George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Brigadier General Duportail and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, 18 October 1779

To Brigadier General Duportail
and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton

Head Quarters West-point 18th Octbr 1779.


I have been favored with Colonel Hamilton’s letter, mentioning your arrival early on the 11th at Philadelphia; and your being about to set off for Lewis town the morning on which it was written.1

I have attentively considered the object to which you more particularly refer, and am now to authorise you (provided the Count will not determine on a co-operation to the full extent of my instructions) to engage the whole force described in my letters to him, comprehending the continental troops and militia, in such an enterprise against the enemy’s shipping, as the Count and you may agree to undertake.2 In a word, I will aid him, in every plan of operations against the enemy at New-York, or Rhode Island, in the most effectual manner that our strength and resources will admit. He has nothing more to do, therefore, than to propose his own plan, if time will not admit him to accede to ours; weighing thoroughly the consequences of expence and disappointment.

Inclosed is some intelligence received from Elizabethtown since your departure. You will observe the preparations of the enemy for throwing every possible obstruction in the Counts passage.3

A chain of alarm ships are stationed in the Sound, to communicate the first approach of the Counts fleet to the garrison at Rhode Island. This they can propagate in a few minutes by signal guns. In a letter from General Gates of the 13th instant he advices me of the arrival of the fleet which some time ago sailed from New-York. It amounts to 56 sail, and appeared to be only in a set of ballast. This was confirmed by one of the vessels which fell into our hands for a few hours. The opinion is, that it is designed to take off the garrison.

General Gates makes the marine force at New-port, one fifty, and a thirty two gun frigate. The refugee and wood fleet, about 37 sail mostly armed, at the head of which is the restoration, late the Oliver Cromwell of 22 guns.4 One frigate is also taken notice of in the fleet from New-york.

Should the operations against New-York—in either case—be undertaken, it will be of the utmost consequence to block up the garrison at Rhode Island. You will consider the propriety of suggesting to the Count the detatching of a superior sea force for this purpose, previous to his approaching the Hook. For should the measure be deferred till his arrival there, it may not then be possible to prevent their junction with the army at New-York—as the notice can be so very suddenly transmitted by means of the signals which they have established.5

Every proper attention has been given to preparing the necessary number of fascines, and such other materials as may be requisite in this quarter.6 Fascines—gabions &c. are also held in readiness at Provid⟨ence,⟩ in case of an operation against New-Port.7 I had thought of the fire ships, and have taken order in the matter. I do not however chose to go to the great expence they must run us into, till something is decided with his Excellency Count D’Estaing; but every thing relative shall be provided, so as to occasion no delay when such matters become necessary. I am Gentn Your most obt servt.

Copy, enclosed in GW to Duportail and Hamilton, 1 Nov., in James McHenry’s writing, DLC: Alexander Hamilton Papers; Df, DLC:GW; copy, MiU-C: Clinton Papers; copy, enclosed in Henry Clinton to George Germain, 19 Nov. 1779, P.R.O.: C.O. 5/98; copy, enclosed in Marriot Arbuthnot to Sandwich, 19 Nov. 1779, P.R.O.: Adm. 1/486; copy, P.R.O.: Adm. 1/486; copy, N: Manuscripts Miscellaneous; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The LS, which has not been found, was intercepted by the British, and on 19 Nov. both Gen. Henry Clinton and Vice Admiral Arbuthnot forwarded copies of the letter to the ministry in London (see Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 16:219; and Barnes and Owen, Sandwich Papers, description begins G. R. Barnes and J. H. Owen, eds. The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1771–1782. 4 vols. London, 1932-38. In Publications of the Navy Records Society, vols. 69, 71, 75, 78. description ends 3:140; see also Willcox, American Rebellion, description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends 426). On 26 Oct., Duportail and Hamilton wrote to GW that although they had received his letter of 21 Oct., “That of the 18th is not yet come to hand” (DLC: Alexander Hamilton Papers). And on 2 Nov. they wrote GW that “Your letter of the 18th remains unreceived” (DLC:GW). The copy that GW enclosed with his letter to Duportail and Hamilton of 1 Nov. is marked “duplicate.” The text in angle brackets is taken from the draft.

On this date GW wrote to John Mitchell from headquarters at West Point: “It is of the utmost consequence that the enclosed should reach Genl Duportail & Colo. Hamilton as expeditiously as possible. should they not have returned from the Capes of Delaware when it arrives at Philada, you will be pleased to forward it to them by a person on whose care and dispatch you can fully depend” (Df, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW).

1This letter has not been found. GW had assigned Duportail and Hamilton to meet Vice Admiral d’Estaing on the arrival of his fleet at the Delaware River.

2GW wrote to d’Estaing on 13 Sept. and 4 and 7 October. In his letter of 7 Oct., GW pledged 25,000 effective men for joint operations.

3The enclosed extract of a letter from Col. Matthias Ogden, dated 15 Oct. at Elizabeth, N.J., reporting on New York’s defenses, was captured with the receiver’s copy of this letter (see Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 16:219).

5Blocking Long Island Sound to cut off the British garrison at Newport, R.I., was one of the essential elements of all GW’s plans for joint operations (see GW to d’Estaing, 13 Sept. and 4 Oct., and GW’s summary memorandum “Loose Thoughts upon an Attack of New York,” c.3 Oct.).

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