George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 July 1779

To Jonathan Trumbull, Sr.

Head Quarters New Windsor July 7th 1779

Dr Sir,

I beg leave to inform your Excellency that I have received intelligence of an embarkation of the enemy the 4th instant at Frogs Neck,1 which proceeded up the Sound and probably have in view a sudden2 incursion into your State—perhaps New London may be the object. I should have communicated the intelligence sooner; but it arrived during my absence from Head Quarters, from which place I have been for two days past on a visit to our own posts below3 and those the enemy have lately established4—The embarkation in question is said to consist of the Grenadiers light infantry and some Hessians amounting to about 1800 men—It seems the enemy have lately collected a number of their shipping in the East River—Their whole force except this detachment is assembling about Kings Bridge and Philip’s farm5—The present movement up the sound may have two objects in view—the destruction of some town or magazine near the coast and the drawing off the farmers from their harvest—and the diversion of a part of our force that way to enable them to act more seriously on this River.

On hearing that the enemy intended to bring a part of the garrison of Rhode Island to New York I directed General Gates in that event to send a proportionable part of his force this way; and on receiving information that they had actually done it, in a subsequent letter, I directed him to march Glovers Brigade6—The inclosed to the Commanding Officer instructs him in case of any operation of the enemy in Connecticut to give all the aid in his power to the militia—to repel them7—If it should not be too late—Your Excellency will be pleased to forward the letter to him with such information and advice as circumstances may dictate.

Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Trumbull received the letter sent him, which has not been found, on 10 July. The Connecticut Council of Safety record for that date reads: “Letter received from Genl Washington, dated N. Windsor, 5 July, informs of an embarkation of the enemy at Frogs Pond on the 4th; supposes 1800, and for Connecticut; that he had order’d Gen. Glover’s brigade to march to head-quarters, and if not too late offers that he be stay’d to assist us &c. &c.” (Conn. Public Records, description begins The Public Records of the State of Connecticut . . . with the Journal of the Council of Safety . . . and an Appendix. 18 vols. to date. Hartford, 1894—. description ends 2:357).

British peace commissioners, who failed to negotiate a settlement to the war that returned the United States to colonial status, warned upon leaving in fall 1778 that warfare would become more destructive. At the opening of Parliament on 26 Nov., King George III validated their admonition in a speech that articulated a more aggressive military policy (see GW to Henry Laurens, 22–23 Oct. 1778, and n.17 to that document, and John Jay to GW, 3 March 1779, and n.4 to that document; see also GW to Philip Schuyler, 9–11 July 1779, and n.10 to that document). No British officer adopted this new approach more enthusiastically than Maj. Gen. William Tryon, former royal governor of New York, and his initiative brought about the raids along the Connecticut coast in early July 1779.

At odds with the conventional ideas of Gen. Henry Clinton, Tryon outlined his belief in a more vigorous war in conversations with William Smith, royal chief justice of New York. In his journal entry for 11 March, Smith reported Tryon’s remarks: “Why does he [Clinton] not imbark 5000 or 6000 Troops, and by alarming harrass the Continental Towns and Coast of Connecticut? Why not make frequent Descents from Long Island to cut up the New England Navigation? Why not obstruct the Works erecting at Haverstraw, Verplank’s Point, and Tellers Point? (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 86). Smith’s journal for 12 April records another meeting with Tryon: “He is desirous to have 3000 Men for Impressions on the New England Coast. . . . Can’t find that Sir Henry Clinton has any Confident or consults a single General. . . . He drives off directly to the General, and promises to speak his Opinion freely” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 93). Smith wrote in his journal for 28 May that Tryon “asked my Opinion of frequent Descents on the Coast, and seemed fond of that Mode of War. I spoke of them with as much Contempt as Decency would permit” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 109).

Tryon’s thoughts about raids on Connecticut became tangible by the time he spoke to Smith on 17 June. Smith’s journal for that date reads: “Governor Tryon calls to tell me the Secret that the General [Clinton] has given Notice of an Intention to attack or menace the Coast of Connecticut, and that he is to command. He does not know the Force but imagines that some Troops are to come from New port and rendezvous at Whitestone. . . . Mr. Tryon begs me to think of some Publication to be dispersed in Connecticut” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 118; see also Samuel Holden Parsons to GW, 14 July, n.8). Smith’s journal for Saturday, 26 June, reads: “Sir George Collier has got his Intimation of Service with Tryon in the Sound. Orders are sent to block up New London, and Mr. Tryon, who hourly expects to hear that a Detachment from New York is at the hither End of the Sound, imagines he shall move from Hence to them at Whitestone by Tuesday next. He does not yet know his Force. Thinks about 2000” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 121). “The 3 Regiments from Rhode Island are arrived at Whitestone,” Smith wrote in his journal for 29 June. “But he [Tryon] don’t move till the Day after to Morrow. Strange Slowness” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 122).

