From Lieutenant Colonel Fleury
Burlington [N.J., 18–] 20. January 1778.
Observations Made at Cooper’s ferry. the 18. january. 1778.
situation of the River.
The River Delaware which is frozen at trenton, is not such opposite to philadelphia; the Current being very free, the ferry boat goes & Comes back every day. (that i have seen myself). But the boats Can not Land in any other place, than the wharf of kings-point, & the two of Cooper’s ferry. all the Remainder of the shore is incumbred with ice, half floating, half fasten’d to the shore, in such manner, that neither boats, nor men Can Land.
the nearest place, to the enemy fleet, is king’s point. twenty eight bigg trade ships lay together, Below, the windmill iland, & opposite to the old fort, about 1000 yards from the jersey shore. as the king’s point’s wharf is very narrow, only one eighteen poundr Can be placed upon; but two others, can be advantageously in the shore twenty yards behind.1
the both parapets, by taking Caution, to have fascines & gabions Ready, can be done canon move, in one night.
one mortar, or howyzt, to throw Carcasses, or shells, would be more useful; if they were possible to be had.
N.B. the Canon of the galleys is on shore, near burdentown, & the Commodore haselwood has told me, that he has send above trenton two field eighteen pdr Carriages.
Coll ellys, who Commands the militia at hadden field, think that he Could, defend the batery in time of ice, as it is now, with his militiamen.
if the enemy would attempt to attack the battery by landing, & that we think not, to can Repulse them; it would be easy to Caray back the guns & secure them, to the other side of Cooper’s creek; by taking the bridge way. (it is only of boards.)2
one big brick house which Lays close by the wharf, Could successfully defend the battery against Landing storm.
two kinds of fire Boats may be employed. the first, would be Loaden, with tuns powder; & burst in the midle of the fleet. they could be surely directed, by one strong Racket filled with particular Composition, & fasten’d in the very midle of the head of the boat, to give him direction & velocity. one mast sunk in the stern of the boat, horisontaly under the water, & to which one sail would be circularly bound, would hinder the Current to Drive it out the way.
the head of the boat, armed with a strong sharp point of iron, would Remain fixed in the enemy’s ship, till its bursting up.
N.B. the expences will be small. every flat bottom boat answer the purpose. the Commodore haselwood offers to help me by his knowledge, in their Construction, & Rectify my ideas. he promises to come at trenton, where we Could try, by one boat, before executing by several.
the galleys have salpeter, & powder; i can make the Composition; & one turner will do the moule under our direction. besides i suppose that the park of artillery has some quick maches already done.
2d kind of fire Boats.
that second kind is not to be used so soon. the nord est wind blows very often, & very hard in the month of february & march, & according to the instructions that i have Received of the ferrymen several boats, filled with tar & other Combustibles, Could be Leoded in the night, over the barr, between Cooper’s ferry, & philadelphia, & after, the wind, & tide, would surely Drive them streigth to the wharf of t[h]e cyty, where the ships lay.
if his excellency aproves the above setences; i begg to send me, positive orders. the commodore will be glad to Receive the same, & we will work friendly & cordyally, together; nor day nor night will be spared from our part to justify the truth of his excellency.
Fleury enclosed these observations, along with a small plan of shipping on the Delaware (see note 1), in a letter of 20 Jan. to John Laurens. Although he wrote from Burlington, N.J., Fleury noted “send me your answer to trenton.” The letter reads: “as i was still at trenton, i thought, that i Could employ my leasure, usefully at Cooper’s ferry, and i went down to that place, to try if i could, with five or six Determined militiamen, Creep upon the ice, & set on fire one or two of the enemys ships, by means of two sulphured shirts, that i had Ready for that purpose. but the River is not frozen at all, & i have been disapointed. During my station at Cooper’s ferry, i have done some observations, which i pray, that you present to his excellency. i begg together that you send me his answer by the bearer, as it is not time to be lost. . . . the enemys, were yesterday Cutting the loggs of the wharf upon windmill iland. i suppose for firewood. they are Rising palisades, from their Redoute nearest to the River, till the very place, where the tide when gone down. it is likely to prevent the desertion, or for their safety. they have two hessians Centrys, close by the water, below the beach” (DLC:GW). The letter is addressed to Laurens or, in his absence, to Robert Hanson Harrison and is docketed “Recd 22d.”
