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To George Washington from James Bowdoin, 31 May 1780

From James Bowdoin

Boston May 31 1780

Dear Sir

Since the last Post, by Which I had the Honour of writing to you,1 I have seen a Gentleman well acquainted with Nova Scotia, and particularly with Halifax, whose account concerning them, I doubt not, may be depended on. It represents the State of things as they were in December last.

Very fortunately I had Some business with him, which gave me a good opportunity of entering into Conversation with him on the military State of that Province: the result of Which is contained in the paper enclosed, whose contents I communicated to majr Genl Heath.2 The Situation and description of Halifax & its Defences will be made intelligible by the plan, wch accompanies that Paper.3 If these Papers Should give any valuable information to yr Excy, and our good Allies, it will afford me the highest satisfaction. I have the honour to be with the Sincerest regard Sir Yr Excellency’s most obedt hble Servt

James Bowdoin


In an undated document docketed “Extracts respectg the Force at, & situation of Hallifax,” likely written in early August, GW wrote: “Honble James Bowdoin Esqr. 31st May 80 Gives a plan & description of the Harbour & Works at Hallifax—Strength 6 Regiments—4 at Hallifax—one at Annapolis—& one at the other Posts. the whole Militia of the Provence of Nova-Scotia is abt 5000 1100 of which are in Hallifax—they were formerly in the Interest of the United States but it is now questionable” (DLC:GW).

2For Bowdoin’s communication with the “Gentleman,” see William Heath to GW, this date, and n.3 to that document; see also GW to Bowdoin and to Heath, both 15 May.

Bowdoin enclosed an undated document in his writing: “The Letters a b c &c. refer to the enclosed Plan of the Town & Port of Halifax in Nova Scotia, copied from a printed one.” The text of the plan reads: “a[.] The Arsenal, Surrounded by a Wall 16 ft high, wch includes about ten acres. On the inside against the wall are buildings for the reception of Stores &c.: on the top of wch Buildings is a walk all round, above which the Wall forms a Breast-work abt four feet high. Within this Enclosure is the Commissioner’s house. Last Summer there was in this Arsenal Cables, Cordage, Sails, &c. &c. &c. to the value of one million pounds sterling. A little North of this is a Fort with Several ps. of cannon, which commands the Harbour above George’s Island.

“b[.] The Citadel, or a Strong Fort (inclosed) on the Back of the Town, and west of a line of Palisades with Blockhouses. It is about one quarter of a mile from the Water, on a very high hill, which overlooks the Town & commands the harbour: the perpendicular height of it above the water being 263 feet, and the flat top of it containing six or eight acres. It is planned for 5 bastions in the lower works, and 4 bastions, higher up the hill, beside Cannon on the Top. Each Bastion when compleated will have ten ps. of Cannon. The Bastions next the Harbour are completed, and the other were intended to be so this spring.

“c[.] A Battery (not inclosed) of 22 Guns, 48 poundrs next the water, on the South Side of the Town.

“dddd. A Breast-work with a Ditch on the back of, and including, the Town & all the Sd works: being about two miles in length, & having Several Spurs with a Cannon in each to Scour the Ditch.

“e[.] a Small Fort wth Several Small Cannon on a hill to the Westward of the Sd Breastwork, & commanded by the Citadel.

f[.] A Battery (not enclosed) of about 12 Guns 24 poundrs on the Point formed by the harbour & Sandwich river, or the N. West Arm.

“These are all the defensive works, that were in Decr last on the West Side of the harbour: but there is a very high large flat rock inaccessible next to the water & bordering on it, near a mile North of Sandwich Point, & opposite to Mauger’s Beach, where Genl McLane talked of making a Fort, & is a very proper place for one: viz. on the flat top of the rock at g.

“On George’s Island (between the Town & the opposite shore) is a Strong Fort with 5 Bastions, each containing ten ps. of Cannon of 24 & 32 p[ounde]rs Situated about 70 or 80 feet (perpendicular) above the water: & also with 4 Bastions Still higher, each containing Six Cannon 24rs making in the whole 74 ps. of Cannon. The top of this Island is about 130 feet perpendicular above the water. These are enclosed works.

“A Battery (not enclosed) of 16 Guns 24rs, on the Back of which is a Barrack for 300, or 400 men & a Blockhouse with Several small Cannon, both enclosed with a Breast-work. These being on the East Side of the harbour, a little more South than George’s Island.

“I could not learn there were any other Land-works for defence.

“To the westward of Halifax Harbour is a fine deep Bay called St Margaret’s Bay, in which are many Islands. The depth of water is Such, that a first rate Ship of war can go to the head of it. It is noticed here, because the head of it is not above 14 miles across by land to the town of Halifax; and (if I do not mis-remember) the ground open & the travelling good. This observation was suggested by another map we had before us, called ’A new map of Nova Scotia & Cape Britain [Breton] &c. published May 1755 by Thos Jeffries, London.’

“There were 6 Regiments of regulars in the Province with about 500 men in each, thus disposed of; viz.: 1 at Annapolis, 1 at other posts, and 4 at Halifax. The whole militia of the Province are abt five thousand. They were 2 or 3 years ago unwilling to take up arms: but for divers reasons will be disposed to it now for the defence of the Province. The militia of Halifax (part of the 5000) are about 1100, & well disciplined. In the County of Lunenburg are 750 within the compass of 12 miles, that can be collected in 3 hours at Lunenberg 15 leagues from Halifax. Between these two places there is either no road, or the road bad. There are but few Inhabitants in the Province to the East of Halifax. There was a 64 Gun Ship stationed at Halifax near the arsenal with her Guns on board. She was used as a Hulk, by which to heave vessels down: But can be moved to answer the Purpose of a floating Battery. A 74 Gun ship arrived from N. York last Fall & a small Frigate. These were the only armed vessels at Halifax in Decr last. General McLane has greatly strengthened Halifax within these 12 months past: having employed the soldiers & 600 of the militia in that service. He is a vigilant & good Officer, and what adds to his character is, that he has well used our People, who were Prisoners at Halifax” (DLC:GW).

The above description consists in the “minutes explanatory” of a map of Halifax that Bowdoin also enclosed (see n.3 below and Heath to GW, this date).

3See Fig. 1. The plan’s title reads: “Port de Halifax de la Nouvelle Ecosse avec les Recifs, Dangers, Bas fonds et Coudes. Levé par ordre du Brigadier Général Lawr[e]nce Gouverneur de la Province. par Morris prem[ie]r Arpenteur. publié a Londres en 1775. Traduit a Paris chez le Rouge, Rue des grands Augustins 1778.” A note below the title reads: “This is copied from a Map bearing the foregoing Title, except the red lines wch are not in the said Map. These lin⟨e⟩s are imaginary, and are intended only to Shew that there are works of Such a kind there.” The works marked on the plan are the breastwork (“dddd”), the “Small Fort” (“e”), and the “Fort with Several ps. of cannon” near the arsenal (see n.2 above).

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