George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 11–12 September 1778

To Vice Admiral d’Estaing

Head Quarters [White Plains]
11[–12]th September 1778.1


I have had the honor of receiving Your Excellencys Letter of the 5th inst: accompanied by a copy of two letters to Congress and General Sullivan—The confidence which you have been pleased to shew me in communicating these papers, engage my sincere thanks—if the deepest regret, that the best concerted enterprises and bravest exertions should have been rendered fruitless by a disaster which human prudence is incapable of foreseeing or preventing, can alleviate disappointment; you may be assured that the whole continent sympathises with you—it will be a consolation to you to reflect that the thinking part of mankind do not form their judgement from events; and that their equity will ever attach equal glory to those actions which deserve success, as to those which have been crowned with it—It is in the trying circumstances to which Your Excellency has been exposed, that the virtues of a great mind are displayed in their brightest lustre—and that the Generals Character is better known than in the moment of victory—it was yours by every title which can give it—and the adverse element which robbed you of your prize, can never deprive you of the glory due to you—And tho’ your Success has not been equal to your expectations—yet you have the satisfaction to reflect that you have done essential service to the common cause.

I exceedingly lament that in addition to our misfortunes, ther⟨e⟩ has been the least suspension of harmo⟨ny⟩ and good understanding between the Generals of allied nations, whose vie⟨ws⟩ must like their interests be the same—on the first intimation of it I employ⟨ed⟩ my influence in restoring what I regard as essential to the permanen⟨ce⟩ of an Union founded on mutual inclination, and the strongest ties of reciprocal advantage—Your Excellencys offer to the Council of Boston had a powerful tendency to promote the same end, and was a distinguished proof of your zeal and magnanimity.

The present superiority of the enemy in naval force, must for a time suspend all plans of offensive cooperation, between us—it is not easy to foresee what change may take place by the arrival of succours to you from Europe—or what opening the enemy may give you to resume your activity—in this moment therefore every consultation on this subject would be premature—but it is of infinite importance that we should take all the means that our circumstances will allow for the defence of a Squadron, which is so pretious to the common cause of France and America, and which may have become a capital object with the enemy—Whether this really is the case can be only matter of conjecture; the original intention of the reinforcement sent to Rhode Island2 was obviously the relief of the garrison at that post—I have to lament that tho seasonably advised of the movement, it was utterly out of my power to counteract it—a naval force alone could have defeated the attempt—how far their views may since have been enlarged by the arrival of Byrons Fleet, Your Excellency will be best able to judge. Previous to this event I believe General Clinton was waiting orders from his court for the conduct he was to pursue—in the mean time embarking his stores and heavy baggage in order to be the better prepared for a prompt evacuation if his instructions should require it—but as the present posture of affairs may induce a change of operations, and tempt them to carry the war eastward for the ruin of your Squadron; it will as I observed before, be necessary for us to prepare for opposing such an Enterpr⟨ise⟩—I am unhappy that our situation will not admit of our contributing more effectually to this valuable end—but assure you at the same time, that whatever can be attempted without losing sight of objects equally essential to the interests of the two nations—shall be put in execution.

A Candid View of our Affairs which I am going to exhibit, will make you a judge of the difficulties under which we labour.

Almost all our supplies of flour, and no inconsiderable part of our meat, are drawn from the States westward of Hudsons River—this renders a secure communication across that River indispensibly necessary not only to the support of the Army, but the valuable Squadron of His most Christian Majesty, if it should be blocked up by a superior fleet— the enemy being masters of that navigation would interrupt this essential intercourse between the States—they have been sensible of these advantages, and by the attempts which they have made to bring about a Separation of the Eastern from the other States3—have always obliged us besides garrisoning the forts that immediately defend the passage—to keep a force at least equal to that, which they have kept in New York and its dependencies—and it is incumbent upon us at this time to have a greater force in this quarter than usual, from the concentred State of the enemys Strength and the uncertainty of their designs—in addition to this it is to be observed that they derive an inestimable advantage from the facility of transporting their troops from one point to another—these rapid movements enable them to give us uneasiness for remote unguarded posts, in attempting to succour which we should be exposed to ruinous marches, and after all perhaps be the dupes of a feint—if they could by any demonstration in another part, draw our attention and strength from this important point, and by anticipating our return possess themselves of it—the consequences would be fatal4 to the Army & Fleet.

