George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Laurens, 23 September 1778

From Henry Laurens

Philadelphia 23d September 1778

Dear Sir

Mr Richard Beresford, a Native of South Carolina, a Young Gentleman of family, fortune and good Character who left New York on the 20th Instant called on me at a late hour last Night and delivered a verbal Message from Robert Williams Esquire another Native of that State, a very sensible Man, long a Practitioner in the Law, a respectable Character in general but not well affected to the Independence of the United States, more than cooly attached to his own private Interests, and I believe held by the British Ministry to be a fast, prudent friend to their Government.1

In the last Conversation Mr Williams held with Governor Johnstone at New York, he discovered, as he presumed, the design of the Enemy to detach part of their Squadron, together with 10,000 Troops immediately after the Hurricane Season to South Carolina, to land either at or near Charlestown, or at Beaufort Port Royal about 70 Miles from Charlestown, or at both—the conquest, Governor Johnstone apprehended would be easily made, and the acquisition extremely beneficial by annexing South Carolina and Georgia to the Floridas.2 Mr Williams requests me to avoid as much as possible intimating from whom I have derived my intelligence, hence Mr Beresford with great form shut the Parlour door before he would enter upon the disclosure—the Idea that I could conceal his name was a little ridiculous—this Gentleman with a Mr Hopton, not so good a general Character as his own, and several other disaffected Persons are to embark in a few days under a flag for Charlestown.3

The enterprize is the most likely to succeed so far as to create a favorable diversion of any I can think of at this juncture of time and circumstances—it is a favorite Plan of General Grants nor is it improb[ab]le that Sir Henry Clinton will be anxious to recover the honor he lost upon the sands of Long Island.4

Is it likely that Governor Johnstone would have communicated a design of such importance to Mr Williams? it is possible he might for valuable considerations, and also to Mr Hopton—how shall I account for Mr Williams’ betraying to me the confidence reposed in him—he is a wiley Man—does not give a word in writing—may have in view ultimately to secure his own Estate—for his attachment to the Enemy if their attempts prosper—for the faithful and timely notice given to his Countrymen should they from thence defeat the meditated Attack—this, he may think, will also secure to himself and his present Companions admission into Charlestown, which otherwise would be extremely doubtful.

I asked Mr Beresford upon what principle, Sir H. Clinton permitted Mr Williams and the rest to proceed to Charlestown, he replied with a smile, “a mark of extraordinary favor certainly.”

All that Governor Johnstone has said to Mr Williams may have been calculated for amusement, or, merely for obtaining a safe re-entrance upon his Estate to a friend of British Government.

Upon the whole, my Idea is to give immediate notice to South Carolina, preperations will be made for guarding against the effects of the menace—necessary steps will be taken for stopping the flag-ship far below the town, and after a proper detention for returning her and her whole Cargo to the Ocean, if a stroke is really intended she may contain skilful Engineers in Frocks & Trowsers, and many other dangerous instruments in disguise—if the Vessel shall be ahead of my Intelligence and shall not have left the Port when that arrives, means may be devised for detaining her according to Circumstances—upon her return to New York or, meeting the Fleet, the mode of operation may be decided—the Voyage and return will be completed within October—the next will be the best Month for carrying the project into execution.

I therefore admit the possibility of the design, and will recommend to my Countrymen to act as they ought, if there was no ground for doubt.5

Your Excellency may possibly derive some advantage by a comparison of this with other Accounts from New York—I have from this reflection and from considering that all public important Intelligence is due to Your Excellency made the present communication without delay.

I request Your Excellency to order forward the several Letters for Boston &ca6—& believe me to be with the most sincere & respectful attachment Dear sir Your Excellency’s Much Obliged & obedient humble servant

Henry Laurens

This Instant an escaped Prisoner from New York informs me of the Enemy’s having abandoned Rhode Island[.] The acquisition of Provision of Rice &c. &c. for the support of the British W. India Islands which may be made in the Months of November & December—in so. Carolina & Georgia with perhaps 10000 Negroes—& also the destruction of all our Navigation are no inferior objects.

LS, DLC:GW; LB, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers. On the LS the closing and postscript are in Laurens’s writing.

Laurens wrote a similar letter on this date to South Carolina President Rawlins Lowndes (see Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:351–53), and he conveyed much of the same information to North Carolina Gov. Richard Caswell in a letter of 26 Sept. (see Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:361–63).

1Richard Beresford (1755–1803), who had gone to London in 1773 to read law at the Middle Temple, was at this time on his way to home to South Carolina to practice his new profession in Charleston. After serving later this year under Brig. Gen. Isaac Huger in Georgia, Beresford became an aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. William Moultrie and was captured with him when Charleston fell to the British in May 1780. Exchanged the following year, Beresford was elected to the South Carolina general assembly in 1782, and in 1783 he was elected first as lieutenant governor and then as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he served until 1784. He was again a member of the general assembly from 1785 to 1786. Robert Williams, Sr. (1732–1808), who was actually a native of Britain, had been admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1753. A supporter of the Stamp Act in 1765, he remained loyal to the Crown when the war began, retiring from Charleston to his plantation near Beaufort. In May 1777 Williams sailed to England, and he was now returning home by way of New York, possibly because of a South Carolina act of March 1778 imposing a double tax on all absentees from the state.

2In his letter to Lowndes of this date, Laurens says that this conversation “happened on or about the 17th” and that Johnstone “particularly enquired who were the leading Men in South Carolina and other minutia” (Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:351–53). In his letter to Caswell of 26 Sept., Laurens gives the date of the conversation as “on or about the 19th Instant” (Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:361). George Johnstone, who had been governor of West Florida from 1763 to 1767, was at this time a member of the British peace commission in New York.

3Robert Williams, his son Robert Williams, Jr. (1760–1824), and Robert Hopton (1748–1831) were among the six prominent former South Carolina and Georgia residents who arrived at Charleston on 9 Oct. in the cartel sloop Adventure. In an examination by the South Carolina privy council on the evening of the following day, Williams gave a detailed account of his conversation with Governor Johnstone regarding the British threat to South Carolina. Both Williams and his son were then allowed to take oaths restoring them as state citizens (see Rawlins Lowndes to Henry Laurens, 13 Oct., in Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:407–11). When the British army occupied Charleston in May 1780, however, the Williamses swore allegiance to the king and remained in the city until the British evacuated it in December 1782. They settled in England in 1783. Hopton, who had been a clerk in Laurens’s mercantile firm before becoming a partner in another Charleston firm in 1771, was examined by the general assembly before he was permitted to take the oaths of citizenship. An unabashed opportunist with whom Laurens had fallen out before the war, Hopton appeared to support the American cause until 1777, when he sailed to England with a cargo of indigo, intending to sit out the war there. Captured at sea by a privateer, Hopton went to Liverpool and then to New York, where he availed himself of the chance to return to Charleston to settle his firm’s accounts. Hopton was elected to the state senate in 1779 and took part in the defense of Charleston in May 1780, but when the city fell to the British, he, like the Williamses, switched his allegiance to the king. Like them also, Hopton remained in Charleston until the British left in December 1782, and he subsequently lived in England.

4Maj. Gen. James Grant was preparing at this time to lead an expedition against St. Lucia in the West Indies. In June 1776 Henry Clinton had commanded the British force that landed on Long Island (now the Isle of Palms) a short distance north of Charleston. His efforts to assist the British navy in capturing the city came to nought when his troops were unable to cross the channel between that island and Sullivan’s Island, where American defenders held a crucial fortified position guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor.

5See Laurens to Rawlins Lowndes, this date, in Laurens Papers description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends , 14:351–53.

6These letters have not been identified.

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