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To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, 9 April 1780

From Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens

Charles Town [S.C.] 9th April 1780.

Dear General.

When I last had the honor of writing to your Excellency, the Enemy had not extended their operations beyond their place of arms on Wappoo Neck1—On the 29th Ulto They crossed Ashley River in force one mile above the ferry2—the next day they advanced to Gibbes’s a convenient Landing about two miles from town3—having previously collected a number of boats at the opposite shore, for the purpose of crossing their heavy artillery and stores—my battalion of light infantry posted there to prevent a surprise or too sudden approach of the enemy—was ordered not to engage seriously—but skirmish with advanced parties, retiring slowly and orderly towards Town—as there was no object in maintaining any advanced post—and the advantages of a serious affair were all on the side of the Enemy.4 On the night of the 1st inst. the Enemy broke ground, and have been working slowly ever since—I scarcely know how to denominate what they have executed hitherto—it consists of several redouts with a covered communication from right to left which is still unfinished—their nearest work is an inclosed battery on their left—at about the distance of six hundred yards—which induces me to believe that they intend the line in question for a first parallel, altho’ some parts of it are rather too remote5—Our Shells and Shot have disquieted them and interrupted their operations—but Genl Lincoln sensible of the value of these articles in a siege oeconomises them as much as possible—Fatigue parties are constantly employed in improving our works. the whole front of our lines within the abba⟨tis⟩ is armed with wolf traps6—All this afford⟨s⟩ an excellent defence against storm—but must finally yield to a perseverance in regular approaches which appears to be Clintons present plan—unless we can work under his fire as fast as he can—and afford time for the arrival of Your Excellency.7

Our obstructions in Cowper River8 are completed which gives a prospect of our maintaining a communication with the Country—and hitherto prevents the accomplishment of the investiture. Since the arrival of Genl Woodford,9 Genl Lincoln will have it in his power to execute his plan of establishing the necessary posts for this purpose on the eastern shore of the River—Col. Malmedy is to take command of the Troops destined for that service.

The Enemys Squadron of seven arm’d Ships, three of which are two deckers—and two transports—availed itself of a brisk southern breeze to pass Fort Moultrie yesterday afternoon—The Admirals Ship led the Van—and escaped without apparent injury—the frigate which followed her, had her foretop mast carried away—a large transport in the rear of the whole, run aground and after receiving some shot from Sullivans Island, was fired and abandoned by her Crew—The Remainder are now anchored near the Ruins of Fort Johnston—out of the reach of our Cannon10—My notice of the present opportunity was so sudden, that I have not been able to make atonement for my last hurried letter—Relying upon Your Excellencys goodness, I have prefer’d writing at any rate, to total silence11 and losing an occasion of repeating the assurances of attachment and veneration with which I have the honor to be Your Excellencys faithful Aid

John Laurens.

I beg to be respectfully presented to Mrs Washington.

The reason abovementioned makes me trouble Your Excellency to present my Love to the family as I shall not be able to write to any of them.12

ALS (slightly torn), DLC:GW.

2British captain John Peebles explained in his diary entry for 29 March that “flat boats & ships long boats to the No. of 100” carried the troops across Ashley River (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 , 354; see also Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 218–19; Hinrichs, “Diary,” description begins “Diary of Captain Johann Hinrichs.” In The Siege of Charleston: With an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers From the von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Translated and edited by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938, pages 103–363. In University of Michigan Publications: History and Political Science, vol. 12. description ends 223, 225; Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 215–18).

3John Gibbes (died c.1783) owned the low bluff overlooking the Ashley River and gave his name to the landing, which was the first suitable spot for debarkation north of Charleston.

4Peebles’s diary entry for 30 March reported how “the troops were put in motion about nine & march’d on the road to town about 6 or 7 miles where the yagers & Light Infantry met with a small party of the Enemy with whom they skirmish’d for hours … the firing ceas’d in the eveng” (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 , 354; see also Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 219; Hinrichs, “Diary,” description begins “Diary of Captain Johann Hinrichs.” In The Siege of Charleston: With an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers From the von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Translated and edited by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938, pages 103–363. In University of Michigan Publications: History and Political Science, vol. 12. description ends 225, 227, 229; Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 218–20).

French military engineer Ferdinand Joseph Sebastian de Brahm, then in Charleston, S.C., recorded in his journal entry for 30 March: “The advanced guard of the enemy came within two miles of Charlestown, when a party of two hundred men, under Colonel John Laurens (and a little while after two field-pieces), went out against them, who, after a skirmish of some hours, returned towards sun-set. The fortifications of Charlestown were, even at this time, very incomplete. All the negroes in town were impressed, who, together with the parties detailed from the garrison, were henceforth employed upon the works” (Gibbes, Documentary History description begins R. W. Gibbes, ed. Documentary History of the American Revolution: Consisting of Letters and Papers Relating to the Contest for Liberty, Chiefly in South Carolina . . .. 3 vols. 1853-57. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C., 1972. description ends , 2:124).

In a letter dated 26 March, Laurens had told his father, Henry: “General Lincoln gives me the command of a handsome battalion of light infantry” (Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 15:261–62). Laurens wrote his father again on 31 March with a description of his engagement on 30 March (see Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 15:262–65; see also Massey, John Laurens description begins Gregory D. Massey. John Laurens and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C., 2000. description ends , 158–59).

