George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 31 August 1778

To Henry Laurens

Head Qrs White plains August 31: 1778. 3 OClock P.M.


I would take the liberty to inform Congress, that Colo. Armand is come to camp with his Corps and has applied to me for Commissions for his Officers. By the Resolution for establishing the Corps it was to be officered out of the Foreigners then commissioned in our service, who were not, nor could be provided for in any of the Regiments.1 Instead of this, there are only three Officers in his Corps, who before held any Commissions in our service, Viz. Lieut. Colo. Vrigney & Captains Mercley & Shafner. The Two last were only Lieutenants and are now appointed to Captaincies, contrary it seems to me, to the spirit and intention of the Resolution. As Colo. Armand has departed from his instructions which must govern me, I am not authorised to grant the Commissions he requires—and am therefore under the necessity of troubling Congress, with the arrangement of the Corps, No. 1, as it now actually stands for their consideration & decision.2 The Colo. founds his deviation from the Resolve upon some verbal intimation given him, that the part in question would not be insisted on.

I would also take the liberty to mention, that General Duportail lately delivered me a Memorial, in which among other things he represents, that he had made an agreement with Congress at his first appointment, that neither himself nor the other Gentlemen with him, should ever be commanded by any of the Engineers who had preceded them in our Army.3 I could not but answer, that the Commissions of Officers were the only rule of precedency and command I had to judge by; and while others held superior appointments, I must consider them accordingly in the course of service. He gave me the inclosed Letter to you upon the subject—and is extremely anxious to have the matter placed upon a certain footing; and no doubt it will be for the good and tranquility of the service that the claim be determined as speedily as possible one way or the other.4 At the same time I think it right to observe, that it can not be expected that Colo. Cosciusko, who has been a good while in this line and conducted himself with reputation and satisfaction will consent to act in a subordinate capacity to any of the French Gentlemen, except General Portail.

The frequent condemnations to Capital punishment, for want of some intermediate one between that and a Hundred lashes (the next highest under our present military articles)—and the necessity of frequent pardons in consequence, induced me a few days ago, to lay the matter before a Board of Officers for them to consider, whether some mode might not be devised of equal or greater efficacy for preventing crimes and punishing Delinquents when they had happened, less shocking to humanity and more advantageous to the States, than that of Capital execution. The inclosed paper No. 3 contains the opinion of the Board upon the subject, which with all deference I submit to the consideration of Congress5—and doubt not but they will adopt the expedient suggested, if it shall appear in any wise calculated to promote the service. I will only observe before I conclude upon this occasion, that when I called the Board to consult upon the point, there were Eleven prisoners under sentence of death and probably many more for trial, in the different guards on charges, that would affect their lives.6

Since I had the honor of writing you on the 25 Instant, I have not received a single line from General Sullivan. The only intelligence I have from the Eastward is from Monsr Pontjebeau.7 This Gentleman left Rhode-Island the 27th and arrived about Two Hours ago in Camp. From him I learn that our people were still on the Island. That it was generally thought they had made effectual provision for a retreat in case of exigency. That in the evening of that day he met Monsr preville, an Officer belonging to the Languedoc, at providence going with dispatches to Genl Sullivan, who informed him that the French fleet had got into Boston. He further adds, that Monsr Colonne, who was in company with him at providence and who had more conversation with Mr preville than he himself had, told him, that Mr preville said Count D’Estaing had sailed or was on the point of sailing again for Rhode Island with 10 Ships of the line & his Frigates.8 I have the Honor to be with great respect & esteem sir Yr Most Obedt servt

Go: Washington

P.S. Your favor of the 20th only came to hand just now.9

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 3 Sept. and referred it to the Board of War (see 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 , 12:862–63).

1For the resolution of 25 June 1778, see 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 , 11:644.

2In the enclosed undated arrangement, Armand listed the officers and wrote comments explaining their ranks (DNA:PCC, item 152).

3The memorial has not been identified.

4Duportail’s letter to Laurens of 27 Aug. is in DNA:PCC, item 41. Duportail wrote that because none of the engineers commissioned prior to his arrival in America had formal training or experience, he and his French colleagues had “believed that Congress would be sensible, that it would be unjust and contradictory to ask the Court of france for Engineers and to place them in their Art under Persons who are Engineers only by name, that to do so would abase our abilities on a level with theirs, and therefore hinder our being more useful than they. Thus we required of the Congress that not any of us should be ever commanded by them.” Duportail claimed that Congress had agreed and had responded by giving him command and by giving his colleagues commissions as “Coll, Lt. Coll or major of the Engineers, whereas the others were called only Coll Lt Coll or major Engineer.” This, he asserted, was supposed to give the Frenchmen rank within the engineers, but problems had arisen, especially in the case of Colonel La Radière (who had been involved in disputes with Colonel Kosciuszko at West Point).

6For discussion of the eleven prisoners, see General Orders, 14 Aug., and note 3, and 21 Aug., and note 1.

7Charles-Albert, comte de Moré de Pontgibaud (1758–1837), was serving as one of Lafayette’s aides-de-camp and had been commissioned a major in February 1778. He carried Lafayette’s letter to GW of 25 August.

8 Pontgibaud had probably referred to Georges-René Pléville Le Pelley (1726–1805), a lieutenant de vaisseau on the Languedoc, although there was a Préville with d’Estaing’s fleet: Charles-René Gras, chevalier de Préville (1732–1793), a capitaine de vaisseau since 1777 who commanded the Engageante. “Colonne” was probably Capt. Louis-Saint-Ange Morel, chevalier de La Colombe (1755-c.1800), another Lafayette aide-de-camp.

9The postscript does not appear on the draft or the Varick transcript. GW was apparently acknowledging Laurens’s second letter of 20 August.

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