Fleury wrote Laurens, or to Harrison in Laurens’s absence, again on 23 Jan. from Trenton: “i have send to you three days ago, one Letter datted Burlington, by which i mentioned to you, the several schemes that i have formed to set on fire the english fleet. since that time i have done some small tryals, which confirme me in the first opinion. viz. that by the fire Boats, which i intend to Construct, by the help of the commodore, the succes is almost Certain. i ask leave to Repeat you their Construction. 1st i will have about twelve flat bottom boats, very easy to be got, in all places of the river. 2d make within a sort of floating mine in one trunk or chest very strong, & filled with powder: the deck will be Covered with carcasses, or bombes. 3d the direction & velocity will be given to the boat by a strong Racket, of a particular Composition; and one mast sunked in the water, will suport by the stern, the boat, against the Current. 4º the head armed with a strong spur of iron, will fixe the boat in the ships, till the powder Blows up, & set on fire the next ships. i offer, to do my tryal under the eyes of such which his excellency will apoint for that. but i must have orders, & the commodore haselwood, shall be directed to work accordingly with me. i begg to answer me immediately as it is not time to be lost. i am going to burdentown, to look for boats & tar. be so Kind to present my Letter to his excellency general Washington” (DLC:GW).
Laurens replied on 25 Jan. from Valley Forge: “Both the Letters which you wrote, proposing different Plans for the destruction of the Enemys Shipping, were communicated to His Excellency. he applauds your Zeal for the Public Service and I have it in command from him to inform you, that he thinks employing some desperate fellows to use the sulphured Shirts would be the most likely way to succeed—he is afraid that the Scheme of the boats will be too easily frustrated; however as you seem to think so favorably of it, he gives you authority to make the experiment, getting such Advice and assistance from Commodore Hazlewood as may be necessary—the greatest Secrecy and Caution will be necessary, therefore the General does not require the formality of submitting your model to the inspection of any one, as the fewer the matter is communicated to the less likely it will be to fall into improper hands—prompt execution will likewise be advisable to give the less chance for discovery—if the Enemy have any notice of your design the guard boats may without difficulty divert your fire-flats and render them harmless.
“His Excellency desires me farther to observe to you that your rendering any important Service in this way, will entitle you to the farther notice of Congress” (DLC:GW). Apparently nothing came of Fleury’s plans.
1. By “king’s point” Fleury meant Kaighn’s Point on the Delaware River in what is now Camden County, N.J., one mile below Cooper’s Ferry and opposite the old fort or Association Battery on Wicaco Lane at what was then the southern edge of Philadelphia (for the old fort, see John Clark, Jr., to GW, 26 Nov. 1777, n.2). The southern edge of Windmill Island lay a short distance above Kaighn’s Point and the northern edge about a half mile farther upriver; the island was closer to Philadelphia than to the New Jersey shore. Fleury enclosed a small map detailing his view of the British fleet, entitled “Wiew of the enemy fleet before philadelphia” (NIC: Jared Sparks Collection; reproduced in Jackson, The Pennsylvania Navy description begins John W. Jackson. The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775–1781: The Defense of the Delaware. New Brunswick, N.J., 1974. description ends , 284); see fig. 1.
2. Cooper’s Creek entered the Delaware just north of Cooper’s Ferry. Cooper’s Bridge, a drawbridge where Hessians skirmished with New Jersey militia on 21 Oct. 1777 shortly before the attack on Red Bank, N.J., and again on 1 Mar. 1778 during Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s foraging expedition, lay about a mile from Cooper’s Ferry, a short distance east of the mouth of Cooper’s Creek on the road to Burlington. The bridge adjoined the land of Samuel Spicer and also was known as Spicer’s Bridge.