George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General John Sullivan, 23 August 1778

From Major General John Sullivan

Camp before Newport [R.I.] Augt 23d 1778

My Dear General

The Fates have Decreed that you Shall receive nothing but Disagreable Intelligence from this Quarter. Major General Green & the Marquis Returned the night before Last from the French Admiral. my Letter their Intreaties & General Greens written Remonstrance Drawn up on Board the Languedoc have only produced the Letter which I Inclose.1 it Seems That the Captains of the French Fleet are So Incensed at the Count Destaings being put over them he being but a Land officer that they are Determined to prevent his Doing any thing that may Redound to his Credit or our advantage—The Count himself wished to Come in but his Captains were to a man for Leaving us I then Drew up a Letter in behalf of all the officers of the Army & Sent on Board but he Though the wind was not fair for Boston put off to Sea night before Last this Letter was followed by the Inclosed protest both of which I have ordered after him in a Fast Sailing Privatier2—I am however well perswaded that nothing will alter the Determination of the Captains & that he will follow their Councill though he knows they wish his Ruin. This Sudden & unexampled proceedure Renders my Situation Exeeding Delicate The Enemy have twice attempted to Relieve the place by Reinforcements the Last Fleet had 4000 Troops on Board Should they make another attempt They must Succeed They will then have Near Ten thousand Troops on the Island & the Command of the water on Every Side of us as we have been oblidged to Dismantle our Forts at Bristol & Tivertown to forward our opperations against the Town I Inclose your Excy Copy of the Questions proposed by me to the General officers & Commandants of Brigades this Day3—I also Inclose your Exccellencey Copy of the protest Sent after the Count D Estaing. As my Situation at present can promise nothing to advantage Except from a Sudden Attack I wish the opinions of the officers may Justify me in making this Last Effort. I have the Honor to be my Dear General yours most affectionately

Jno. Sullivan

I offered the Count in My Letter to make the Attack The moment he would Land his Troops & put them in the Boats I had prepared for them General Green & the Marquiss assured him that we would not request the Stay of his Fleet & Troops more than 48 Hours But nothing could Induce him to assist us with Either a Single moment.


ALS, DLC:GW; copy, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169. The copy in PCC, item 152, was enclosed with GW’s official letter to Henry Laurens of 25 August.

1The LS (in French) of Vice Admiral d’Estaing’s letter to Sullivan of 21 Aug. is in DLC:GW. A translation is in DNA:PCC, item 152, with the copy that GW sent with his letter to Laurens of 25 August. D’Estaing, who initially wrote to inform Sullivan of his intent to go to Boston, opened his letter to add a long postscript acknowledging Sullivan’s letter of 20 Aug. (not identified) but refusing to alter his decision. “Admiral Howe,” he explained, “came to attack us when he thought us divided and in a position which he knew was disadvantageous and which rendered us weaker than him,” and if the weakened French fleet again entered the harbor, Howe might again appear to engage them. News of the arrival of Admiral John Byron’s fleet reinforced d’Estaing’s decision: “The express orders I have from the King direct me in case of a superior force to retire to Boston.”

An ALS copy of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s letter to d’Estaing of 21 Aug. is also in DLC:GW. It may have been enclosed by Greene in his letter to GW of 22 Aug. (not found). Greene urged: “The expedition against Rhode Island was undertaken upon no other consideration than that of the French fleet & Troops acting in conjunction with the American Troops.

“There has been a great expence and much distress brought upon the Country in calling the Militia together at this busy season of the Year. A force nearly sufficient for the reduction of the place is now collected and all the necessary aparatus provided for subdueing the Garrison. If the expedition fails for want of the countenance of the Fleet and the Troops on Board. It will produce great discontent and murmuring among the People.”

Acknowledging the damage done to the French fleet, Greene observed “that it is the general opinion of those best acquainted with the Coast, that the Fleet runs a much greater risque in attempting to go round to Boston, in the present shatterd state they are in, than they possibly can by staying here.” Pointing out that a failure of this first effort at cooperation would “produce a disagreeable impression respecting the Alliance; and leave a door open for our Internal enemies as well as the common enemy to annimadvert upon the conduct of our allies in leaveing us at such a critical period,” Greene promised “every assistance in repairing your Fleet, you can wish or desire, as far as the resources of the Country will admit,” and gave his opinion “that with the Assistance of the Fleet & French forces, we can get possession of Newport in two Days.”

