George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 25 September 1778

From Vice Admiral d’Estaing

Boston Road 25th September 1778.


I have received the letter which Your Excellency did me the honor to write the 19th inst. I entreat you to accept all the thanks which I owe you, for the intelligence you have been so kind as to communicate. it perfectly accords with the little which I have received, both in point of the sickness of Byrons Crews, and the precipitation with which immense means of embarkation are preparing at New York—the inference to be drawn from the summer Clothing—is very important—as this is an article of the first necessity, it is difficult to make use of it in the way of a feint—if the fact alluded to can be ascertained, it appears to me that we should be furnished with solid grounds of reasoning—if we could not discover precisely the place, we should at least know the Climate—You have learnt that Admiral Byron and another Ship of his Squadron have arrived at Newport—Admiral Howe was to have sailed on the 16th for Europe in the frigate Maid Stone. it is said that Admiral Gambier has received letters appointing him Commander in chief of the british Naval force in North America—The Register informs us that Admiral Byron is his Senior—from whence we may conclude that the latter is not destined to remain here.1 Lord Howes departure in a single frigate is inconsistent with the return of the british forces to Europe—it would seem then that this event is to be preceded by an Expedition—I entreat you to communicate not only what you shall learn, but likewise what shall appear to you most probable.

My last dispatches from my court are of the 7th July—they are exceedingly satisfactory for the common cause—and the Crisis of England must be this autumn in its last stage—Private letters many of which are credible, and which arrived by the vessel charged with my dispatches, have furnished the written hand-bill which I have the honor of annexing to my letter. I believe that there has been an engagemen<t> between the two fleets—the advantage on our side, without being absolutely decisive, appears to me too much repeated to be supposed false;2 it is certain that the best troops of france were upon the coast of Normandy and Brittany; as for the talents of Marshall de Broglie they are known—and Your Excellency should interest yourself doubly in his Success—for this great General has your portrait in his cabinet.3

Mr de la Radiere Engineer has I believe presented a memorial to General Heath—and the Council of State, relative to the defence of Boston—it would I believe be useful to carry at least a part of his plan into execution—if it should be consistent with your sage dispositions in moving on troops to different stages; to post some Continentals with a view of anticipating the arrival of the British—who have it in their power to debark much nearer Boston than is imagined—it would be very agreeable to me that your choice should fall on the Marquis de la fayette—he laments that he is no longer under your immediate orders—he thinks me somewhat blameable for it—& perhaps I might console him in part, tho’ feebly—Did you give him leave to send his Cartel to Lord Carlisle? I have no doubt but the Commissioner declined his proposal.4

Mr de bougainville in whom I have the greatest confidence in military matters—and my own reflexions persuade me that the hull requires more troops for its defence than I can furnish—especially at present when our Ships refitted will want them not only for the service of their Canon—but likewise for working them—for I should sail immediately if an opportunity offered of acting to advantage at sea—it is my intention therefore in case of the british Squadrons appearing, to ask for fifteen hundred militia men, to man the works and batteries of the hull—this might put it in Mr de Bougainvilles power to form a more respectable Column—for charging with the bayonet, whatever party should advance upon the isthmus which connects the hull and Alderton-point.

Would not the circumstance of an unforeseen Sally on my part, make Your Excellency think it necessary to garrison Boston with Continental Troops? It is certain that I will not put to Sea inconsiderately—and that I shall endeavour in doing it to have the chances in my favour—but naval affairs are so uncertain, and it is so important that the Town of Boston should not fall a victim to them—that I think it incumbent on me to hazard this Reflexion—it certainly has not escaped Your Excellency—for my own part, it appears to me that the Step you have just taken towards us is a fortification. your name alone is become Bulwark.

