Patrick Henry in Council to John Jay
Williamsburg 11th. May 1779.
On Saturday last1 in the Evening a British Fleet amounting to about thirty Sail consisting of one 64 Gun Ship (supposed by some to be the Saint Albans, and fifteen or Sixteen large Ships, some of them either Frigates or armed Vessels it is not known certainly which, and the others Vessels of lesser Size) came into the Bay of Chesapeak, and the next day proceeded to Hampton Roads, where they anchored, and remained quiet until Yesterday about Noon, when several of the Ships got under way, and proceeded towards Portsmouth, which place I have no doubt they intend to attack by Water or by Land, or by both, as they have many flatt bottomed Boats with them for the purpose of landing their Troops.2 As I too well know the weakness of that Garrison3 I am in great Pain for the Consequences, there being great Quantities of Merchandize, the property of French Merchants and others in this State, at that Place as well as considerable Quantities of Military Stores which tho’ Measures some time since were taken to remove, may nevertheless fall into the Enemys Hands. Whether they may hereafter intend to fortify and maintain this Post is at present unknown to me, but the Consequences which will result to this State and to the united States finally if such a measure should be adopted, must be obvious.4 Whether it may be in the power of Congress to adopt any measures which can in any manner counteract the Design of the Enemy is submitted to their Wisdom.5 At present I cannot avoid intimating that I have the greatest Reason to think that many Vessels from France, with public and private merchandize may unfortunately arrive while the Enemy remain in perfect Possession of the Bay of Chesapeak, and fall Victims unexpectedly.6
Every Precaution will be taken to order Look out Boats on the Sea Coast to furnish proper Intelligence but the Success attending the execution of this necessary Measure, will be precarious in the present Situation of Things.
It is not in my Power to be more explicit at this Time, but the Weightiness of this affair has induced me not to defer sending the best Information I cou’d obtain by Express.
You may depend that so soon as further particulars respecting the Designs of the Enemy, shall come to my Knowledge, they shall be communicated without Delay to Congress.
With great Regard I have the Honor to be Sir your most obedient Servant
The Honble. John Jay President of Congress Philadelphia7
1. 8 May.
2. The British fleet under Commodore Sir George Collier consisted of the sixty-four-gun “Raisonnable,” the forty-four-gun “Rainbow,” and “the Otter, Diligent and Haerlem, sloops, and Cornwallis galley, together with several private ships of war and twenty-two transports” carrying about two thousand troops (Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, II, 395). Collier’s goal, as General Clinton described it, was to retard “the levy of 2000 men whom Virginia was at that time collecting to send to Mr. Washington’s army, and to destroy some considerable magazines formed there … and a quantity of naval stores which that province had provided for supplying a French fleet [Estaing’s] they were in expectation of. There were also some ships of force that they were building and fitting out there, which I wished to deprive of the power of doing us a mischief” (William B. Willcox, ed., The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782 [New Haven, Conn., 1954], pp. 122–23). This mission was accomplished between 10 and 24 May. On the latter date Collier reluctantly obeyed Clinton’s order to re-embark the troops and return to New York (ibid., pp. 406–7; below, n. 4).
3. In April 1778 the garrison had been weakened by smallpox. The following October, a special guard had been authorized for the “Continental Ship Yard at Portsmouth” (Journals of the Council of State, II, 123, 192).
4. The British evacuated Portsmouth late in May, but not before destroying “many vessels there,” capturing and burning part of Suffolk, and, in the words of Governor Henry, committing “horrid ravages and depredations, such as plundering and burning houses, killing and carrying away stock of all sorts, and exercising other abominable cruelties and barbarities” (proclamation of 15 May, in H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of Virginia Governors, I, 370). Admiral Collier described his activities as follows: “The fort was raz’d, the season’d timber for ship building burnt, the buildings and storehouses of the finest yard on this continent underwent the same fate; the sufferings of individuals I endeavoured to prevent all in my power and in general happily succeeded, and by it I hope have procured many friends to the royal cause” (Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, II, 396).
5. On 21 May Congress resolved that Henry’s letters on the British operations in Chesapeake Bay should be sent to General Washington and the “Minister Plenipotentiary of France,” Conrad Alexandre Gerard (Journals of the Continental Congress, XIV, 623). On 25 June the captain of the frigate “Deane” was “directed to proceed in company with the Frigate Boston from the Capes of Delaware into Chesapeake Bay and on your arrival there, at Hampton or any Other way, endeavour to Obtain the best intelligence if any of the enemies Ships of war or Privateers are in the Bay, and if you find there are and of such force as you are able to encounter, you are to proceed up and attack them, … taking or destroying as many of the said Vessels as may be in your power.” By then all of the larger British ships had departed, but smaller ships and privateers continued to operate in the bay and at least two of them were captured (Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, II, 398).
6. Perhaps the reference was to the expected arrival of Admiral d’Estaing’s fleet, convoying merchant ships bearing war supplies from France especially for the use of the patriot army in Georgia and South Carolina. This fleet, however, did not arrive off the Georgia coast until 1 September 1779 (Journals of the Continental Congress, XV, 1108; JM to Bradford, 30 October–5 November 1779, n. 3).
7. On 10 December 1778, the day after Henry Laurens resigned as president of Congress, John Jay was elected to that position (Journals of the Continental Congress, XII, 1202, 1206).