George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Colonel Malmedy, 16 May 1777

To Colonel Malmedy

Head Quarters [Morristown] May 16th 1777.


In answer to your letter of the 14th I must freely confess, I do not fully comprehend your meaning, nor can I forbear expressing my surprise, that you still hold out the idea of difficulties in your situation, notwithstanding the mark of attention you mention, which has lately been conferred upon you by Congress. It astonishes me, that a Gentleman of your discernment, should find it impossible to make a right distinction between Continental and Colonial appointments, after all the pains that have been taken to explain it. Certainly there is nothing easier to conceive, than that an appointment made by the legislature of a particular State, unauthorized by Congress, can have no effect out of that State. The reason is plain; such legislature has only a local jurisdiction, and can do no act binding on any other State, much less on the whole Continent. Your rank of Brigadier in Rhode Island, on a Continental Scale, is, and always has been, intirely nugatory. You might request a ratification of it from Congress, as a matter of favour, but you could not demand it as a matter of right; and you must be sensible, that many Substantial reasons independent of any personal objections to you, oppose your wish.

A perseverance in your mistaken pretensions, after you had seen they could not be complied with, is what I did not expect.

To request to be employed in a manner not derogatory to the rank you held in Rhode Island, according to your ideas of that rank, is to request not to be employed at all. I must repeat what I have before told you, that I cannot consider you in any other light, than that in which Congress has placed you, and whatever Employment I may at any time have it in my power to give you, must be in conformity to that precise rank you actually possess in the Continental Army. If you expect any other you deceive yourself. Such an employment, though it may appear to you a degradation, would not in fact be so; because your appointment of Brigadier is a perfect non entity in a Continental view.

If you formed erroneous notions of your Colonial appointment, and in consequence of them made representations to your friends in Europe, which now involve you in perplexities, you ought to consider it as your misfortune, and should not build any claims upon it that cannot be admitted. But, though the distinctions existing among us, may not be well understood in France, as you have hinted in a former letter,1 is it impossible to give a satisfactory explanation of them to your friends? or will it be any indelible disgrace to you, to confess to them that you have been in an error in your first conceptions, arising from your being a Stranger and unacquainted with the nature of our different military establishments? We ought not to convert trifling difficulties into insuperable obstacles.

Let me propose a few more questions. Appeal to your own understanding and conscience, and then answer, is not the Continental rank you now hold, fully adequate to any expectations you can reasonably deduce from the rank you held in the French army, and from the short term of seven month’s Service in ours? Would not the American Officers, who have been in the Service from the beginning of the war, have a just cause to complain of your too rapid promotion, were your wishes indulged? And would it not justify those, who have been your Superior Officers in your own Country, in raising their hopes to a height, which it would be impossible to gratify? In short Sir, I cannot bring myself to think, that the extraordinary mark of distinction bestowed upon you by the State of Rhode Island, is any sufficient foundation for expecting the Continent to wave every consideration of policy or propriety in your behalf.

Though I wish not to offend or wound, justice both to you and myself requires that I should plainly inform you, that your scruples and difficulties, so often reiterated and under a variety of Shapes, are exceedingly perplexing to me, and that I wish them to cease.2 I am Sir &ca.

G. Washington

Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1GW may be referring to Malmedy’s letter to him of 12 Jan. 1777, which has not been found (see GW to Malmedy, 24 Jan. 1777). Malmedy wrote Nicholas Cooke on 19 May: “I came into America with the consent of the French generals, and upon assurance that my services here would be agreeable to my country. I am obliged to render them an account of my conduct in the armies of the States. I could not do this better, than by informing them that through the recommendation and confidence of General Lee, the state of Rhode Island has honored me with the rank of brigadier general; and I’ve just now received the general of Martinico’s compliments thereupon.

“If the reputation of a French officer through the affection of his country for your cause, be absolutely established, by his fulfilling his duty in your armies, I beg you will consider how critical the situation the bare suspicion of the contrary must bring him into; my dismission after five months’ promotion, must necessarily leave some suspicions in a kingdom, where the spirit of honor and good conduct can alone recommend to, and maintain officers in posts and places” (Bartlett, R.I. Records description begins John Russell Bartlett, ed. Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England. 10 vols. Providence, 1856–65. description ends , 8:259).

2Malmedy asks in his letter to Cooke of 19 May that the assembly restore his “rank of brigadier general, without any pay, and without the least pretension of being employed by you, unless Your Honors should think proper to demand my services. This will be a rank merely honorary, which will confirm the distinction you formerly conferred on me, without any solicitation on my part” (ibid.). The assembly did not comply with his request.

Index Entries