George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 8 September 1778

From Vice Admiral d’Estaing

[Boston Road] The 8th Septem. 1778.


The Letter which Colo. Laurens was pleased to take charge of for Your Excellency contains the expression of my acknowledgements for the Letter which M. De Choin announced to me, and which was delivered to me the evening of the same day.1 I hastened to give an anticipated answer to it, for we are generally eager to speak, what we sensibly feel—The Extract of Major Howels Journal, by coming to me duplicate, has but too well confirmed the report made by three of my ships, of the Arrival of Admiral Byrons Squadron.

This Deposition and the certainty of Genl Sullivans Army being reduced to Six thousand men including a Majority of Militia—by the departure of three thousand while I was employed in pursuing Lord Howe—will doubtless appear to you the principal reasons for a conduct, the melancholy motives of which I have already amply explained.

It was impossible to disarm Vessels while it was required of them to repulse or attack General Howes Squadron—It was still less so when it was reinforced by the arrival of Byrons fleet, and the enemys naval force acquired by that event, so considerable a degree of Superiority—It was not less difficult to persuade oneself that Six thousand men well intrenched—and with a fort before which trenches had been opened—could be carried in four and twenty hours or in two days—the bravery with which your troops effected a retreat, the Victory which they gained over superior numbers in the open field—have acquired them new Glory—the merit of the matter is established, by taking the number of men for granted2—Your Excellency is doubtless instructed as to this point: you have the means of judging of the possibilities and estimating whether the military calculations have been grounded on false principles—their object ought to be, not to sacrifice the Kings Squadron but when it can be attended with evident utility to Allies who are so dear to him.

You have just proved Sir, that this is your way of thinking—in sending me a detail of the naval reinforcement which has been discovered at New York.

Upon the kind and number of Ships—their condition—their compact or detached State—the insight which may be gained of their designs—will depend our offensive or defensive plans—it appears to me therefore that good Spies must be the basis of all—permit me incessantly to repeat my sollicitations, and offers of money to gain this important end.

The Uncertainty in which we are respecting the measures of the British—after the atrocious destruction of Bedford3—makes me doubt whether this Letter will reach you soon—Lt Colonel Fleury who is so kind as to take charge of it, will perhaps be detained by the hopes of giving new proofs of his zeal courage and talents—To fight the enemy is the only circumstance, that can retard in this excellent officer what all those who serve under Your Excellency call their happiness—I mean the returning to increase the number of your Soldiers and admirers—M. de fleury, is if it can be possible, more penetrated with this Sentiment than any one—and I love him the more for it—It is General Sullivans part to inform you and testify all that I am told he did while he was second to Col. Laurens.4 The accounts given me, made me form the project, when I thought of recommencing the Young Man, & the Colonel, of emulating these Gentlemen, or rather of following their example. Permit me particularly to recommend to your kindness Mr de fleury; he is a useful frenchmen—and when occasion offers I should be very happy to serve with him—and he is calculated for establishing that union between individuals which subsists between our Nations. I have the honor to be &c.

Translation, in John Laurens’s writing, DLC:GW; LS (in French), DLC:GW; Df (in French), FrPNA: Marine, B4, I46; copy (in French), FrPNA: Marine, B4, I46; copy (extract, in French), FrPBN. The extract commences with the reference to Howell’s journal and ends with the text translated as “You have just proved Sir, that this is your way of thinking.”

2The preceding fifteen words are a translation of the French “C’est en faire sentir tout Le prix, que de convenir du veritable nombre des soldats.”

3D’Estaing was referring to a raid of New Bedford and Fairhaven, Mass., by British troops led by Gen. Charles Grey on 5 and 6 September. Grey’s account of the action, “Published by Authority” in the Royal Gazette (New York), 12 Sept., says that on the evening of 5 Sept. he “arrived off Dartmouth river in Buzzard’s-Bay. The troops were landed immediately, and proceeded to the town of Bedford, where they destroyed several vessels, and many rich stores, without opposition. They then proceeded to the mills above the town, where they burnt a considerable number of vessels; and having crossed the river, demolished all the stores at Fair-Haven; the Rebels having abandoned their Fort near this last town, a party was detached to it, who destroyed eleven pieces of cannon, and blew up the magazine. The troops then proceeded to Sconticut Neck, where they were re-imbarked by 12 o’clock on the 6th, having had only six men wounded by some random shots which were fired by a few stragglers at a great distance. Above seventy sail of vessels, among which were some privateers, were destroyed in this expedition” (see also Grey to Clinton, 6 Sept., and Grey to Clinton, 18 Sept., with a return of vessels and stores destroyed, P.R.O., Colonial Office, 5/96, Military Correspondence of the British Generals; André, Journal, 88–90, 94–96; Gruber, Peebles’ American War description begins Ira D. Gruber, ed. John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776–1782. Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1998. description ends , 215–16). The perspective of the American defenders is given in a letter published in the Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser (Boston), 14 Sept., from an officer of Col. Thomas Crafts’s regiment stationed at Bedford. News of the fleet’s arrival reached him at 3 p.m. on 5 September. “The fleet consisting of 47 sail, anchored in the harbour, landed their troops, who were advancing upon me with the greatest rapidity.” The officer, “having but fifteen men,” could only retreat, with losses among those who attempted to bring off baggage and provisions and keep watch on the enemy’s movements. Another account in the Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 14 Sept., reported that “by sunset all the warehouses, and many dwelling-houses there, were in flames, and the rest plundered. About one half of the whole, with their contents, is burnt, together with all the shipping in the harbour, except a few vessels at some distance up. … they then marched by moon light, up to the head of the river, about four miles; and thence down on the east side, to Fair-Haven … plundering the houses, and burning many of them as they went.” A briefer report, widely reprinted, appeared in the Continental Journal, and Weekly Advertiser (Boston), 10 September.

4D’Estaing was referring to Fleury’s part in the engagement of 29 Aug. at Rhode Island.

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