magazine and evacuated the battery—the Sagittaire received two slight scratches in her hull—Upon the approach of the Aimable and Alcmene frigates in the East channel—the enemy set fire to the King Fisher 20 gun sloop—The lamb galley mounting 2 eighteen—2 nine and 2 six pounders—and sent the spit-fire galley mounting 2 eighteens—2 twelves & six six pounders—in form of a fire-ship.

The latter blew up, soon after the Count de Grasse had caused a grapnel to be fixed in her—and while his crew were in the act of towing her off—but neither they nor their gallant commander received the least injury—Mr Dorset who boarded the King Fisher with a party, with a view of saving her from total destruction—had an escape equally providential—the remains of her powder blew up while they were on board—without doing them any hurt6—Previous to making the gran[d]7 attack on the batteries in the harbour—the Admiral judged it of the greatest importance to make himself master of connanicut Island—The difficulties in the way were these—If he were to attack them only on one side—viz.—the western—the enemy would have nothing to hinder them from empowering our attack with reinforcements to station some ships on the E. side of Connanicut would effectually cut off the communication and the admiral would have ordered the ships to run the gauntlet thro’ the entrance of the harbour—if they could afterwards have anchored out of the reach of the batteries within, but this was pronounced impossible—And to expose them both to the fire of the passage, and the more deliberate cannonade from the batteries would be exposing them too much in a preliminary operation—It was determined therefore to call upon General Sullivan for a proper number of militia to oppose such reinforcements as it was judged the enemy could spare—By the admirals desire Col. Fleury and myself set out to represent the importance of the object and ask his assistance. In our way we met Genl Sullivan—he informed us that he had several new matters to propose to the admiral and judged a conference with him necessary—he was received on board with proper military honors—and at his departure the admirals ship was manned, and fired fifteen cannon—Gen. Sullivan brought a draught on a larger scale—but a draught which the admiral had was infinitely more correct and minute—The Genl informed the Count that the enemy’s principal work was on domine hill8—that this was the highest point in that part of the Island and commanded both the redoubts and the Town—that this carried either by storm—or if that were found impracticable, by heavy artillery and mortars all the rest would follow of course—here consequently he intended to bend his strength, he proposed that the American troops should land on the east side of the Island and the French on the west—each to support the other in case of attack—he still judged it unnecessary for the Count to make his attack on the batteries—till the moment in which the attack on the enemys works should take place.

This evening some of the outermost ships made signals of the appearance of a fleet the squadron was ordered under sail to be in the greater readiness either for chace or fight—the vessels from the E. & W. channels ordered out.9

31st The Squadron returned to their Station. The Fleet announced by the signals proved to be eight transports convoyed by a Frigate. Some say they were loaded with wood from Long Island for New port. It is generally beleived they were loaded with Beef and Flour. They put about as soon as they discovered the French Ships and escaped under the Veil of Night.

American privateers men who had landed upon Connanicut and several of the inhabitants asserted that the Enemy had evacuated that Island. The Count determined to send a party towards Evening to ascertain the facts. Among other plans, it was once proposed that the whole fleet should proceed up the West Channel, turn the North end of Conanicut, and descend the main Channel, till it should arrive at a proper place for operating. This it was urged would avoid the Cross fire at the entrance, and put the ships in a position from whence they would be less exposed to the fire of the interior Batteries—But upon further examination it was found, that to effect this detour, the ships must either have a Wind which would answer both to go up the West and come down the middle passage—or, that after going up with a fair wind they must wait at the North end of Conanicut for a favorable change to come down or lastly that they must beat down the main Channel. The uncertainty and delay incident to the two first were discouraging—The last was declared by the most experienced pilots to be impracticable for ships of the line—As the narrow limits of the Channel would not allow sufficient scope for working, and missing stays in such circumstances would be fatal.

By the Admirals desire I went on shore to make some arrangement for the reception of the sick and prisoners—and for establishing Signals at point Judith, that he might have the earliest intelligence of the approach of any of the enemy’s ships.

