George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Joseph Spencer, 7 January 1778

From Major General Joseph Spencer

State of Rhode Island
Providence Jany 7th 1778

May it please your Excellency

The strength of the Land Force of the Enemy at Rhode Island, remains much as it has been, for several Months past; they have Fortifyed Latterly Considerably, and Especially, near New Port; I have obtaind a Return of four Regiments, in October last, which I Enclose adding the other two Hession, and the 22nd Brittish Regiments, together with the Grenadiers, and Light Infantry of the 54th and the Artillery men, they will make in the whole, by the best Accounts I can Obtain 3,600;1 There has Generally been about Six ships, and Frigates of Force, belonging to the Enemy, Round the Channel of Rhode Island, through the summer and fall Past: there is a large number lately Arrived there of Transports, at least a Hundred, and in the whole now there, upwards of 20 ships, Frigates, and sloops of War; Eight or nine of which of the line; Lord Howe came there Last saturday:2 they have lately been sounding in the Channel near Warwick Neck3 and we hear of some other preparations, that Indicate some designs against us—our Army has been about 2,400 strong, Including Officers, and Invalids, at a Medium from May, to this time, without regard to those Raised in October for the design’d Expedition, Concerning which, Colo. Sherburne has Doubtless, long time since given your Excellency a particular Account,4 We have had great difficulty here, of late, relative to provisions for the Army, Occasioned by the Resignation of the late Commissary General, and his Ceasing to Act before the Commissary of Issues arrived, to receive the Provisions, and supply, but I hope that difficulty is now over; as the Commissary has lately Come, and received the Stores.5 this Trouble in the Commissary-Department, besides giving me other Trouble, Obliged me, to run in Debt Largely, for the support of the Army, for Fresh Beef Especially, Cash has also been very scarce here lately, owing Chiefly I suppose, to the Exorbitancy of the prices: given for the Articles Necessary, to support the Army, the prices of Carting, being one Dollar, per Mild, per Ton, hay 50, or 60, Dollars, per Ton, wood 14 Dollars, per Cord, and other things Generally in proportion; till of Late I Could obtain Cash from this, and the Adjacent States, to answer the Necessaties of the Army, but their Treasuries are now drean’d of Cash, so that no great supplies, Can be obtain’d from them, I was directed by Resolve of Congress July 17th, to apply to Ebezr Hancock Esqr. Dy Pay Master General of the Eastern Department, for Cash to supply this Army, and Imediately after I recd the advice thereof, from Congress, I applyed Accordingly, to Mr Hancock; but he never to this time, has let me have but about 20,000 Dollars, I have been Encouraged by Mr Hancock to depend upon him for Cash, and his disappointing of me, has been the Occasion of great Trouble to me, I have lately made a Representation of these Matters to Congress, but have recd no answer yet; I have took the liberty, freely, to acknowledge to Congress that the Embarrassments attending this army, Requires an abler Commander than I pretend to be, and one in the bloom of life, have Accordingly, desired that such a one may be ordered to relieve me, and that after a proper time, to settle the affairs, relative, to my Command, I may have leave to resign my office in the Army.6 I am with great respect and Esteem your Excelly most Obedt hble Servt

Jos. Spencer

LS, DLC:GW. On 24 Jan., Major General Stirling forwarded to GW what Tench Tilghman, in his reply to Stirling of that date, characterized as “a very melancholy letter from Colo. Spencer,” referring presumably to this letter of 7 Jan. from Joseph Spencer rather than a letter from Col. Oliver Spencer.

1The enclosed return reads: “Didfaths Regiment[,] 562 Soldiers and Officers,” including 28 sick; “Landgraves Regiment[,] 543 Soldiers and officers,” including 36 sick; “54th Regiment[,] 432 Soldiers and officers,” including 24 sick; and “43rd Regiment[,] 414 Soldiers and officers,” including 18 sick. The total strength was tallied as 1,951 with 106 sick and 1,845 “fit for duty” (DLC:GW).

2Saturday was 3 Jan.; Lord Howe had actually arrived at Rhode Island the day before. The transports were intended for the embarkation of Gen. John Burgoyne’s troops.

3Warwick Neck is a peninsula on the northwestern shore of Narragansett Bay, just south of Warwick, Rhode Island.

4Spencer is referring to the abortive expedition against Rhode Island that he lately had commanded. For more on the expedition, see John Clark, Jr., to GW, 3 Nov. 1777, n.11, GW to William Heath, 5 Nov. 1777, n.2, and Henry Laurens to GW, 30 Nov. 1777, n.7. No letter from Henry Sherburne to GW on this subject has been identified.

5The disarray in the commissariat for the eastern department resulted in part from confusion concerning the appointment of deputy commissaries of issues and purchases for the department, which Commissary General of Issues Charles Stewart visited in December 1777 (see Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 8:412–13; Risch, Supplying Washington’s Army description begins Erna Risch. Supplying Washington’s Army. Washington, D.C., 1981. description ends , 173–76; see also William Buchanan to GW, 12 Nov. 1777, n.3, and Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., to GW, 2 Dec. 1777, n.3).

6The congressional resolution of 17 July 1777 is in JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 8:561. Spencer wrote Laurens on 20 Dec. 1777, explaining his difficulties and tendering his resignation (DNA:PCC, item 161). Congress read the letter on 7 Jan. 1778 and referred it to the Board of War; on 13 Jan., Congress accepted Spencer’s resignation and adopted a number of resolutions in response to the Board of War’s report (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 10:25, 46–47; see also Laurens’s letter to Spencer of 14 Jan. in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 8:593–94).

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