We are overwhelmed with kindness at Boston—the whole body of the State gives an entertainment to day, to the greatest part of our Officers—I was perhaps wrong at first in not annexing greater pomp to the duties which I had paid—for I think simplicity in forms is most proper for men of business and the military Stile—there was more ceremony in the Acknowlegements which I made two days ago for the Sympathy which was condescendingly shown for the fate of the unhappy Chevalier de St Sauveur—because I wished to prove to the people that we accused nothing but chance—The Result is a Public Dinner where Americans and frenchmen will unite in drinking your health.5 Accept the Assurances of attachment and respect with which I have the honor to be Sir Your Excellencys most obedt & most hble Servt.

Translation, in John Laurens’s writing, DLC:GW; LS, in French, DLC:GW; copy (extract), in French, FrPBN. The extract consists of the last three paragraphs of the LS.

1Lord Richard Howe, who had been commander in chief of the British navy in North America since 1776, resigned his command to Rear Adm. James Gambier at New York on 11 September. Howe sailed to England in his flagship, the 64-gun Eagle, not the 28-gun Maidstone, leaving New York on 22 Sept. and stopping briefly at Newport, R.I., on 25–26 Sept. to confer with Vice Adm. John Byron before proceeding to England (see Laughton, “Journals of Henry Duncan,” description begins John Knox Laughton, ed. “Journals of Henry Duncan, Captain, Royal Navy, 1776–1782.” The Naval Miscellany 1 (London, 1902): 105–219. In Publications of the Navy Records Society, vol. 20. description ends 164; see also 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 , 221, and 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 , 2:398). Byron had arrived at Newport on 18 Sept. in the Princess Royal accompanied by the Culloden, and he remained there until 28 Sept., when he sailed for New York (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 , 2:396, 398–99; see also Whinyates, Services of Francis Downman description begins F. A. Whinyates, ed. The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman, R.A., in France, North America, and the West Indies, between the Years 1758 and 1784. Woolwich, England, 1898. description ends , 83). For the command arrangement between Byron and Gambier, see William Maxwell to GW, 20 Sept., and note 2 to that document.

2The enclosed undated document, which is handwritten in French, includes a brief and rather vague account of the Battle of Ushant on 27 July. No contemporary English translation of this document has been identified. A translation of a handbill printed in Brest, France, on 29 July 1778, which gives a fuller account of the Battle of Ushant, was published in the supplement to the Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal of 28 September.

3Victor-François, duc de Broglie (1718–1804), who was something of an innovator in military tactics and organization, had become a marshal of France during the Seven Years War, and in 1771 he was appointed governor of the Province of the Three Bishoprics. During the French participation in the American Revolution, Broglie commanded an army that was assembled in Normandy to oppose the British, and in 1789 he served briefly as the French minister of war.

4For Lafayette’s proposed duel with Lord Carlisle, see Lafayette to GW, 24 Sept., and notes 3 and 5 to that document.

5The account of these festivities that appeared in the supplement to the Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal for 28 Sept. says that on the morning of 22 Sept., d’Estaing and his officers “made a public Entry” into Boston, being “saluted by the Castle [William], the Ships and Forts in the Harbour as he pass’d. Upon landing a Committee from the General Court received his Excellency and Suit and conducted them to the Council-Chamber, where they received the Compliments and Congratulations of the Gentlemen of the Council and House of Assembly. After which his Excellency and Suit in Company with the Gentlemen of the Council breakfasted with Gen. Hancock at his Seat. The procession was elegant and a universal Joy and Satisfaction was visible in the Countenances of all present upon this happy auspicious Occasion. The Council made an Invitation to the Count and his Officers to dine in Public on Friday [25 Sept.], which was politely accepted; and accordingly on that Day there was an elegant entertainment provided at Faneuil Hall, at which were upwards of 500 Guests; when many loyal and patriotic Toasts were drank, under the Discharge of Cannon” (see also the Continental Journal, and Weekly Advertiser [Boston], 24 Sept., 1 Oct.). On 26 Sept. d’Estaing, Lafayette, and several other officers and gentlemen dined with Major General Heath (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 208).

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