Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Steuben, 9 March 1781

From Steuben

9 Mch


I have received a Letter from General Muhlenberg dated the 7th. Inst. informing me that the Reinforcement which was to have Joined him the 5th. inst. had not then arrived and consequently he was prevented from detaching the 800 Men destined to Join General Gregory and to secure the passage of the great Bridge. At the same instant arrived Twelve Men being all of the 104 who were orderd from New Kent. They are unarmed and demand my orders. I am extremely sorry to declare I shall give neither Arms nor Orders. On the Assurances I received from Goverment by Colo. Walker I had the Weakness to write Genl. Washington and Marquis De la fayette that every thing was ready for the Expedition; my Credulity, however, is punished at the expence of my honor and the only excuse I have is my Confidence in Government.

The Quarter Master writes me that he has in vain implored the Assistance of Government in procuring Horses for the Expedition. In fact if the powers of Government are inadequate to the furnishing what is indispensabbly necessary the Expedition must fail.

In this Situation I am determined to suspend giving any orders till I receive your Excellencys answer to this, which answer I will lay before the Marquis and the Commander of the french fleet that they may not engage too far in an Enterprize which there is no prospect of carrying through.

I beg your Excellency to lay this Letter before the Assembly.

I am &c.

FC (NHi). Tr (in French; NHi); this is probably the draft of a copy sent to Lafayette.

See John Walker to TJ, following, which probably accompanied this letter. TJ enclosed a copy of Steuben’s letter in his to the Speaker and to Lafayette of 10 Mch. Steuben could not have known that, on the day before he wrote this angry letter, Muhlenberg had detached almost a thousand men “destind for the Great Bridge” (Muhlenberg to TJ, 10 Mch.). On 9 Mch. Steuben also wrote to Muhlenberg: “My last inclosed you a list of the counties which were to reinforce you by the 5th inst. This was promised me by Government, but I am sorry their promises are so little to be depended on. … I have dispatched an Express to the Governor and must wait his Answer; in the meantime I would have you draw together all your force including those at Cabbin Point” (NHi). And on 10 Mch. he wrote to Nelson, who was ill at the time: “I am in want of everything and Government have not the power to assist me, in consequence of which I am disappointed in the most essential arrangements. … Here we have a pleasing prospect before us. We may I think be certain that a fleet will come to cooperate with us and in that case the grand Traitor cannot escape” (NHi). I had the weakness to write Genl. Washington: On 1 Mch. Steuben wrote from Richmond, saying that he had continued his preparations and would deliver Arnold to the Marquis; Washington acknowledged this 21 Mch. and thanked Steuben for “making the necessary preparations with so much celerity and judgment, for co-operating in an attack on … Portsmouth” (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxi, 346–7). But perhaps Steuben’s judgment of TJ’s efforts expressed after the expedition had been abandoned may be nearer the truth than his remarks thrown off in the midst of his strenuous exertions, in which “The difficulties and embarrasments … perhaps transported him beyond the bounds of moderation” (Walker to TJ, following); writing to Washington on 14 Apr., Steuben said (what he would never have admitted to TJ): “The Expedition against Portsmouth having failed, my first care was to save those articles which had at so much trouble and expence been collected for that purpose, and here I must do justice to the Government for their great Efforts on the occasion. I can with truth say that every possible preparation was made and nothing on our part wanting to ensure the stroke” (Steuben to Washington, 14 Apr. 1781, NHi; an identical letter was sent to the Board of War). This, too, as with all of Steuben’s opinions uttered when personal or professional interests were involved, needs modification; but as a judgment expressed after the event it was a more just appraisal than the remarks thrown off in a fit of anger when Steuben feared that he would be frustrated in what seemed at the moment to be a glorious opportunity for achieving military fame. An even more telling fact is that the Virginia government had assembled 4,000 armed militia by the time the British fleet under Arbuthnot and Graves arrived in mid-March. Lafayette, who expressed profound regret that the state had been put to so much trouble and expense for an abortive expedition and who, no less than Steuben, was disappointed in the failure of the plan, wrote TJ that, save for support from the French fleet, “we have been perfectly ready” (Lafayette to TJ, 27 Mch. 1781); Steuben himself, just after Lafayette’s arrival, reported to Greene: “J’ai la satisfaction de vous dire que tout mes preparatifs etait fait avant son arrive” (Steuben to Greene, 17 Mch. 1781, NHi).

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