George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Lafayette, 25–26 August 1778

From Major General Lafayette

Camp before Newport [R.I.]
25[–26] august 1778

My dear general

I had expected for answering to your first letter that Some thing interesting would have happened that I might Communicate to your Excellency—every day was going to terminate our uncertainties—nay, every day was going to bring the hope of a succés which I did promise myself to acquaint you off—such was the Reason of my differing1 what my duty and inclination did urge me to do much sooner—I am now indebted for two favors of yours which I beg leave to offer here my thanks for2—the first letter Reach’d me in the time we expected to hear again from the french fleet—the second I have just Receiv’d—my Reason for not writing the same day the french fleet went to boston, was that I did not choose to trouble your friendship with the sentiments of an afflicted, injur’d heart, and injur’d by that very people I came from so far to love and support. do’nt be Surpris’d, my dear general, the generosity of your honest mind would be offended at the schoking light I have under my eyes.

So far I am from a critical disposition that I will not give you the journal of our operations, neither of several instances during our staying here which however might occupy some room in this letter—I will not even say to you how contract’d was the french fleet when they wanted to come in at theyr arrival which according to the rapport of the desertors would have had the greatest effect, how surpris’d was the admiral—when after a made and agreed Convention, one hour after the American general had given a new writen assurance, our troops made the landing a day before it was expected—how mortified the french officers were to find out that there was not a gun left in these very forts to whose protection they were recommanded—all those things and many others I would not take notice of, if they were not in this moment the suppos’d ground upon which it is said that the count d’estaing is gone on to boston—believe me, my dear sir, upon my honor—the admiral tho’ a little astonish’d by some instances of Conduct on our part, did Consider them in the same light as you and myself would have done, and if he is gone off it is because he thought himself oblig’d by necessity.

let us consider, my dear general, the motions of that fleet since it was propos’d by the count d’estaing himself and granted by the king in behalf of the united states—I wo’nt go so far up as to rembember other instances of the affection the french nation have for the Americans—the news of that fleet has occasion’d the evacuation of philadelphia—its arrival has oppened all the harbours, secur’d all the coasts, oblig’d the british Navy to be together—six of those frigattes, two of them I have seen sufficient for terrifying all the trading people of the two Carolinas, are or taken or burnt-the Count d’estaing went to offer the battle and be a check to the british Navy for a long time at new york—it was agreed he schould go to Rhode island an[d] there he went—they prevented him from going in at first—afterwards he was desired to come in, and so he did—The same day we land’d without his knowledge, an english fleet appears in sight— his being divided in three parts by our directions for tho’ he is a lieutenant general he never avail’d himself of that title—did make him uneasy about his situation—but finding the next morning that the wind was northerly, being also convinc’d that it was his duty to prevent any Reinforcement At newport, he goes out under the hottest fire of the british land batteries, he puts the british Navy to flight, pursues them, and they were all in his hands when that horrid storm arrives to Ruin all our hopes—both fleets are divided, scattered—the Cæsar a 74 guns schip is lost—the Marseïllois of the same size looses her masts, and after that accident is oblig’d to send back a ennemy’s schip of 64—the languedoc having lost her masts, unable to be govern’d, and make any motions, separated from the others, is attaqu’d by a schip of the line against which sche could only bring six guns.

when the storm was over, they met again in a schattered Condition, and the Cæsar was not to be found—all the Captains Represented to theyr general that after a so long navigation—in such a want of victuals, water, &c. which they had not been yet supplied with—after the intelligences given by General Sullivan that there was a british fleet coming they schould go to boston—but the count d’estaing had promis’d to come here again, and so he did at all events—the news of his arrival and situation came by the Senegal a frigatte taken from the ennemy—general greene and myself went on board—the count express’d to me not so much as to the envoy from general Sullivan, than as to his friend, the unhappy circumstances he was in—bound by express orders from the king to go to boston in case of an Accident or a superior fleet, engag’d by the common sentiment of all the officers Even of some American pilots that he would ruin all his Squadron in differing his going to boston, he call’d a new council of war, and finding every body of the same opinion, he did not think himself justifiable in staying here any more, and took leave of me with that true affliction of not being able to assist America for some days, which has been Rewarded with the most horrid ungratefulness—but no matter—I am only speacking of facts—the count said to me these last words—after many months of sufferings, my men may rest some days, I will mann my schips, and if I am assisted in getting masts &c. three weeks after my arrival, I schall go out again, and then we schall fight for the glory of the french name and the interests of America.

