George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Stirling, 19 October 1778

From Major General Stirling

Perth Amboy [N.J.] October 19th 1778 4 oClo’ p.m.

Dear Sir

In order the better to Satisfy my self with regard to the Strenght and number of the Enemy’s fleet I came here about an hour ago, I find from a very Intelligent person formerly <a> Captain <of> a merchant Ship, that the Number of Ships at the Hook this morning was about 130.1 fifteen of their Capital Ships 10 or 12 frigates, they began to Weigh Anchor about nine oClock this morning. when I came here I could Descry 2 their Rear Standing S.E. with a light Breese from the S.W. they are now out of our Sight the wind is now Comeing in from S.E. and I suspect they will return this Evening to their late Station. there is now another fleet on their Way from the Narrow’s to the Hook, about 20 Sail of them are now open to our Veiw and more Comeing down, with these and what remained this Morng at Anchor there are four which appear to be about 50 Gun Ships two or three frigates & the rest transports, I have fixed a proper person here who will report daily to me, and shall send an Officer of horse also as <a> Check. I enclose to your Excellency what other Intelligence I have received since the Night before last when I wrote you.3 But I can not say any of them from New York is so Satisfactory as the Intelligence from Capt. Clun—which I sent your Excellency.4 I will not detain the Messenger a Moment longer as I conceive the Knowledge of this Movement of the Enemy’s fleet must be very important to the Count de Estaing—I am your Excellencys Most Obt Humble Servant


ALS, DLC:GW; ALS (duplicate), enclosed in Stirling to GW, 20 Oct. 1778, DLC:GW; copy, in Stirling’s writing and signed by him, enclosed in Stirling to Henry Laurens, 20 Oct., DNA:PCC, item 162; two copies (extracts), one of which was enclosed in GW to d’Estaing, 21 Oct., FrPNA, Fonds de la Marine, ser. 4, vol. 146, f. 295, 356; copy (extract), DLC:GW. GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman docketed the ALS in part: “not ansd.” The words within angle brackets are taken from the texts of the duplicate ALS and the copy in DNA:PCC, item 162.

Each of the extracts in FrPNA and DLC:GW consists of the part of Stirling’s letter that concerns British ship movements on this date, followed by a brief excerpt from Sgt. Nathaniel Brown’s spy report of 20 Oct. concerning the sailing of fifteen British warships and several transports from Sandy Hook and the embarking of troops at New York. For the full text of Brown’s report, see note 1 to Charles Scott’s letter to GW of 21 Oct., in which letter the report was enclosed.

1The word “about” is omitted from the text of the duplicate ALS.

2The duplicate ALS and the two copies all read “discover.”

3Stirling apparently enclosed five recent intelligence reports concerning British troop and ship movements in and around New York City: Maj. Richard Howell’s letters to Brig. Gen. Maxwell circa 15 Oct. and 18 Oct., Capt. William Wikoff’s letter to Maxwell of 18 Oct., an unaddressed letter signed “I” of 15 Oct. apparently written to Stirling, and an undated, unaddressed, and unsigned memorandum apparently written about 18 Oct., all of which are in DLC:GW.

The letter that Howell wrote to Maxwell about 15 Oct. reads: “I have no paper but this small piece & in short must inform you that on 13th 3 Ships of the Line without doubt those that Slip’d their Cables in the Storm came in—& one Schooner.

“14th One Ship of war the fourth of those mention’d, came in & one Brig.

“15th The Admiral hauld in to the Hook. Same Day we receiv’d a prisoner as a Spy taken by some Men on the Shore—He is a genteel well bread Man came from No. Carolina as he says tho taken directly on the rout from where the Enemy are landed a Scotchman by Birth on taken hid in a barn when pursued. He may be a mercht as he says but the Circumstances of his Capture are such as to require his Confinement. He has written to Officers of our Army to ascertain his Character & I beg you would transmit the Letter you receive with this & require an Immediate Answer—he is under the Derection of the Militia who took him.”

Howell’s letter to Maxwell of 18 Oct. reads: “I have been down to observe the Fleet.