Tryon actually set out from New York City on 2 July to begin raids along the Connecticut coast (see Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 123). Tryon and Commodore George Collier initially went to Philipsburg, N.Y., for instructions from Clinton and then continued to the rendezvous at Whitestone, N.Y., on 3 July. Smith’s journal for that date indicated widespread knowledge in New York City of the pending attack on “some Part of Connecticut” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 124).

Tryon’s letter to Clinton, written with Smith’s assistance and dated 20 July at New York City, described the movements of his command, beginning with its departure from Whitestone on the evening of 3 July and attacks on New Haven (5–6 July), Fairfield (7–8 July), and Norwalk (10–11 July). After providing details of the strikes against those towns, Tryon’s letter continues: “We were waiting only for fresh supplies of artillery and force adequate to the probable increase of the rebels by the decrease of the objects of their care and the alarm of the interior country, when I was honoured on the 13th with your command of the 12th for the return of the troops with the fleet to White Stone. . . .

“I regret the loss of two places of public worship at Fairfield which took fire unintentionally by the flakes from other buildings, and I gave strict orders and set guards for the preservation of that burnt at Norwalk; but it is very difficult where the houses are close and of very combustible materials, of boards and shingles, to prevent the spreading of the flames.

“I should be very sorry if the destruction of these two villages would be thought less reconcilable with humanity than with the love of my country, my duty to the King, and the law of arms to which America has been led to make the awful appeal.

“The usurpers have professedly placed their hopes of severing the empire in avoiding decisive actions, upon the waste of the British treasures and the escape of their own property during the protraction of the war.

“Their power is supported by the general dread of their tyranny and the arts practised to inspire a credulous multitude with a presumptuous confidence in our forbearance.

“I wish to detect this delusion and if possible without injury to the loyalists.

“I confess myself in the sentiments of those who apprehend no mischief to the public from the irritation of a few in the rebellion if a general terror and despondency can be awakened among a people already divided and settled on a coast everywhere thinly inhabited and easily impressible, and to which their property is principally confined.

“I should do injustice if I closed this report without giving every praise to the troops I had the honour to command” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 17:162–65; see also Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 134–36, 138).

Smith’s journal for 17 July reports Tryon’s sense that “the whole Loss in the Sound Expedition was about 150 Killed, Wounded, and Missing. The killed about 20, some of the missing drunk and left. Thinks when the Wounded recover the real Loss may be about 80. . . .

“Mr. Tryon’s Expedition occasions much contraiety of Conversation. If it was proper to burn a Town, the same Reasons would justify and call for the Desolation of a great Part of the Coast. . . .

“It would seem as if Sir Henry wished the Conflagrations, and yet not to be answerable for them. The best Excuse Tryon has, if blamed, is an Experiment of two Towns, exasperating indeed a few but inspiring Terror in Many. Every Place near the Sea must dread a Visit, and may become Advocates for Peace” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 136–37). For more on Tryon and these raids on Connecticut, see Paul David Nelson, “William Tryon Confronts the American Revolution, 1771–1780,” The Historian 53 (1991): 280–84; see also Buel, Dear Liberty, 190–98.

Clinton believed that the raids on Connecticut would depress public morale in that state and expose GW’s army to a crippling thrust. For his disappointment in these hopes and decision to end the raids, see Willcox, American Rebellion, description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends 129–31. Smith criticized Clinton for terminating the raids, writing in his journal for 13 July: “Sir Henry Clinton dislikes these Operations of Tryon’s … Is it not Folly to recall the Troops at this Instant when the Connecticut Farmers are in their Harvest? This is a proper Time to menace the Coast and by that Means draw down Numbers from their Necessary Labour” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 131).

