George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Brigadier General Duportail, 18 January 1778

From Brigadier General Duportail

[18 January 1778]

If Fortification is necessary in any Armies, it is peculiarly so in those, which like ours, from a deficiency in the practice of manoeuvres cannot oppose any to those of the Enemy—being necessitated therefore to receive him on their own ground, they ought always to be protected either by a natural or artificial Fortification, if it were only to have (under favor of the resistance of this fortification) sufficient time to ascertain the Result of the Enemys movements—where his principal force is directed—and where his greatest effort is to be made—with respect to natural fortification, all Situations do not afford it—and to rely intirely upon it, would involve prodigious constraint in the choice of Positions, and exclude many excellent ones consider’d relatively to the operations of War—it is therefore much more advantageous to have recourse to artificial Fortification which is applicable in all Situations.

The very great difficulties which I experienced in the last Campaign, both in setting on foot the most simple work and having it executed with the necessary Conditions, induce me to propose to His Excellency an establishment which is absolutely indispensable, if he chooses to derive hereafter those succours from Fortification which it holds out to him.

I would desire to have three Companies of Sappers formed—they should be instructed in every thing that relates to the Construction of Field works—how to dispose of the Earth—to cut the Slopes—face with Turf or Sods—make fascines—arrange them properly cut and fix Palisades &ca.

The Sappers should be distributed in the different works, and a sufficient number of fatigue men drawn from the Line should be joined to them to work under their direction, by which means, the works would be executed with a perfection and celerity which otherwise will ever be unknown in this army—it is I believe altogether useless to enlarge upon a matter so obvious—I proceed therefore immediately to the principal Conditions on which this Corps should be formed.

1st The pay ought to be greater than that of the ordinary foot Soldier, because the Service is exceedingly hard—this is the practice in Europe, and they receive besides extraordinary pay, when they work—Choice ought to be made of vigorous Soldiers and the preference should be given to Carpenters and Masons.

2. The Non commissioned Officers ought all to read and write, and be intelligent persons of good Characters.

3. The Companies of Sappers ought to be altogether under the Command of the Head Engineer—for if the Major Generals had a right to employ them as the[y] pleased, each from a desire of fortifying his Camp in his own way, would ask for Sappers and they would all be taken from the Engineers.

Besides as such partial works do not enter into the general plan of the Position, they are for the most part useless, ill concerted, and sometimes even dangerous.

4. The Captains of Sappers will be charged with the detail of their Companies, and each of them will be accountable to the Commanding Officer of the Engineers, in order that he may always know the State of the Companies, their Strength &ca.

5. Each Company should always have its Tools with it, carried in a Waggon provided for the purpose—The Company should be answerable for all Tools lost—and in case any should be broke, the pieces are to be produced to the Officer to whom the Detail of the Company is committed.

The Camp of the Sappers to be assigned by the Commanding Officer of Engineers adjacent to the place where they are to be employ’d.

Of the Officers.

If it be important to choose the Privates in these Companies—it is much more so to choose the Officers—The Congress ought in my opinion, to think of forming Engineers in this Country to replace us when we shall be call’d home—The Companies of Sappers now proposed might serve as a School to them—they might there acquire at once the practical part of the Construction of Works—and if choice be made of young men well bred, intelligent and fond of Instruction, we shall take pleasure in giving them principles upon the choice of Situations, and the method of adapting works to the ground.

If His Excellency approves my Plan—I would advise the speedy execution of it—in order that the Companies may have served their Apprenticeship before the opening of the Campaign.

These Companies ought not be composed of Recruits—but Soldiers answering the description above should be taken from the Line for the purpose.1

While I am employed in representing the defects of my branch of the Army—I entreat His Excellency to observe that four Engineers are not sufficient—of the four, one is always detached and sometimes two, which is the case at present—and I am left with only one Officer—it is impossible for us to do the Service of the Army2 There is at York Town a French Officer who was brought by Mr Du Coudray and introduced by him as an Engineer—for my part I do not give him out as such, because he was not in that character in France and has no such pretensions himself—but he studied with a view to become a Member of the Corps—he has studied Geometry, understands surveying and Drawing, and therefore might be very useful to us.

I entreat His Excellency to ask the Congress for this Gentleman—he has on his part made applications which have hitherto proved fruitless—His name is Ville franche and he brought a particular recommendation from General R. How to the President of Congress.3

Sign’d Chevr du Portail.

Copy, in John Laurens’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, MB. The copy in DLC:GW is docketed “18th Jany 1778.” The copy in MB is dated “20 january 1778” but docketed “Monsr duportail dated Camp 6th April 1778.”

In an undated letter to GW that was docketed “Feby 1778,” Duportail made further recommendations concerning the engineers: “the appointements of engineers of the united states of america having not been Regulated i beg his excellency to settle that article and receive the following observatio⟨ns⟩.

“1º in all europa the pay of engineers is higher than that of all others officers, besides a particular traitement is allowed to them in time of war; in france it is more Considerable than their appointements. that is founded on several reasons and between them on the hardship of their service wich obliges them to be perpetually running about, in Consequence of it they Cannot often live with the same means wich may be found in Camp. therefore they are put to Charge of a good deal of expenses.

