George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 13 August 1778

From Major General John Sullivan

Head Quarters Rhode Island Augt 13th 1778.

Dear General.

In my last I had the honor to inform your Excellency of my being in possession of the enemies works on the North end of this Island, and of the arrival of a British fleet the moment we had landed, with the addition of Count d’Estain’s sailing in pursuit of them.1 As this last unfortunate circumstance deprived me of the assistance I had reason to expect from the French troops, I found it absolutely necessary to remain inactive until my numbers were sufficiently encreased, to warrant my advanceing without them.2 But fortune (determined to shew us the extent of his power[)] brought on a storm so violent that it last night blew down tore, and almost irreparably ruined the few tents my troops had in their possession. The arms of course were rendered unfit for immediate use and almost the whole of the amunition damaged. My men have suffered much, the greater part of them have had no kind of covering, nor would tents if they had them prove a sufficient security against the severity of the storm.3 Our communication with the main is intirely cut off by the violence of the winds which will scarcely permit the passage of a whale boat. Should the enemy move out to take advantage of our situation, our dependence must rest on the superiority of our numbers and the length of our Bayonets. How our Militia would behave on such an occasion I am unable to determine—they may be desperate when they find it impossible to retreat, and that their only alternative is to conquer and die. …4 Many men have perished already, and I wish the mortality may end with the storm.5 I despair of deriving any immediate advantage from our allies, as they must have been driven to a distance, far from affording us any, if not entirely from our coasts.

To combat all those difficulties and to surmount all those obstacles, require a degree of temper and a persevering fortitude which I could never boast of, and which few possess in so ample a manner as your Excellency. I will however endeavour by emulating the excellence of your example, to rise superior to the malevolence of fortune, and flatter myself, that if heaven will deign once more to smile upon me, I may yet answer in some measure, the expectations your Excellency may have conceived of the enterprize.6

I am sorry your Excellency’s letter respecting the enemy’s burning their shipping did not come to hand until they had burned every vessel of force and sunk almost all their vessels of whatever denomination to block up the channel.7 The letter you inclosed to Count d’Estaign did not arrive till after he had sailed,8 nor did I receive the intelligence from the council of Massachusetts informing that Admiral Byron appeared off the Western Islands, till a day after his departure. The account says that Byron was spoke with the 29th of June,9 and had thirteen sail of the line under his command. The fleet to which the Count gave chace consisted of five sail of the line, some frigates & transports under the direction of Lord Howe. They landed no men here. An apprehension that some such event as this might take place to deprive me of the Counts assistance induced me to call out more men than I otherwise would have done. The number of the enemy are nearly thus.

2 Hessian Regiments 600 each 1200
2 Anspach Do 500 each 1000
Brown & Fanning   600
22d 38th 43d & 54th British Regiments 400 each 1600
2 Hessian Regiments 500 each 1000
Whitmans Regiment   100
To these we may add of seamen 1000

My numbers on the Island are about nine thousand rank and file. I am Sir with the greatest respect your Excellys most obt very hble servt

Jno. Sullivan

P.S. Deserters come out in great numbers.

Copy, in James McHenry’s writing, DLC:GW; ADfS, NhHi: Sullivan Papers; copy (extract), DNA:PCC, item 160; copy (extract), ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers. The extract in PCC was enclosed in GW to Henry Laurens, 16 August. For discussion of the text omitted from the extracts, see note 6. A purported ALS of this letter was offered for sale by Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., catalog 596, The James McHenry Papers, 30–31 Oct., 1944, item 189. The ADfS shows many variations from the copy, most of which do not alter the meaning. The most significant are indicated in notes 2, 3, 4, 5, and 9.

2On the ADfS the passage corresponding to the preceding sentence reads: “as this unfortunate Circumstan[ce] deprivd us of the assistance we promisd ourselves from the French Troops I found it necessary to wait on the Ground till the tenth at night; when finding my o[w]n Troops numbers had Increased Sufficiently to warrant my advancing to the Town without waiting the Return of the Fleet: I Issued orders for the Army to march the 11th at Six in the morning.”

3Private Stephen Popp of the Bayreuth Regiment wrote in his journal for 14 Aug.: “Had a violent storm of rain and wind for forty-eight hours, the worst in all my campaigns” (“Popp’s Journal,” description begins Joseph G. Rosengarten. “Popp’s Journal, 1777–1783.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 26 (1902): 25–41, 245–54. description ends 32; see also Prechtel, Diary description begins Johann Ernst Prechtel. A Hessian Officer’s Diary of the American Revolution. Translated and edited by Bruce E. Burgoyne. Bowie, Md., 1994. description ends , 145; 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 , 349–51; Cutler, Rev. Manasseh Cutler description begins William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkins Cutler, eds. Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1888. description ends , 1:66–67; Gibbs diary, 5–30 Aug., Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 6:734–35). At this point, the draft continues with a sentence omitted from McHenry’s copy: “my men are mostly Lying under the Fences half Covered with water without Ammunition & with Arms Rendered useless.”

4Whether the apparent ellipsis indicates text omitted from the copy cannot be determined in the absence of the LS. The ADfS includes at this point a sentence reading: “perhaps under these Circumstances an Attack upon us might be of great advantage.”

5On the ADfS the passage corresponding to the preceding sentence reads: “Several men have perished with the Severity of the weather & I Expect more will as I See no probability of the Storm Ceasing.”

6The preceding paragraph was not included in the copy of this letter that GW sent to Congress.

7Sullivan was evidently referring to GW’s letter to him of 4 August.

8Sullivan was apparently referring to GW’s letter to Vice Admiral d’Estaing of 8 August.

9On the draft the date is “24th of June.”

10For a British report of the strength of their army, 10 Aug., showing that Sullivan’s estimation of the total was not far off, see 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 , 2:346.

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