Substance of a Conference with La Luzerne
Head Quarters West Point Sept 16th 1779
The Minister opened the conference by observing, that The Council of Massachusettes had represented to him the disadvantages, which their commerce was likely to suffer from the late misfortune in Penobscot, and the advantages which would result, if His Excellency Count D’Estaing could detach a few ships of the line and frigates to be stationed upon their coast, for protecting their commerce and countenancing the operations of their cruisers against that of the enemy.1 But before he should propose such a measure to Count D’Estaing, he wished to know from The General what purposes the detachment could answer to his military operations, and whether it would enable him to prosecute any offensive enterprise against the enemy—That if he could accompany the request of the Council with assurances of this kind, a motive of such importance would have the greatest influence in determining the concurrence of Count DEstaing, and might the better justify him in deranging or contracting his plans in the West Indies by making a detachment of his force.
The General answered—That if Count D’Estaing could spare a detachment superior to the enemy’s naval force upon this Continent retaining such a force in the West Indies as would put it out of the enemy’s power to detach an equal force to this Continent without leaving themselves inferior in the Islands, the measure would have a high probability of many importa⟨nt⟩ and perhaps decisive advantages: But these would depend upon several contingen[c]ies—the time in which the detachment can arrive, and the position and force of the enemy when it arrives. That the season proper for military operations was now pretty far advanced and to make a Winter-campaign would require a disposition of our magazines peculiar to it, which could not be made with out a large increase of expence; a circumstance not to be desired in the present posture of our affairs, unless the arrival of a naval succour was an event of some certainty. That with respect to the position and force of the enemy they had now about fourteen thousand men at New York and its dependencies and between three and four thousand at Rhode Island—that to reduce the former if it should be concenter⟨ed⟩ on the Island2 would require extensive preparations before-hand, both as to magazines and aids of men, which could not with propriety be undertaken on a precarious expectation of assistance—But that if the garrison of Rhode-Island should continue there, we should have every reason to expect its reduction in a combined operation3—it might however be withdrawn.
He added—That the enemy appear to be making large detachments from New York which the present situation of their affairs seems to exa⟨ct⟩—That there is a high probability of their being left so weak as to give us an opportunity during the Winter of acting effectually against New York, in case of the arrival of a fleet to cooperate with us; even with the force we now have and could suddenly assemble on an emergency—That at all events The French Squadron would be able to strike an important stroke, in the capture and destruction of the enemy’s vessels of war, with a large number of transports and perhaps seamen.
He concluded with observing, That though in the great uncertainty of the arrival of a Squadron, he could not undertake to make expensive preparations for co-operating, nor pledge himself for doing it effectually;4 yet there was the greatest prospect of utility from the arrival of such a Squadron, and he would engage to do every thing in his power for improving its aid, if it should appear upon our coast: That if the present or future circumstances should permit His Excellency Count D’Estaing to concert a combined operation with the troops of these states against the enemy’s fleets and armies within these States he would be ready to promote the measure to the utmost of our resources and should have the highest hopes of its success—it would however be necessary to prevent delay and give efficacy to the project that he should have some previous notice.
The Minister replied—That The Generals delicacy upon the occasion was very proper; but as he seemed unwilling to give assurances of effectual cooperation, in conveying the application to the Admiral he would only make use of the name of The Council which would no doubt have all the weight5 due to the application of so respectable a body.
The General assented, observing that occasional mention might be made of the military advantages to be expected from the measure.6
The Minister in the next place informed The General that there had been some negotiation between Congress and Monsieur Gerard, on the subject of the Floridas and the limits of the Span⟨ish⟩ dominions in that quarter, concerning which certain resolutions had been taken by Congress which he supposed were known to The General7—He added that the Spaniards had in contemplation an expedition against the Floridas which was either already begun or very soon would be begun, and he wished to know the Generals opinion of a cooperation on our part—That it was probable this expedition would immediately divert the enemy’s force from South Carolina and Georgia, and the question then would be whether General Lincolns army would be necessary elsewhere or might be employed in a cooperation wi⟨th⟩ the Spanish forces. That the motive with the French court for wishing such a cooperation was that it would be a meritorious act on the side of the United States toward⟨s⟩ Spain, who though she had all along be⟨en⟩ well disposed to the revolution had entered reluctantly into the war and had not yet acknowleged our independence—that a step of this kind would serve to confirm her good dispositions and to induce her not only to enter into a Treaty with us, but perhaps to assist with a loan of money—That the forces of Spain in the Islands were so considerable as would in all appearance make our aid unnecessary; on which account the utility of it, only contingent and possible, was but a secondary consideration with the Court of France—the desire to engage Spain more firmly in our interests by a mark of our good will to her was the leading and principal one.