the day the Count went off the general american officers draw a protestation, which as I had been very strangely call’d there, I Refus’d to sign, but I wrote a letter to the admiral—the protestation and the letter did not arrive at time.3

Now, my dear general, I am going to hurt your generous feelings by an imperfect picture of what I am forc’d to see—forgive me for it—it is not to the Commander in chief, it is to my most dearest friend General Washington that I am speacking—I want to lament with him the ungenerous sentiments I have been forc’d to see in Many American breasts.

Could you believe that forgetting any national obligation, forgetting what they were owing to that same fleet, what they were yet to expect from them, and instead of Resenting theyrs accidents as these of allies and brothers, the people turn’d mad at theyr departure, and wishing them all the evils in the world did treat them as a generous one would be asham’d to treat the most inveterate ennemys—you ca’nt have any idea of the horrors which were to be heard in that occasion—many leaders themselves finding they were disapointed abandonn’d theyr minds to illiberality, and ungratefulness—frenchmen of the highest characters have been expos’d to the most disagreable Circumstances, and me, yes, myself the friend of America, the friend of General Washington, I am more upon a warlike footing in the American lines, than when I come near the british lines at newport—nay, many worthy characters, gentlemen to be entirely depended upon, assure me that the french hospital was abandonn’d as soon as the fleet went off, and that they could not find any body who would give them what they wanted—however they have been now sent to boston, and by a french man who met them I am inclin’d to think they will be very unhappy all the Rout.

Such is, my dear general, the true state of matters—I am sure it will infinetlly displease and hurt your feelings—I am also sure you will approuve the part I have taken in it, which was to stay much at home with all the french gentlemen who are here, and declare in the same time that anything thrown before me against my nation I would take as the most particular affront.

inclos’d I send you the general orders of the 24th upon which I thaught I was oblig’d to pay a visit to general Sullivan who has agreed to alter them in the following manner4—Remember, My dear general, that I do’nt speack to the Commander in chief, but to my friend, that I am far from Complaining of any body—I have no Complaints at all to make you against any one—but I lament with you that I have had a occasion of seeing so ungenerous sentiments in American hearts.

I will tell you the true Reason—the leaders of the expedition are most of them asham’d to Return after having spoken of theyr Rhode island succés in proud terms, before theyr family, theyr friends, theyr internal ennemies—The others Regardless of the expense france has been brought in by that fleet, of the tedious, tiresome voyage so many men have had for theyr service, tho’ theyr Angry that the fleet takes three weeks upon the whole Campaign to Refitt themselves, Can not bear the idea of being brought to a small expense, to the loss of a little time, to the fatigue of staying some few days more in a camp, at some few miles from theyr houses—for I am very far to look upon the Expedition as miscarried, and there I see even a Certainty of succés.

if as soon as the fleet will be Repair’d which (in case they are treated as one is in a country one is not in war with) schall be done in three weeks from this time, the count d’estaing was to come arround, the expedition seems to offer a very good prospect—if the ennemy evacuates New york, we have the whole Continental army—if not we might perhaps have some more men, what however I ca’nt pretend to judge—all What I know is that I will be very happy to see the fleet Cooperating with general washington himself.

I think I will be forc’d by the board of general officers to go soon to boston—that I will do as soon as Requir’d tho’ with Reluctance for I do’nt believe that our position on this part of the island is without danger—but my principle is to do every thing which is thaught good for the service—I very often have Rode express to the fleet, to the frigattes, and that I assure you with the greatest pleasure—on the other hand I may perhaps be useful to the fleet—perhaps too it will be in the power of the count to do something which might satisfy them—I wish, my dear general, you would know as well as myself how desirous is the Count d’estaing to forward the public good, to help to your Succés, and to serve the Cause of America!

I instantly beg you would Reccommend to the several chief persons of boston to do any thing they Can to put the french fleet in situation of sailing soon—give me leave to add that I wish many people by the declaration of your sentiments in that affair, could learn how to Regulate theyrs and blush at the sight of your generosity.

