George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 23 October 1778

From Vice Admiral d’Estaing

In Boston Rhode October 23d 1778


I have received almost at the same time, the two letters that Your Excellency had the goodness to write me the 18th and 20th of this month. The important advices they contain were confirmed to me at the same moment by Mr De Boubie an officer of marine, who has just completed the exchange of our prisoners. I have the honor to send you a copy of what he tells me concerning an embarkation.1 Retained on board the English Admiral it was easy to deceive him as to the number of the troops, but as he is intelligent, a seaman, a man of veracity, and knows the language, I believe he may be credited, with regard to the number and names of the vessels. I am more and more of the opinion of Your Excellency, on the destination of this embarkation. As there are many things which cannot be hazarded, without cyphers, upon paper; I intended to have the honor of sending you a confidential person to day; the unforeseen return of General Du Portail, who arrived yesterday from Providence hinders me and obliges me to retard this envoy. It will probably not take place sooner, than in three, or four days, and after I shall have spoken to him.2 If the Marquis Delafayette had been able to return here in the time he hoped—I should be more certified than I am of certain objects infinitely interesting to our common interests, and independent of the ideas, that he may entertain on his own account: I am convinced that it will not have depended on Your Excellency, nor on my zealous and most amiable countryman, that he has not made all possible diligence. Business apart, in which he is as wise, as he has shown himself brave in the field, I find, that among all those, who celebrate to me without cease your virtues and great actions—’tis he who speaks of them in a manner most in unison with my heart. The esteem, I have for him, augments from that source, as well as my desire of seeing him. I have the honor to be with sincere attachment and with respect Sir Your Excellency’s Most humble and Most Obedt servant


Translation, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; LS, in French, DLC:GW.

1This enclosure, which is in French, and the translation of it, which is in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, are both in DLC:GW. The translation reads: “Extract of a letter from Mr De Boubée Ensign of the King’s fleet—embarked on board the Protector; and sent to New York to treat of an exchange of prisoners. This letter is dated the 20th of October 78.

“Sir, It may be interesting that you should be instructed in time of the manœuvres of the English—I arrived from New York in 24 hours, and I lose not an instant to have the honour of writing to you—Mr Byron sailed the day before yesterday from Sandy Hook with 16 vessels of the line—the Princess Royal of 90—Royal Oak—sultan—Albion—Culloden, Fame Bedford Cornwall, Grafton, of 74—Trident, St Alban—Sommerset Reasonable and Nonesuch of 64—The renown of 50—some frigates and I believe fireships—More than an hundred and thirty transports charged with 12 or 14 thousand troops—I was not able to know the number exactly. Mr [Henry] Clinton would not permit me to lodge in the city—I was detained on Board the Admiral, and I did not go ashore, but when they sent me to search, accompanied by an officer. I was moreover not able to draw any thing from the Merchant-Captains, living in the city—Mr Howe is sailed in the Eagle of 64 with a frigate on board of which was Mr Johnson [George Johnstone]. There remain at New York five vessels of War two of 64 and three of 50 accompanied by some frigates and about 150 transports—’Tis said they are going to sail—I was not able to know any thing on this subject. What is to be depended on is that provisions arrive to them dayly from England. Besides others—the day before yesterday arrived fourteen large victuallers from Cork. The fleet of Byron is said to be destined for Boston Messieurs D’Ile &ca &ca. &ca.

“Five hundred and forty nine Frenchmen are embarked on two transports armed with Englishmen and commanded by an officer—They are spectres rather than men—Ninety are sick or rather dying, for there does not pass a day but some die. The rest are exhausted by famine and misery—The skin of the neck adhering to the bone. The hope alone of seeing their countrymen again Keeps them alive and I doubt their being able to make two or three leagues a day, without one half remaining in the way. They have had two thirds of the ration of an English sailor, which is much less than ours—the articles furnished of the worst quality and they rob them of more than one half. I had a representation made to me of all the particulars, and I shall be able to render an exact account.”

Ambroise-Thomas de Boubée (1753–1791), who had become a garde-de-la-marine in 1770, arrived at New York on 5 Oct. to negotiate the exchange of French prisoners (see 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 , 224). He served aboard the Protecteur from 1778 to 1779 and commanded the Fee from 1780 to 1784. He was named a lieutenant-de-vaisseau in 1788.

2D’Estaing sent Jean Holker on this mission (see d’Estaing to GW, 26 Oct.).

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