2There are three copies of the protest of Sullivan’s general officers, 22 Aug., in DLC:GW. One was sent by d’Estaing with his letter to GW of 5 Sept.; a second was made by GW’s assistant secretary James McHenry; the third was probably this enclosure. The officers, who protested against d’Estaing’s decision “as derogatory to the Honor of France, contrary to the Intentions of his Most Christian Majesty & the Interest of his Nation & destructive in the highest Degree to the Welfare of the United States of America & highly injurious to the Alliance formed between the two Nations,” gave nine reasons for the protest. “1st Because the Expedition against Rhode Island was undertaken by Agreement with the Count De-Estaing. An Army has been collected & immense Stores brought together for the Reduction of the Garrison all of which be liable to be lost should he depart with his Fleet leave open the Harbour to receive Reinforcements from New York & Ships of War to cut off the Communication with the Main & totally prevent the Retreat of the Army.

“2dly Because the Proceeding of the Fleet to Boston can answer no valuable Purpose as the Injury it has received can be repaired much sooner here than at Boston & the Vessels secured against a superior Naval Force much better here than there.

“3dly Because there is the most apparent Hazard in attempting to carry round Nantucket Shoals those Ships which are disabled & will in all Probability end in the total Loss of two of his most Christian Majesty’s Ships of War.

“4thly Because the Taking of dismasted Ships out of Port to carry them to another Port to receive their Masts instead of having their Masts brought to them is unwarranted by Precedent & unsupported by Reason.

“5thly Because the Honor of the French Nation must be injured by their Fleet abandoning their Allies upon an Island in the Midst of an Expedition agreed to by the Count himself. This must make such unfavorable Impressions on the Minds of Americans at large & create such Jealousies between them and their hitherto esteemed Allies as will in great measure frustrate the good Intentions of his most Christian Majesty & the American Congress who have mutually endeavoured to promote the greatest harmony & Confidence between the French People and the Americans.

“6thly Because the Apprehension of Admiral Byron’s being upon the Coast with a superior Fleet is not well founded as it wholly arises from the Report of a Master of a British Merchantman who says he was told by the Greyhound Frigate that Admiral Byron was spoke with on the 24th of June off the Western Islands & Accounts from England up to the 24th of June mention Nothing of his having sailed & more than eight Weeks having elapsed since this Fleet was said to be near the Western Islands & no Account having been had of their Arrival in any Part of America it is evident that this Relation must be false. As to the Captains of two of the French Ships supposing that they had discovered a three Decker it is possible that in the thick Weather they may have been deceived but even if they are not it is by no Means evident that this Ship belonged to Byron’s Fleet & even if it did it only proves that his Fleet has been seperated & must rendezvouz in some Place before they can act of which the French Fleet cannot fail to have timely Notice & before it is probable they can act the Garrison may be easily reduced.

“7thly Even if a superior Fleet should arrive the French Fleet can be in no greater Safety at Boston than Rhode Island: It can as easily be blocked up in the former as the latter Place & can be much easier defended in the latter than the former.

“8thly The Order said to be received from the King of France for his Fleet to retire to Boston in Case of Misfortune cannot without doing Injustice to that wise & good Monarch be supposed to extend to the Removal of his whole Fleet in the Midst of an Expedition on Account of an Injury having happened to two or three of his Ships.

“9thly Because even though the Facts pretended were fully proved & it became necessary for the Fleet to proceed to Boston yet no possible reason can be assigned for the Count De-Estaings taking with him the Land Forces which he has on board & which might be of great Advantage in the Expedition & of no possible Use to him in Boston.”

3Sullivan’s communication to the officers, dated 23 Aug., reads: “The Count De Estang having abandoned us, in the Present Enterprize, And opened the Harbour for the Reception of Reinforsements from New York, It becomes my part, to inform the General Officers, And Officers commanding Brigades of my present force, And that of the Enemy, As Nearly as can be collected, And at the same time to request Their Oppinion upon Several Questions, The Number of Our army amounts to Eight Thousd one hundred & 74 Rank & file Exclusive of Eight Hundred Artillery men, The whole exceedingly well Officer’d, And a Reinforsement of three thousand men will probably be here in a few days—The Number of the Enemy from the best Calculation amounts to about Six thousand Including Artillery men, Sea men &c. In Our present Situation, One of three things only can remain to be done, Vizt To Continue the Seige by Regular Approaches, And Hazard the Arrival of a Reinforsement—To make an emmeadiate attack on their Lines, Or to Retreat from the Island, with the Stores &c. which have been collected—Your Oppinion upon which of these three is most advisiable in our present Situation is Requested, Should you be for continuing the Siege you will mention your Oppinion Respecting the Securing a Retreat, in case a British Fleet should arrive with a Reinforsement—Should you be of oppinion that an Attack Should be made, You will please to point out the manner in which you would wish it to be carried into Execution—Should your Oppinion be in favour of a Retreat you will please to Signify whether you think it Should take place immeadiately And your Reasons for its taking place at all—Your Oppinion in writing upon these Questions, is expected without Loss of Time” (DLC:GW). For the officers’ replies, see 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: 248–63.

Index Entries