The Admiral sent a party to Conanicut for the purpose beforementioned, their report confirmed the accounts of the privateers men &ca.

1st Augt As soon as the morning Fog which generally prevails at this season, was dissipated—The Count landed with a detatchment on Conanicut, in order to reconnoitre the Harbour and Batteries of New port. In the Battery on the West side of Conanicut which had fired upon the Sagittaire, we found two twenty four pounders spiked up, their carriages intire and their heavy ammunition. From thence we proceeded through the incampment of the three Regiments, which appeared to have been precipitately abandonned, to the Battery on the East side called Dumplins Rocks Battery. The two 24 pounders belonging to this, the Enemy had thrown down the precipice on which the Battery stood. We discovered them with their carriages at the waters edge below. in both Batteries the platforms appeared to have been newly laid.

From the Heights on the East side of Conanicut we had a very distinct View of the Battery on Brenton’s point—the Cannon appeared to be 24 pounders—two fire obliquely on the entrance of the harbour—and two directly across.10

The Battery on Goat Island is partly of Earth and partly of Masonry—It has a great many embrasures—but we could not discover any Cannon in it—besides it appears to be in a ruinous condition and its low situation must make it yield at the first salute from the lower tear & Top, as it may be approached to a very convenient distance. The Battery on Dyers point appears to be most respectable and has this advantage over us—that the Ships of the line cannot approach any nearer than half a mile—but this circumstance will only retard our success a little—The Work on Domini Hill appears considerable—but the face presented to us is not flanked—we discover Two frigates at the upper end of the main passage—some distance beyond the town, An East Indiamen armed as a Ship of war (which appears the most respectable Ship of War they have) and a Frigate between Goat Island and the Town in front of the Town—along the Kuays a number of merchantmen and Transports—within Brenton point One Vessel which is said to be a fire Ship—We discovered an Encampment just above the Town—Brenton point Battery is guarded by a Detachment of Hessians.

2d—The Admiral disembarrassed his Squadron of the Sick—prisoners & prizes. The Two last are ordered to providence. The Sick are in Houses near the North & South ferry, up the West passage. Genl Sullivan has appointed a Commissary to supply them with necessaries. In this neighbourhood is the watering place for the fleet—the daily consumption is so great, that they supply themselves slowly.

3d  By the Admirals desire Col. Fleury & myself set out for providence to know in what forwardness matters are for the land attack.

4  Early in the morning we arrived at providence.

what I have gathered concerning the Enemy’s force—and our own is as follows.

Strength of the enemy previous to reinforcements 3000
1st Reinforcement under Genl Brown
 1st Batallion of his Brigade 344
2d Reinforcement under Genl Prescott 1200
       Total 4544
Marines and Sailors 1000

The British Regiments are the 38—43—54—22d—there are Six foreign Regiments & 2 American Corps.

 General Sullivan has in this State
  Continentals 2000
  Militia 3000
He expects from Massachussets Militia 3000
  Connecticut 1000
  New Hampshire 600

Besides this the Division under the Marquiss de la Fayette, part of which arrived yesterday—and part the day before—Several Corps of Volunteers—inclusive of a Regiment of Artillery from Boston.

We shall labour under a great disadvantage in having no brass field pieces of large Calibers—The Iron ordnance that we must from necessity use will be very unweildy—From the tardiness of the Militia and the necessity of constructing transport Boats, I have no hopes of our being ready for action before monday next.11 General Sullivan exerts himself as much as possible, but he cannot hasten the wished for day. The Count D’Estaing’s case is cruel when I consider what a noble Squadron he commands—That by a long voyage he missed meeting the British Fleet at Sea—that by a physical impossibility he was obliged to renounce the Splendid enterprize at Sandy Hook—That by new misfortunes he is losing the most precious moments—at a time when the Eyes of all Europe are upon him—As I think him a great Officer and most respectable man, I cannot but most sincerely feel for him.