The General assured the Minister, that he had the deepest sense of the friendship of France but replied to the matter in question—that he was altogether a stranger to the measures adopted by Congress relative to the Floridas and could give no opinion of the propriety of the cooperation proposed in a civil or political light; but considering it merely as a military question, he saw no objection to the measure on the supposition that the enemy’s force in Georgia and South Carolina be withdrawn without which it would of course be impossible.
The Minister then asked, in case the operation by the Spaniards against the Floridas should not induce the English to abandon the Southern States, whether it would be agreeable that the forces either French or Spanish employed there should cooperate with our troops against those of the enemy in Georgia and South Carolina.
The General replied that he imagined such a cooperation would be desirable.
The Minister inquired in the next place, whether in case The Court of France should find it convenient to send directly from France a Squadron and a few regiments attached to it, to act in conjunction with us in this quarter, it would be agreeable to The United States.
The General thought it would be very advancive of the common cause.
The Minister informed, That Doctor Franklin had purchased a fifty gun ship which The King of France intended to equip, for the benefit of The United States to be sent with two or three frigates to Newfoundland to act against the enemys vessels employed in the Fishery, and afterwards to proceed to Boston to cruise from that port.8
He concluded the conference with stating, that in Boston several Gentlemen of influence, some of them members of Congress had conversed with him on the subject of an expedition against Canada and Nova Scotia—That his Christian Majesty had a sincere and disinterested desire to see those two provinces annexed to the American confederacy and would be disposed to promote a plan for this purpose; but that he would undertake nothing of the kind unless the plan was previously approved and digested by The General⟨.⟩ He added that a letter from The General to Congress some time since on the subject of an expedition to Canada had appeared in France and had been submitted to the best military judges, who approved the reasoning and thought the objections to the plan which had been proposed very plausible and powerful9—That whenever The General should think the circumstances of this country favourable to such an undertaking, he should be very glad to recommend the plan he should propose, and he was assured that the French Court would give it all the aid in their power.
The General again expressed his sense of the good dispositions of his Christian Majesty; but observed, that while the enemy remain in force in these states, the difficulties stated in his letter alluded to by the Minister would still subsist; but that whenever that force should be removed, he doubted not it would be a leading object with the government to wrest the two forementioned provinces from the power of Britain—that in this case he should esteem himself honored in being consulted on the plan; and was of opinion, that though we should have land force enough for the undertakin[g] without in this respect intruding upon the generosity of our allies, a naval cooperation would certainly be very useful and necessary.10
The rest of the Conference consisted in mutual assurances of the friendship of the two countries &c. interspersed on the General’s side with occasional remarks on the importance of removing the war from these states—⟨as⟩ it would enable us to afford ample supplies to the operatio⟨ns⟩ in the West Indies and to act with efficacy in annoying the commerce of the enemy & dispossessing them of their dominions on this Continent.
The foregoing is to the best of my recollection the substance of a conference at which I was present at the time mentioned and interpreted between the Minister and The General.
ADS, DLC:GW; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.
For La Luzerne’s journey from Boston to GW’s headquarters at West Point, and then on to Philadelphia, see GW to Robert Howe, 18 Aug., n.1. On 5 Sept., in preparation for La Luzerne’s impending visit, GW’s secretary Caleb Gibbs wrote to John Chaloner, deputy commissary of purchases at Philadelphia: “A word to the wise (as the saying is) is fully sufficient.
“His Excellency’s family is destitute of Loaf sugar, Cheese, Coffee, Chocolate, &c. &c. and many other necessary articles for the family. I observe by the Pensylvania paper of the 31st Ulto that a prize has arrived at Phila with many good things that are wanted particularly loaf sugar. I make no doubt you will take the hint, and by the first conveyance supply the wants of the poor and needy. I urge this matter as the Count de la Luzerne sets off this day from Boston, (who will call on His Excelly a few days[)] If this letter reaches you in such season as the Articles wanted can get here in 10 or 12 days from this date—I would wish that a light waggon may be dispatch[ed] with those things, If a quarter Cask of Claret or good Port wine could be forwarded with such other necessaries as your own good sense will point out, it will not be amiss. We have nothing new in this quarter. the Army is Exceedingly hearty & well. … P.S. Let me hear from you If you please how you are like to succeed” (PHi: Chaloner and White Collection).
The events surrounding La Luzerne’s arrival at West Point on 15 Sept. were recorded by the secretary to the French legation, François, marquis de Barbé-Marbois: “In spite of all the objections of M. de la Luzerne, General Washington came to meet him at Fishkill. He received us with a noble, modest, and gentle urbanity and with that graciousness which seems to be the basis of his character. … We We embarked with the General on the North River, or the Hudson, and sailed down it with the tide to West Point where the headquarters are, surrounded by the chief posts of the American army. The general held the tiller, and during a little squall which required skill and practice, proved to us that this work was no less known to him than are other bits of useful knowledge. The river lies between two steep banks covered with trees. Its bed sometimes narrows to a third of a mile or widens to almost three-quarters of a league. On the right, near to West Point, the mountains go back from the river a little and allow a space of about thirty arpents [about 120,000 square feet] where the tents of the general and the officers attached to him are placed. The divisions of the army are around this spot, on heights of which the summits are covered with forts and redoubts. The air is pure and healthful, and we saw only forty sick in the hospital.