You will find my letter immense—I begun it one day and did finish the next as my time was swallow’d up, by those eternal Councils of war—I schall have the pleasure of writing you from boston—I am affraid the count d’estaing will have felt to the quick the behaviour of the people on this occasion—you Ca’nt Conceive how distress’d he was to be prevented from serving this country for some time—I do assure you his circumstances were very narrow and distressing.

for my part my sentiments are known to the world—my tender affection for general washington has yet added to them—therefore I do’nt want apologies for writing what has afflicted me as an american, and as a frenchman together.

I am much oblig’d to you for the Care you are so kind as to take of that poor horse of mine—had he not find such a good stable as this of head quarters he would have cut a pitiful figure at the end of his travels, and I would have been very happy if there had Remain’d so much of the horse as the bones, the skin, and the four schoes.

farewell, my dear general; when ever I quit you I meet with some disappointement and misfortune—I did not want it to desire seeing you as much as possible—with the most tender affection, and high Regard I have the honor to be your Excellency’s the most obedient humble Servant

the Mis de lafayette

dear general

I must add to my letter that I have Receiv’d one from general greene very different from the expressions I have Right to complain of, and that he seems there very sensible of what I feel5—I am very happy when in situation of doing justice to any body.


1When Lafayette wrote “differing” here and later in this letter, he meant “deferring.”

2Lafayette is apparently referring to GW’s letters of 10 and 19 August.

3For the American officers’ protest to Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 22 Aug., see John Sullivan to GW, 23 Aug., n.2.. Lafayette’s letter to d’Estaing of that date expressed his disapproval of the protest and sympathy for the admiral (see Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 2:139).

4The enclosed extract from Sullivan’s general orders reads: “The General cannot help lamenting the sudden & unexpected departure of the French Fleet as he finds it has a tendency to discourage some who place great dependance upon the Assistance of it—tho he can by no means suppose the Army or any part of it in the least endangered by this Movement—the Enemy now on the Island are far inferior to this Army in Numbers and are so sensible of their inferiority that nothing can tempt them to an Action This Superiority we shall maintain so long as the Spirit and Ardour of Americans continue to be the same as it was at the Commencement of the Enterprize unless the Enemy recieve a strong Reeenforcement—this is the only Event which can oblige us to abandon any part of the Island we are now possessed of and this Event cant take place in an Instant—A Considerable Time will be required for a Fleet to come into the Harbour, come to an Anchor & land a Body of Troops sufficient to make the Number of the Enemy equal to ours, the Genl Assures the Army he has taken into Consideration Every event that can possibly happen to it & has guard[ed] in such a manner that in case of the most disagreeable Event (Viz.) that of a Retreat should take place it can be done with the utmost Safety, he is fully sensible of the Value those brave Officers Soldiers & Citizins he has the Honour to Command are to America and is determined that no rash Steps shall make a Sacrifice of them—at the same time he wishes them to place a proper Confidence in him as their Comr in Chief whose Business it is to attend to their Safety—he yet hopes the Event will ⟨pr⟩ove America able to procure that by our own Arms which her Allies refuse to assist in Obtaining—” (DLC:GW).

The alteration was given in Sullivan’s general orders of 26 Aug., which announced that Sullivan had “the strongest reason to expect before any reinforcet arrives to oblige us to quit our present position that the French Fleet will return to cooperate with us in the reduction of the Island” and added, “It having been supposed by some persons that by the Orders of the 24th Inst. the Coma: in Chief meant to insinuate that the Departure of the French Fleet was owing to fixed determination not to assist in the present Enterprize—As the Genl would not wish to give the least Colour to ungenerous & illiberal Minds to make such unfair Interpretatio[ns] he thinks it necessary to say that as he could not possibly be acquainted with the Orders of the French Admiral he could not determine whether the removal of the Fleet was absolutely necessary or not & therefore did not mean to censure an Act which the Admirals Orders might render absolutely necessary: he however hopes that the speedy return of the Fleet will shew their attention & Regard to the Alliance form’d between us, and add to the Obligations which the Americans are already under to the French Nation.

“However mortifying the departure of the French Fleet to us at such time of Expectation we ought not too suddenly to censure the Movement or for an Act of any kind to forget the Aid & protection which has been afforded us by the French since the commencement of the present Contest” (DLC:GW).

5This letter has not been identified.

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