George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major General William Heath, 28 August 1778

To Major General William Heath

Head Quarters White plains 28th Augt 1778

Dear Sir

The unfortunate circumstance of the French Fleet having left Rhode Island at so critical a moment, I am apprehensive, if not very prudently managed, will have many injurious consequences, besides merely the loss of the advantages we should have reaped from succeeding in the Expedition. It will not only tend to discourage the people, and weaken their confidence in our new alliance, but may possibly produce prejudices and resentments, which may operate against giving the Fleet such Zealous and effectual assistance in its present distress, as the exigence of affairs and our true interest demand. It will certainly be sound policy to combat these effects, and whatever private opinions may be entertained, to give the most favorable construction, of what has happened, to the public, and at the same time to put the French Fleet, as soon as possible, in condition to defend itself and be useful to us.

The departure of the Fleet from Rhode Island is not yet publicly announced here, but when it is, I intend to ascribe it to necessity, from the damage suffered in the late storm. This, it appears to me, is the Idea which ought to be generally propagated. As I doubt not the force of these Reasons will strike you equally with myself, I would recommend to you to use your utmost influence to palliate and soften matters, and induce those, whose business it is to provide succours of every kind for the fleet, to employ their utmost zeal and activity in doing it. It is our duty to make the best of our misfortune, and not to suffer passion to interfere with our interest and the public good.1

By several late accounts from New York there is reason to beleive the enemy are on the point of some important movement. They have been some days past embarking Cannon and other matters—and yesterday an hundred and forty transports fell down to the Hook. These and other circumstances indicate something of moment being in contemplation. Whether they meditate any enterprise against this army, mean to transfer the War elsewhere, or intend to embrace the present opportunity of evacuating the Continent is as yet uncertain. If they have a superior fleet on the Coast, it is not impossib⟨le⟩ they may change the seat of the War to the Eastward, endeavouring by a land and Sea cooperation to destroy or possess themselves of the French Fleet. With an Eye to an event of this kind, I have desired General Sullivan, if he makes good his Retreat from the Island, to disband no more of his troops than he cannot help;2 and I would recommend to you to have an eye to it likewise, and by establishing Signals and using other proper precautions to put things in a train for calling out your Militia at the shortest notice. I am Dear Sir Your most obt & hum: Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, MHi: Heath Papers; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1On the draft, which is in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, except for the dateline in Tilghman’s, the complimentary close was initially written here, but it was struck out and the following paragraph added.

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