“During dinner the conversation touched on the great things which the Americans had done. All the generals and the higher officers were there. It was interesting to see this meeting of these warriors, each of them a patriot renowned for some exploit, and this military meal, served in a tent in the midst of the apparatus of arms, in the heart of the former possessions of our enemies, to a French minister and officers, was to all of us a memorable novelty.
“I had been seated near the general, and as he inspires confidence, after some general remarks we discussed interesting subjects fairly freely. He spoke of the fine behavior of my compatriots and of the glory which they had won in America.
“Everything around us was interesting to me. The river was being driven back by the tide, and the waves came right up to the tent-pins, where they broke with a solemn roar. A few steps away from us musicians played military and tuneful French airs. The banks and the forests of the mountain answered long to the cannon shots fired to the health of the King and Queen, and the opposite bank shone with the fires which the soldiers had lighted. … The general told me that he was drinking the health of the Marquis de Lafayette, and asked me if I had seen him before my departure. I answered that I had, and added that he spoke of him with the tenderest veneration. I said that the conduct of M. de Lafayette in America had made him generally esteemed, and had caused him to deserve the distinctions and favor granted him by the King. Washington blushed like a fond father whose child is being praised. Tears fell from his eyes, he clasped my hand, and could hardly utter the words: ‘I do not know a nobler, finer soul, and I love him as my own son.’”
On 16 Sept., Barb_-Marbois wrote, “At nine in the morning we got on horses to accompany the general, who wanted to conduct us himself to all the chief posts of the position which he has taken up on the Hudson.” After describing the situation of the forts above the Hudson, which the men visited “in order, in spite of the steepness of the cliffs,” Marbois continued: “After this expedition we went to see the manoeuvres of the different brigades camped along the river. They had hardly any clothes, but were very well armed, and the men were strong and robust, and prove that you can make good soldiers out of recent levies. This tour did not end till four o’clock, and then we went to dine on the other bank at M. du Portail’s quarters. The tent where we dined was set up a short distance from the Bay of the Assassins.
“I walked near the general, and in the course of the conversation I asked him if he would not come to France some day, and enjoy the plaudits of a responsive nation which idolizes glory. He told me that he was only waiting for the end of the war to retire to his estates and to finish out his days there in the bosom of his family, after having paid the debt which every citizen owes to his country in times of trouble and misfortune” (Chase, Letters of Barbé-Marbois, 113–18). The conference between GW and La Luzerne apparently followed this dinner.
2. In place of the previous thirteen words, the draft has the following text: “If they should retain this force on the Continent and concent⟨er⟩ the whole now at New York and its dependencies upon the Island of New York, to reduce their army.”
3. In place of the last twenty-three words, the draft has the following text: “But as to Rhode Island if the garrison now there should continue the arrival of a naval force to act in conjunction would enable us to undertake the reduction of that Garrison with a high probabi[li]ty of success.”
4. At this place in the text, the draft includes the following additional words: “in a Winter campaign.”
5. The draft concludes this sentence with the following phrase: “circumstances would permit.”
6. On the draft, this sentence appears as follows: “The General assented—observing—that the mil[it]ary advantages to be expected from it might be mentioned as a secondary motive.”
7. As a principle of negotiation for an alliance with Spain, Congress had on 17 Sept. decided to offer a guarantee of Spanish possession of the Floridas in return for free navigation of the Mississippi River, and Congress reaffirmed this stance on 13 Oct. after turning down a motion to drop the provision concerning the Mississippi (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 15:1080–85, 1168–69). For a detailed discussion of the debates and negotiations on these points, see 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 13:488–89; 14:70, 85–87.
8. La Luzerne apparently is referring to the 42-gun Bonhomme Richard (formerly the Duc de Duras), a 900-ton East Indiaman that the French government purchased for John Paul Jones in Lorient and the King fitted out at his own expense. Various schemes had been put forward for the employment of a naval squadron under Jones’s command, both before the purchase of Bonhomme Richard and while Jones was fitting her out. La Luzerne had left France in the middle of June just as Jones was preparing to put to sea with a squadron that included Bonhomme Richard, the American frigate Alliance, a French frigate, and two smaller French warships. See Koven, John Paul Jones, 1:369–430 and Allen, Naval History, 2:441–448.
9. GW had set forth his objections to a proposed invasion of Canada in a letter to Henry Laurens of 11 Nov. 1778. In a private letter to Laurens dated 14 Nov. 1778, GW elaborated on his objections and expressed his concern that the French might exploit an invasion of Canada for their own purposes—purposes which might not concur with the interests of the United States.
10. Hamilton first wrote “important” on the draft, then struck it out and wrote “necessary.”