George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 5 September 1778

From Vice Admiral d’Estaing

[Boston] 5th September 1778.


I have the honor of transmitting to Your Excellency a copy of the account which I have rendered Congress, in my letter to His Excellency Mr henry Laurens.1

Men who like you found and support empires, have the same privileges as those who govern them—the admiration and confidence which you inspire—ensures them to you—and it is a homage which my heart pays you with eagerness—I annex to this packet a copy of the Protest and my letter to Genl Sullivan in consequence of it—I hope you will find in the latter a proof of my being devoted to the common cause, and the union of the two nations.2 it is but too common for those who exercise an art, which is not known by every body—and such as Naval War, to be judged with a degree of prejudice—especially when such prejudice is supported by the interested opinion of some individuals, who tho good pilots and worthy men in other respects have no idea of what a squadron is—however successfully they may have acquitted themselves in conducting small barks—it likewise no uncommon thing to give way to ones passion—Every man is not a Washington, nor like him a Fabius during a Campaign—to reassume the character of Cæsar or Alexander at Monmouth and in every engagement. it was for a great Statesman such as Mr Hancock good policy which dictates reason and never injuries, to put so respectable a name as his to the protest, because as a General Officer he could not dispense with following the example of him who commanded—and because tho he subscribed the words “hitherto esteemed” he certainly suppressed many others—his conduct in rendering us the greatest services, the valuable and flattering present which he has been so kind as to make me—in your portrait—are marks of his sentiments which he entertains for us. You will pardon me for having a good opinion of my own way of thinking, when it coincides with Your Excellencys—this has been the case Sir, for at the very time that you recommended in a letter, to suppress the [ ]3 which often arise from ill-success. I offered and was ready at the head of a Regiment to go and serve under Genl Sullivan, as I formerly did under Marshal Saxe, in the war which finished in 48. I would not take this step at present under the idea of reinforcing an army, with such a handful of men—or Of proving what is already known—viz.—that the french Nation can sacrifice life with a good grace. but I was anxious to demonstrate that my nation could not have been offended by a vivacity—and that he who had the honor of commanding it in America was & would be all his life, one of the most affectionate and zealous Servants of the United States.

I have this moment received a letter from Mr de chouin, of the 2d inst: which confirms the arrival of Admiral Byrons Squadron4—the point now is to divine the projects which their naval superiority may probably give rise to.

I am endeavouring with the permission of council, to render the batteries which defend Nantasket Road, as respectable as possible—if I should withdraw to Kings Road, I might be blocked up there, and the possession of the islands without, would give the enemy considerable advantages over me5—As I have not the assistance of any American Troops in guarding the islands and peninsulas, they are but illy defended—if the enemy are enterprising they may force me by sea—and then the Ships with which they attack me, and my own may remain there—if they disembark on the continent, doubtless their superior numbers will make them masters of the adjacent posts, which are but feebly occupied—by me—the loss of the Squadron would easily follow, it might be burned without difficulty or danger—and Boston would certainly be much exposed—It appears to me that this Metropolis may be menaced, and ought to be well defended—I will do whatever lies in my power in the Road—but if the coast is left defenceless, I shall be driven from the Road, or my Vessels will be burnt by the enemys possessing themselves of the peninsulas. Perhaps the English may design to winter in our Southern Colonies—Masts arrived yesterday from Portsmouth, they must be made—provisions and water must be procured, before we think of sacrificing ourselves and going to defend them—if any point of the territory of the United States is attacked, I shall act in the same manner on the first requisition made by Your Excellency—because in the eyes of the King, there exists no difference between what belongs to him and what is the property of his allies.

In order to counteract the enemy’s projects, it is essential to penetrate them without loss of time—it is impossible to employ money more usefully than on this object—and I would readily engage for the Kings Share of the expence of Spies—6 in order to act is essential to have intelligence. I have the honor to be &ca.

Translation, in John Laurens’s writing, DLC:GW; LS, in French, DLC:GW.

1Both an LS copy, in French, and a translation by John Laurens of d’Estaing’s letter to Henry Laurens of 26 Aug. are in DLC:GW (see also Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:222–33). D’Estaing summarized events since his arrival in July, giving greatest attention to justifying his course of action during the Newport siege.

2A copy of the protest of 22 Aug., signed by d’Estaing as “bon pour copie conforme a l’originale,” is in DLC:GW. The text of d’Estaing’s copy has minor variations from the copy sent to GW by Maj. Gen. John Sullivan (see Sullivan to GW, 23 Aug., n.2), most notably an underline of the phrase “hitherto Esteem’d Allies.” A copy (in French) of d’Estaing’s letter to Sullivan, dated 29 Aug., was marked by d’Estaing, “bon pour copie.” D’Estaing probably also enclosed John Laurens’s translation of that letter (both DLC:GW). Laurens had summarized the text in his letter to GW of 2 September.

3Here Laurens did not render the French word, “propos,” which evidently had reference to the protest of 22 August. GW’s recommendation on the subject was sent in his first letter to Sullivan of 1 September.

4The marquis de Choin’s letter to d’Estaing of 2 Sept. enclosed another copy of the Howell journal that GW had sent to d’Estaing earlier that day. In a postscript, Choin added that deserters just arrived from New York confirmed the information (FrPNA: Marine, B4, I44).

5A committee from the Massachusetts council had a “private conference” with d’Estaing about military affairs on 30 Aug., and on 1 Sept. the council granted him permission “to Land Such and so many of your Troops as you may judge Expedient … on Hull Long Island or Such other Points or Islands as you may think best Situated for the defence of your Squadron.” By 3 Sept., d’Estaing had “erected very formidable works on George’s Island, in which … he has mounted near 100 cannon, of heavy mettal, which he took from his fleet” (William Heath to d’Estaing, 1 Sept., MHi: Heath Papers; Continental Journal, and Weekly Advertiser [Boston], 3 Sept.). King Road was the channel north of Spectacle Island within Boston Harbor.

6At this point in the translation, Laurens did not render text that appears in the French LS. It reads: “on Repousse quelque fois par L’offensive, et attaquer, est souvent la meilleure facon de Se deffendre; mais” (sometimes one repels by the offensive, and attacking is often the best way to defend oneself; but).

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