George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Jay, 22 May 1779

From John Jay

Philadelphia 22nd May 1779


I have the Honor of transmitting to you, herewith enclosed, Copies of three Letters respecting the Enemy’s Operations in Virginia—two from his Excellency Governor Henry of the 11th & 12th Inst.—& the other from Thompson Mason Esquire of the 17th Inst.1

Last Night I received a Letter from James Calhoun enclosing a Virginia Gazette of the 15th Inst., and a deposition of Joseph White taken the 20th Inst., These Papers have not yet been communicated to Congress, but as the Intelligence they contain is interesting I transmit you a Copy of the last, & some Extracts of the first.2 I have the Honor to be with the greatest Respect & Esteem Your Excellency’s Most Obedient & Humble Servant

John Jay Presidt

LS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA:PCC, item 14.

1The enclosed copy of a letter from Patrick Henry to Jay, dated 11 May at Williamsburg, reads: “On Saturday last in the Evening a British Fleet amounting to about 30 sail consisting of one 64 Gun Ship (supposed by some to be the St Albans) and 15 or 16 large Ships some of them either Frigates or armed Vessels it is not known certainly which, & the others Vessels of a lesser size, came into the Bay of Chesapeak & the next day proceeded to Hampton Road, where they anchored & remained quiet untill yesterday about Noon when several of the Ships got under way & proceeded towards portsmouth, which place I have no doubt they intend to attack by Water or by Land, or by both, as they have many flat-bottomed Boats with them for the purpose of landing their Troops. As I too well know the weakness of that Garrison I am in great Pain for the Consequences, there being great quantities of Merchandize, the property of French Merchants & others in this State, at that place, as well as considerable Quantities of Military Stores which tho’ measures some time since were taken to remove may nevertheless fall into the Enemies hands. Whether they may hereafter intend to fortify & maintain this post is at present unknown to me, but the consequences which will result to this State and to the United States finally, if such a measure should be adopted must be obvious. Whether it may be in the power of Congress to adopt any measures which can in any manner counteract the design of the Enemy is submitted to their Wisdom. At present I cannot avoid intimating that I have the greatest reason to think that many Vessels from France with public & private Merchandize may unfortunately arrive whilst the Enemy remain in perfect possession of the Bay of Chesapeak, and fall Victims unexpectedly.

“Every precaution will be taken to order Look-out Boats on the Sea Coasts to furnish proper Intelligence, but the success attending the Execution of this necessary Measure, will be precarious in the present Situation of things.

“It is not in my power to be more explicit at this time, but the weightiness of this Affair has induced me not to defer sending the best Information I could obtain by Express.

“You may depend that so soon as farther particulars respecting the designs of the Enemy shall come to my Knowledge they shall be communicated with out delay to Congress” (DLC:GW).

The enclosed copy of a letter from Henry to Jay, dated 12 May at Williamsburg, reads: “I addressed You yesterday on a Subject of the greatest consequence—the last Night brought the fatal Account of Portsmouth being in the Possession of the Enemy—their force was too great to be resisted and therefore the fort was evacuated after destroying one Capital Ship belonging to this State, & one or two private ones loaded with Tobacco—Goods & Merchandize however of very great value fell into the Enemy’s hands—If Congress by their wisdom could by Sollicitation procure a fleet superior to the Enemy’s force to enter Chesapeak at this critical Period, the prospect of gain & advantage would be great indeed” (DLC:GW).

The enclosed copy of a letter from Thomson Mason to Jay, dated 17 May at Leesburg, Va., reads: “Tho’ I have not the honour of being known to you I take the liberty of communicating a pice of Intelligence that I fear from the Drunkenness of the Express employed will not reach you so soon as our Governour intended, as my Son informs me he left him drunk upon the Road. My Son, who is immediately from Hampton, informs me that about 40 Sail of the Enemy appeared in Hampton Road on Sunday the 9th Instant, on Monday they attacked our Fort at Portsmouth where Major Matthews commanded with 150 Men, they were repulsed—they renewed their Attack on Tuesday Morning; but the Fort was gallantly defended till four in the afternoon, when perceiving that the Enemy had landed a great number of Men & were marching round to attack it on the land side, Major Matthews spiked up his Cannon destroyed his Stores, burned three fine Ships of War we had on the Stocks there, & marched off. a small party of thirty of the Enemy who had marched up to the great Bridge were intercepted by the Militia 14 killed & 16 taken Prisoners. The Enemy have with them 3,000 Men only, & I have the pleasure to inform you that the Militia of the lower Counties are turning out with great Alacrity” (DLC:GW).

For information on the course and objectives of the British attack on Portsmouth, Va., and its vicinity, see William Maxwell to GW, 3 May, n.2.

2James Calhoun (1743–1816) of Baltimore, a prominent merchant, served in a number of official positions during the war, including as a deputy commissary general of purchases and as chairman of the Baltimore County Committee of Observation. In March 1778, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene appointed him deputy quartermaster for the western shore of Maryland, a position he held until January 1780. He served from 1797 to 1804 as the mayor of Baltimore. Calhoun’s letter to Jay, dated 20 May at Baltimore, is in DNA:PCC, item 78; the extracts have not been identified.

The enclosed copy of Joseph White’s deposition, sworn on 20 May before George Lindenberger, reads: “Joseph White of full Age being sworn on the holy Evangelists of Almighty God Deposith & saith—That being on the Bay side between Hampton & Back River he saw 16 Sail of Ships, & 5 other small Vessels, which came to anchor in Hampton Road, About 4 OClock in the afternoon of the same day which was the 9th of this month—That the next day they went up to Portsmouth, & beleives landed & took Possession of the fort—On Tuesday being the next day he heard from a deserter, & a person who said he was there that they marched to Suffolk with about 3 or 4,00[0] men & burnt it—And that they burnt & plundered as they went—That the deserter informed this deponent that yesterday was appointed by the Enemy for burning Hampton—from that they intended to burn York & Williamsburgh, & from that they intended to Baltimore—And this Deponent further saith, that the deserter further informed him that the Enemy’s force was reported among themselves to be about 6,000 but that the deserter did not think they were above 3,000, & thirty light Horse.... And this Deponent upon a further Examination saith that on the 18th of this month in the Town of Hampton where he was, it was generally reported that Seventeen sail of Vessels two of which were very large, were within Cape Henry & came to Anchor on the Horse-Shoe—that he this deponent went to Hampton Church Steeple himself but it grew hazy, & he could see but one Vessel which was square rigged” (DLC:GW).

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