A letter from Collier to Philip Stephens, secretary to the Lords Commissioners of the British Admiralty, written from the waters off New York on 27 July offers another participant’s view of the raids: “You will be pleased to acquaint their Lordships, that the Rebels on the Shores of the Province of Connecticut having, for a considerable Time past, impeded and almost totally destroyed the Trade of His Majesty’s faithful Subjects passing through the Sound, it was judged necessary by Sir Henry Clinton and myself that desultory Invasions should be made along the Connecticut Coast, with an Intention of destroying their Whale-Boats and other Piratical Craft, to prevent a Continuance of their Depredations. The Land Forces, consisting of 2600 Men, commanded by Major-General Tryon, I caused to be embarked in Transports, and sending the Renown, Thames, Otter, and two armed Vessels to block up New London and the East Entrance of the Sound, I proceeded on the 3d Instant from New-York, by the Way of Hell-Gates, with His Majesty’s Ships Camilla, Scorpion, Halifax Brig, and Hussar Galley, together with the Transports … I returned afterwards with the Fleet to New York, and flatter myself that the Navigation of the Sound will be more clear for some Time from the numerous Pirates that infested it, and the Passage to Rhode Island rendered more safe and secure” (London Gazette Extraordinary, 24 Sept. 1779).

The British raids outraged members of Congress. Massachusetts delegate James Lovell wrote Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln on 16 July: “The Enemy are making scandalous War in Connecticutt. They have burnt the beatiful Town of Fairfield and quite plundered New Haven. Whether these Doings will rouse a general Effort to drive them from their present Nest on York Island Time must show, it ought to be attempted most certainly, and every Sea Captain we have should endeavor to show what Burning War is by Samples in Gr. Britain” (Smith, Letters of Delegates, description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends 13:236). In a letter of 17 July to his son Lt. Col. John Laurens, South Carolina delegate Henry Laurens expressed his desire that Tryon’s memory be “held in everlasting contempt” (Smith, Letters of Delegates, description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends 13:249–50). Delaware delegate Thomas McKean wrote his wife, Sarah McKean, on 20 July: “The British are committing actions of cruelty hitherto unthought of even by themselves, such as murdering old men, ravishing women & little girls, burning houses with the inhabitants in them, burning the barns with the grain in them, cuting down all fruit trees, &c. &c. The militia have sent some hundreds of them to Hell in the midst of their iniquities, and I have great reason to hope some hundreds more will be sent after them before they leave Connecticut” (Smith, Letters of Delegates, description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends 13:237). In a letter of 10 Aug. to Stephen Sayre, New York delegate Francis Lewis doubted the efficacy of the raids: “This mode of distressing the Inhabitants indiscriminately, will in my opinion have a contrary effect to what they expected, for by these cruelties the people are become so exasperated that they will retaliate with the utmost rigor” (Smith, Letters of Delegates, description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends 13:350–52).

A letter from Col. Samuel Blachley Webb to Joseph Barrell, written at Wethersfield, Conn., on 11 July condemned the raid on New Haven and likewise suggested the failure of British efforts to intimidate and demoralize: “I am happy to tell you it has had a very good effect on the people, the Tory and Timid Whig now join in determining to take Arms with their virtuous Countryman and sware revenge—I have never seen the people so universally ready to take the Field since the Lexington Battle” (Ford, Webb Correspondence and Journals, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb. 3 vols. New York, 1893–94. description ends 2:179–81).

1GW is referring to Throg’s Neck, New York. The source of this intelligence has not been identified. British officer Archibald Robertson’s diary entry for this date reads: “This [day] An Expedition under the Command of General Tryon saild up the Sound. They consisted of the 7th and 23d Regiment, and the Detachment from Rhode Island Viz. the 54th, Regiment Prince Hereditaire, and Fanning’s Provincials” (Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries, description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends 197; see also Pattison, “Letters,” 86–87).

2At this place on the draft manuscript, Hamilton first wrote “temporary.” He then struck out that word and wrote “sudden” above the line.

3At this place on the draft manuscript, Hamilton first wrote “on the River.” He then struck out those words and wrote “below” above the line.

4The New-York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury for 12 July printed an extract of a letter written at Stony Point, N.Y., on 7 July, likely by a British soldier: “Yesterday Mr. Washington, with several other Rebel Officers were reconnoitering our Post, attended with about 500 Men, 13 of which Number chose to come in to us in the Course of the Day, by whom we learn, That the Report among them is, That an Attack on the Post is intended. I have not a doubt that it will prove a very serious Affair to them.” For GW’s absence from New Windsor to reconnoiter Stony Point, see Anthony Wayne to GW, 3 July, n.9, and GW to Wayne, 5 July, and n.5 to that document.

5GW is referring to Philipse Manor, New York.

6See GW to Horatio Gates, 27 and 30 June; see also Gates to GW, this date.

7For this enclosure, see GW to John Glover, 8 July.

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