“16th A Schooner & Sloop went in.

“17th A large Ship which saluted the Admiral And receivd a Salute in return went in [I] amd [am] told of a fleet o[f] 130 sale 50 armd appearing from the highlands.

“18th 8 sail, some of them Gallies went in, suppos’d to be the Egharbour Fleet.

“Report. That 4 vessels went into Cranburry Inlet & burnd Salter’s works. That there are 8000 Troops on board this Fleet bound for Jamaica on account of the French having taking Gardeloupe That the Garrisson of the Hook are orderd to embark on board Transports. Captn Wikoff will give you a certain Acct of the fleet as I sent him to Middletown Hights w[h]ere the[y] may be discover’d—I am unhappy to Inform you that my Spy has been missing one Day to[o] long & I have fears for his Safety. Waiting to receive him I have acquir’d a violent fever so as to be hardly able to write and tis impossible in this Situation to get home. Indeed I have no small fears for myself but can not possibly ride & therefore must run the Risque of being alone on the Shore 9 miles off my Troops—Captn Wikoff is to read this & add what he may have seen. The Detention of the Spy portends a debarkation detection or Departure—Captn Wikoff will be very alert to Night, see that 3 Scouts go one towards Middletown Shrewsbury & Edentown—I am at Lawrence Emery’s where he must send me immediate word of any Approach—If they come this way I shall Know it immediately—If any Accident Should happen [to] me; take off my Cloaths & retreat towards monmouth after giving Some fire.” The French had captured the British island of Dominica, not Guadeloupe, in the West Indies on 7 Sept. (see GW to Horatio Gates, 3 Oct., and note 3 to that document).

Wikoff’s letter to Maxwell, which he wrote at 11 p.m. on 18 Oct. at the bottom of Howell’s letter to Maxwell of that date, reads: “Agreeable to Major Howells I went to the Heights of Middletown, and the best calculation I could make of the number and strength of the Fleet altho. not able to count them distinctly on account of their laying very close, was about 125 Sail within the Point of the Hook Six of them appeared to be large men of War, likewise a number falling down from the Narrows appeared (except two or three) small vessels.”

The letter from “I” of 15 Oct., which is docketed “Staten Island” on the manuscript, reads: “I am very certain the British Troops dus not Intend to leive new York this winter, There is an expidn [expedition] now on foot which is keep a seecret there is upwards of Twenty D[o]ub[l]e Deckers besides fregits—under sa[i]ling orders, on a Cruse. The troops which are agoing from here is Intendd for the West India Islands. Transp[ort]s takg up for Seven or Eight thousand men, Eleven British Reg<s.> has orders to imbarck, most of the new Coors [corps] and sevll of the Garr<ison> Regs. has the like orders, Mr L: told me to day he was Inform’d that the British Regs. was intended for Jama[ic]a that sum of the new Coors was to go to Burmud[a]s and sum for Halifax the whole under sa[i]l[in]g orders. you shall hear more about it in a few days what there Intention is.”

The undated anonymous intelligence “Memorandum” that apparently was written on or about 18 Oct. reads: “Each Transport Victualed & Watered for 150 Men for 3 months. which is always kept Good.

“3 months Provision in Store before Last 12 Victualing Ships Ariv’d. Some of whom were Private Property & allow’d to be sold by the Owners—which makes me conclude they have Provision Enough for their Purposes.

“the Chief part of the heavy Ball are remov’d from the Battery & put on Ship Board—as well as Some heavy Ordinance.

“a Common talk among them that N. York is to be kept as a Garrison by Contracting their works the Rest of the troops ’tis said are to Embark in three Divisions—1st to West Indies. 2d old Regts Foreigners & some Artily to England 3d to Hallifax. & Early in Spring up to Quebec Rhode Island to be Strongly Fortified & kept as a Port for their Cruizers Prizes &c.—much Depends on the Arival of the Packet which may alter their whole Plan and perhaps N. York may be totaly Evacuated which I geather from Conversation he is not at Liberty to Do without Some orders from England to that purpose.”

4Stirling is referring to the intelligence in his letter to GW of 16 October.

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