5For details on British investiture operations against Charleston, 1–7 April, see Waring, “Wilson’s Journal,” description begins Joseph Ioor Waring, ed. “Lieutenant John Wilson’s ‘Journal of the Siege of Charleston.’” South Carolina Historical Magazine 66 (1965): 175–82. description ends 178–79; 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 , 355–57; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 219–21; Hinrichs, “Diary,” description begins “Diary of Captain Johann Hinrichs.” In The Siege of Charleston: With an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers From the von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Translated and edited by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938, pages 103–363. In University of Michigan Publications: History and Political Science, vol. 12. description ends 232–41; and Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 221–25; see also Bulger, “Clinton’s Journal,” description begins William T. Bulger, ed. “Sir Henry Clinton’s ‘Journal of the Siege of Charleston, 1780.’” South Carolina Historical Magazine 66 (1965): 147–74. description ends 149–55.

Gen. Henry Clinton summarized British operations during late March and early April in his letter of 13 May to Lord George Germain: “The passage of Ashley under the conduct of Captain Elphinstone and by the good service of the officers and sailors of the fleet was accomplished with order and expedition and without resistance on the part of the enemy.

“The day succeeding it, the army moved towards Charleston and on the night of the 1st of April broke ground within 800 yards of the rebel works.

“By the 8th our guns were mounted in battery and I had the satisfaction to see the Admiral pass into Charleston Harbour with the success his conduct deserved, though under a very heavy fire from Sullivan’s Island” (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 , 18:86–89; see also n.10, below, and Benjamin Lincoln to GW and William Woodford to GW, both this date).

6A “Trou de Loup (Wolf-hole)” is the name for “a round hole, about 6 feet deep, and pointed at the bottom, like an inverted cone, with a stake placed in the middle,” often “dug round a redoubt to obstruct the enemy’s approach. They are circular at the top, of about 4½ feet in diameter” (Wilhelm, Military Dictionary description begins Thomas Wilhelm. A Military Dictionary and Gazetteer . . .. Philadelphia, 1881. description ends , 602).

7GW never seriously considered moving his command to South Carolina, despite urgings from subordinates (see Laurens to GW, 14 Feb., and GW to Robert Howe, 13 April, second letter, and n.1 to that document; see also GW to Laurens, 26 April).

8Laurens is referring to the Cooper River.

9For the arrival in Charleston of Virginia Continental troops under Brig. Gen. William Woodford on 7 April, see his letter to GW, this date.

10Contemporary accounts of this British naval maneuver on 8 April offer conflicting details. In his diary entry for that date, Capt. Johann Hinrichs, a jäger staff officer, put British vice admiral Marriot Arbuthnot “ahead in a jolly boat” and identified the Richmond as the ship that “lost her fore-topmast” (Hinrichs, “Diary,” description begins “Diary of Captain Johann Hinrichs.” In The Siege of Charleston: With an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers From the von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Translated and edited by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938, pages 103–363. In University of Michigan Publications: History and Political Science, vol. 12. description ends 241, 243). British officer Archibald Robertson accurately placed Arbuthnot on the Roebuck. His diary entry for 8 April reads: “Admiral Arbuthnot with his Fleet weigh’d Anchor at ¼ before four Afternoon and Pass’d bye Fort Moultrie Sullivan’s Island. In an hour and ¼ they were all at an Anchor near Fort Johnstone, with the Loss of 7 Killed and 14 Wounded. … The Roebuck lost her fore top mast and the Eolus got a Ground and in the Evening was burnt by our Boats” (Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 221). In a report written while on the “Roebuck, off Charles Town,” on 14 May, Arbuthnot recalled how he led his squadron on 8 April “through a severe fire” and “anchored in about two hours under James Island, with the loss of twenty-seven seamen killed and wounded. The Richmond’s foretopmast was shot away and the ships in general sustained damage in their masts and rigging, however not materially in their hulls; but the Aeolus transport, having on board a few naval stores, grounded within gunshot of Sullivan’s Island, and received so much damage that she was obliged to be abandoned and burnt” (Keith Papers description begins W. G. Perrin and Christopher Lloyd, eds. The Keith Papers, Selected from the Letters and Papers of Admiral Viscount Keith. 3 vols. London, 1927, 1950, and 1955. In Publications of the Navy Records Society, vols. 62, 90, and 96. description ends , 1:139–42). For other accounts of this naval maneuver, see Brahm’s journal entry for 8 April in Gibbes, Documentary History description begins R. W. Gibbes, ed. Documentary History of the American Revolution: Consisting of Letters and Papers Relating to the Contest for Liberty, Chiefly in South Carolina . . .. 3 vols. 1853-57. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C., 1972. description ends , 2:125; Samuel Baldwin’s journal entry for the same date in Baldwin, “Events in Charleston,” description begins Samuel Baldwin, “Diary of Events in Charleston, S.C., from March 20th to April 20th, 1780.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society 2 (1846–47): 77–86. description ends 82; John Wells, Jr., to Henry Laurens, this date, in Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 15:272–76; and Woodford to GW, this date.

Fort Johnson, named for the South Carolina colonial governor Nathaniel Johnson, was located on the northeastern tip of James Island. The fort dated to the early eighteenth century and was Charleston Harbor’s first enduring defensive work.

11Laurens indicated his opportunity to send this letter to GW when he wrote his father on this date (see Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 15:268–72).

12GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton had written Laurens from Morristown on 30 March: “I have received lately two letters from you, the last dated the 24th of February . … I confess to you my fears are very much up about your situation. The enemy will push the point at every hazard; and I am apprehensive after all you will be vulnerable on the water-side. …

“A question has been agitated whether any reinforcements can be spared you from the army, the unanimous sentiment is against it. … We are very weak and from the embarassments in the Q’r Master’s department, for want of money in the early period of the season, we cannot concentrate our force; otherwise I should be of opinion to send you a detachment and collect the remainder at West Point. Indeed my friend our distress is so great that if there were no objection to parting with the men it would be almost impossible to convey them to you. …

“All the lads remember you as a friend and a brother. Meade says God bless you” (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 2:303–4; see also Council of War, 27 March).

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