“2º each engineer even being only Capitaine wants two horses one for him and another for a servant who attends him where he may be detached. but every body Knows that the Continental horses are extremely bad, Consequenty unfit for our service; therefore we must provide with, but they are so dear that our appointements whatever may be Cannot afford for that purchase.

“i ask sr pleases to the honourable Congres to grant us the necessary money, according the account here after.

“to Lieut. Col. [Jean-Baptiste de] gouvion and major villefranche two horses for every one.

“to Colonels La radiere et laumoy for three horses.

“to me for four horses.

“i flatter my self the Congress will not find my Request indiscet for as much as he Knows very well that our expenses in Coming from france in america have not been Remboursed to us, what however woud seem just for officers especially asked by the Congress” (DLC:GW).

1The remainder of this document does not appear on the copy in MB, which closes at this place with the following sentence: “When the companies of Sappers are raised, partic⟨ular⟩ rules will be given to them for their Service.”

2GW summarized Duportail’s proposals in his letter of 29 Jan. to a Continental Congress camp committee. On 3 Mar. the committee wrote Congress elaborating on the arrangement of an engineer corps, and on 27 May, Congress resolved to create three engineer companies among other matters pertaining to the reorganization of the army (DNA:PCC, item 33; 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 , 10:227, 11:541–42).

3Jean-Louis-Ambroise, chevalier de Villefranche de Genton (1747–1784), had arrived in America with Philippe Du Coudray in February 1777. In August of that year Congress dispatched Villefranche to survey and prepare a plan of defense for Charleston, S.C., where his work earned the approval of Robert Howe despite being “perhaps too elaborate to be wholly adopted” (see Howe to Congress, 15 Aug. 1777, DNA:PCC, item 160). Congress awarded Villefranche the rank of captain in October 1777 and in the following month granted him funds to return to France, but he declined the money, and Congress appointed him major of engineers under Duportail on 1 Jan. 1778 (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 , 9:799, 877, 10:7). Villefranche’s accomplishments at West Point in the summer of 1780, at Newport, R.I., and Albany, N.Y., in 1781, and especially in constructing works on the Mohawk River in early 1782 earned GW’s high praise and a certificate of his approval (see GW to Villefranche, 4 Mar. 1782, and Villefranche’s Certificate of Service, 3 Dec. 1782). Armed with GW’s testimonial, Villefranche secured from Congress promotion to lieutenant colonel in May 1783 and returned to France at the end of the war.

Duportail recommended another officer to GW in a letter that was docketed 23 Feb. but apparently dates from earlier, as GW laid it before the Continental Congress camp committee on 19 Feb. (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 , 9:105). The letter reads: “Mr de murnan in whose favor I take the liberty of solliciting your kindness, has gone through the necessary studies for entering into the Corps of Engineers in France—he even obtained his licence for examination, which is never granted until satisfactory papers are delivered in at the War Office setting forth that the person is of a noble family. France does not receive into the Corps which is charged with the pretious Trust of her fortified Places and every thing that relates to the defence of her frontiers, any other subjects than those whose birth and education are pledges of their Sentiments and Conduct. this Licence is at the same time a proof of his Studies, because it can only be had in consequence of certificates given by professors who are liable to be called upon—The reason why this Gentleman was not admitted, was because the Arrangements of the Minister underwent a considerable change at that time—and that after having intended to make a considerable promotion in the Corps of Engineers, he confined himself to making a very small one—This Officer then entered into the Kings household Troops, but this Service not suiting his taste, which inclined him to engineering, he went to Russia which was then at war with the Turks. he there served in the capacity which he liked—he was Captain Engineer, but peace being made, he returned to France where he was preparing to reenter the Service, when called by some business to one of our Sea port Towns, The Enthusiasm which prevailed there in favor of this country took possession of him and he was persuaded to come here; a Vessel was ready, he embarked contenting himself with barely writing to his friends to recommend him to M[iste]rs Franklin and Dean, as well as to the principal Officers of his own Country, here among others to the Marquis de la fayette, but none of these Letters are arrived.

“This Officer may be very useful here, he possesses sufficient theoretical Knowledge to make him an exceeding good Engineer, and he acquired some practice in Russia—he asks for the rank of Major which appears reasonable. In all the states of Europe, a grade is readily given to an Officer and especially to an Engineer, whose service is wanted and it is easily conceived that this is necessary, as no one would expatriate himself and go into a new Service without reaping a benefit from it” (DLC:GW).

Francis Dana wrote Congress on behalf of the camp committee on 3 Mar., recommending that Jean-Bernard-Bourg Gauthier de Murnan (b. 1748) be appointed a major of engineers (DNA:PCC, item 33). Congress did not appoint Murnan until January 1779, however, when it commissioned him to rank as major from March 1778 (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 , 13:57–58). In August 1781 a court-martial tried Murnan for several charges and sentenced him to be dismissed from the service, but GW restored him to his rank (see General Orders, 8, 28 Aug. 1781). Murnan resigned at the end of the war with the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel and returned to France, where he attained the provisional rank of brigadier general before being imprisoned during the Terror, though he eventually secured his release under the Thermidorean Convention.

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