In obedience to your Excellency’s command I represented to Count D’Estaing the advantages that would result from stationing a Ship of the line in the sound—and the practicability of his overtaking the British fleet in such a situation as we would wish should the evacuation of New York take place.12 He was perfectly of your Excellency’s opinion in both points—but he seemed to think that the attack of Rhode Island would require all his force—and besides it seems to be his principle to keep his Squadron together—and not to weaken it by Detachment. As soon as the present expedition is over he will be ready to bend his course either to Hallifax or Sandy Hook, as the General good may require—If Hallifax should be the next Object, will not a co-operation on our parts by land, be necessary, and in that case, will it not be advisable to make some timely arrangements.

Inclosed I transmit your Excellency a Map, which may be useful in illustrating the proposed plan of Operations.13 The french Troops are to land on the west side of Rhode Island above Dyers Island. The Americans on the East side nearly opposite. We have reason to beleive that the Enemy have abandoned their works on the North part of the Island—and have centered themselves within their lines at new port.14 I omitted to mention to your Excellency that when the Sagittaire was detached up the west passage—it was represented to the Admiral that she was out of supporting distance and was exposed to an Attack from the Enemy’s whole naval force. He therefore ordered the Fantasque another Ship of the line to take same Station.

I fear I have tired your Excellency with detail—and hope my next will contain more important matter in fewer words. I am with the most inviolable attachment & sincere respect Your Excellency’s dutiful Aid

John Laurens

P.S. The Admiral has sent a Ship and frigate to take one of the Enemy’s frigate’s that is stationed near block Island and gives intelligence of the french fleet to every British Vessel that appears.

Copy, in James McHenry’s, Tench Tilghman’s, and Robert Hanson Harrison’s writings, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; copy DNA:PCC, item 169. The transcribed copy was enclosed with GW’s second letter to Henry Laurens of 7 August.

1John Laurens’s letter from Point Judith was dated 25 July.

2Laurens was probably referring to HMS Sphynx, which returned from a cruise on 25 July ( Mackenzie Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 2:317).

3For Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s letter of 25 July to Vice Admiral d’Estaing, see Sullivan to GW, 26 July, n.3.

4The deserters were a black man employed as a groom and a member of the “New Levies”; for more on their intelligence, see Laurens to Sullivan, 27 July (Hammond, Sullivan Papers description begins Otis G. Hammond, ed. Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army. 3 vols. Concord, 1930-39. In Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, vols. 13–15. description ends , 2:128–29).

5The New-York Journal and the General Advertiser (Poughkeepsie) of 3 Aug. reported, on the authority of “a gentleman whose veracity may be depended upon,” that on 29 July “the French fleet … was off Point-Judah, where Capt Nathaniel Shaw of New-London, went on board, with a number of pilots, to pilot them to Newport.”

6Etienne, comte de Grasse de Limermont (1725–1790), commanded the Guerrier in d’Estaing’s fleet. D’Orset was an ensign on the Alcmene. He may possibly have been François-Joseph d’Orset (b. 1743). D’Orset came to America as a volunteer in 1777 but failed to obtain an army office and was sent back to France in November of that year. By November 1778 he was sous-lieutenant in the voluntaires étrangers de la marine, and he served in the Grenada combat under d’Estaing’s overall command in 1779. He rose to the rank of captain in the regiment by 1781. He later served in the Guadeloupe regiment, 1783–93, and was named chevalier de Saint-Louis à la Martinique in 1798.

7McHenry wrote “grant.”

8Laurens was referring to the fortification on Miantonomi (Tonomy) Hill, then north of Newport.

9At this point McHenry ceased and Tilghman began writing the copy.

10At this point in the copy, Tilghman’s writing ceases; the text following is in the writing of Harrison. References to Brenton’s Point designated the spit of land just west of Brenton’s Cove (now the site of Fort Adams), which should not be confused with the modern Brenton Point on the southwest edge of Rhode Island.

11The next Monday was 10 August.

12For the undated memorandum giving this command, see GW to Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 22 July, n.2.

13The enclosed map has not been identified.

14The diary entry of British officer Frederick Mackenzie for 4 Aug. indicates that the British forces on the northern parts of the island had sent their baggage and tents to Newport but had not yet abandoned their positions ( Mackenzie Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 2:328).

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