Our dispositions therefore, must have equal regard to cooperating with you, in a defensive plan—and securing the North River—which the remoteness of the two objects from each other renders peculiarly difficult—Immediately upon the change which happened in the State of your naval affairs—my attention was directed to conciliating these two great ends—the necessity of transporting magazines collected relatively to our present position—and making new arrangements for ulterior operations, has hitherto been productive of delay—these points are now nearly accomplished and I hope in a day or two to begin a general movement of the Army eastward—as a commencement of this, one division marched this morning under Major General Gates towards Danbury—and the rest of the army will follow as speedily as possible.

The following is a general idea of my disposition—the Army will be thrown into several divisions—one of which consisting of a force equal to the Enemys in New York, will be about thirty miles in the rear of my present Camp—and in the vicinity of the North River with a view to its defence—the others will be pushed on at different stages, as far towards Connecticut River, as can be done consistently with preserving a communication, and having them within supporting distance of each other—so that when occasion requires, they may form a junction, either for thei⟨r⟩ own immediate defence, or to oppos⟨e⟩ any attempts that may be made on the North River—the facility which the enemy have of collecting their whole force, and turning it against any point they please, will restrain us from extending ourselves so far, as will either expose us to be beaten in detachment, or endanger the securi⟨ty⟩ of the North River.

This disposition will place the American Forces as much in measure, for assisting in the defence of your Squadron and the Tow⟨n⟩ of Boston, as is consistent with the other great objects of our care.

It does not appear to me probable that the enemy would hazard the penetrating to Boston by land, with the force which they at present have to the Eastward—I am rather inclined to believe that they will draw together their whole land and naval strength to give the greater probability of success—in order to this New York must be evacuated, an event which cannot take place without being announced by circumstances impossible to conceal—and I have reason to hope that the time which must necessarily be exhausted in embarking and transporting their troops and stores, would be sufficient for me to advance a considerable part of my army in measure for opposing them.

The observations which Your Excellency makes relative to the necessity of having intelligent spies, are perfectly just—every measure that circumstances would admit has been taken to answer this valuable end, and has in general been as good as could be expected from the situation of the enemy.

The distance at which we are from our posts of observation in the first instance, and the long journey which is afterwards to be performed before a letter can reach Your Excellency—hinder my communicating intelligence with such celerity as I could wish—the letter which I sent giving an account of Lord Howes Movement, was dispatched as soon as the fact was ascertained—but it did not arrive ’till you had gone to Sea in pursuit of the british Squadron.5

As Your Excellency does not mention the Letters which I last had the honor of writing to you, I apprehend some delay or miscarriage—their dates are the 2d and 3d inst.

The sincere esteem and regard which I feel for Your Excellency, make me set the highest value upon every expression of friendship with which you are pleased to honor me—I entreat you to accept the warmest returns on my part.

I shall count it a singular felicity if in the course of possible operations above alluded to, personal intercourse should afford me the means of cultivating a closer intimacy with you—and of proving to you more particularly the respect and attachment with which I have the honor to be Your Excellencys most obedient and most humble Servt.

Go: Washington

P.S. My dispatches were going to be closed, when Your Excellencys Letter of the 8th was delivered me; I detain the express to acknowledge the receipt of it.

The State of Byrons Fleet from the bes⟨t⟩ intelligence I have been able to obtain is as follows—6 Ships—the names of whi⟨ch⟩ are mentioned in the Gazette which I had the honor of transmitting the 3d inst., have arrived at New York with very sickly Crew⟨s.⟩ 2. vizt the Cornwall of 74 and Monmouth of 64 had joined Lord Howe—2. one of which the Admirals Ship, missing—one had put back to Portsmouth6—Of lord Howes Squadron a 64 and 50 are at New York.

LS, in John Laurens’s writing, FrPNA: Marine, B4, I46; Df, DLC:GW; copy (extract), FrPBN; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The extract corresponds to the first paragraph of the LS.

1According to the docket on d’Estaing’s second letter of 8 Sept., acknowledged in the postscript below, it was received on 12 September.

2GW inserted the word “Island.”

3At this point the draft continued with the words “and the facility which their superiority by Sea had hitherto given him.”

4Laurens put a period at this point, but GW added the words following.

5GW was referring to his letter to d’Estaing of 8 August.

6The remainder of the postscript does not appear on the draft.

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