George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Jay, 19–20 September 1779

To John Jay

Head Quarters West point 19th[–20] Sepr 1779


On the 12th instant I had the honor of communicating two peices of intelligence respecting the fleet under the command of Admiral Count D’Estaing. Hearing that one of the Captains arrived at New London was a Man of intelligence and veracity, I dispatched Lt Lee of the 1st Connecticut Regt to gain a circumstantial account of the matter. The inclosed is a Copy of Capt. Leisters relation, which seems too particular to admit of doubt.1 Mr Lee adds, that Capt. Leister informed him further, that Watlins Island was the point at which the 50 sail of Merchantmen and 5 sail of the line parted with the grand fleet, to proceed to France. He also says that before the fleet sailed from Cape Francois, a Captain belonging to Charles town South Carolina was often sent for on Board the Counts Ship, but his business with him was kept secret.2

From the course which the Count was standing when Capt. Leister left him, he is of opinion that he was bound for the southward. Should that be his destination, a very little time must inform us of his arrival there. I have the honor to be with the greatest Respect Your Excellency’s Most obedt and humble Servt

Go: Washington

20th Since writing the foregoing I have recd the following intelligence from a person in whose information I place considerable dependance. “The enemy are still engaged in strengthening the City on all parts, they have raised three lines all picketted in the rear of the City across the Island—are still employed at their fort at Brooklyn. The Light Horse are assembled in force at Brookly[n] ferry where Vessels are lying at Anchor to take them on Board—a large quantity of Hay packed and put on board for their use. 55 transports have watered and anchored in the East River and Bay—more taking in Water. From the best accounts near eight thousand Men are preparing to embark, their destination unknown but generally beleived for the West Indies or Carolina. Three frigates cruizing out to discover the first approaches of a French fleet. By accounts recd last Thursday from Jamaica, the inhabitants had removed their stores and Women and Children to the Mountains being fearful of the approach of the french. A deserter from Sandy Hook reports that part of the fleet that saild last Monday with the 44th and two Hessian Regiments had put back in a storm, they say they were bound for Hallifax.” This intelligence dated the 17th Inst.3

LS, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA: PCC, item 169; copy (extract), MdAA; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 25 Sept. and ordered an extract “as far as it relates to an embarkation at New York” sent to “the governors of Maryland and of other states to the southward” (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 15:1103).

1The enclosed undated copy of an intelligence report reads: “On the 17th of August we sailed in company with Count D’Estaing from Cape Francois his fleet consisting of 25 sail of the line 8 Frigates 70 sail of Merchant Ships under convoy of said fleet—on the 22d of August in latitude 23.56 & longite 73.46 N. Fifty sail of the fleet held their wind and steered N.E. under the convoy of 5 sail of the line & 2 frigates, these were bound to france—On the 23d of August we parted with Count D’Estaing in Latitude of 25.5 N. Longde 74.25 W. the wind at S.S.E. & said fleet steered N.N.W.—the fleet then consisted of 20 sail of the line 6 frigaates & 29 sail of Merchts & according to the best accounts that I could get at the cape the above mentioned fleet had on board 8000 Land forces & 150 scaling ladders—their destination unknown” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

2GW’s warrant book entries for 18 Sept. include a warrant for $104.60 issued to “Lieut. Lee” for “Expenses on command” (Revolutionary War Warrant Book 4, 1779–1780, DLC:GW, Ser. 5).

Ezra Lee (1749–1821), of Lyme, Conn., served in 1776 as a sergeant in the 10th Continental Infantry Regiment. In September 1776, inventor David Bushnell recruited Lee to operate his so-called “infernal machine,” the proto-submarine Turtle, in an unsuccessful attack on the British warship Eagle in New York harbor (see Israel Putnam to GW, 7 May 1779, n.6; for Lee’s own account of his experiences, see Henry P. Johnston, “Sergeant Lee’s Experience With Bushnell’s Submarine Torpedo in 1776,” Magazine of American History 29, 3 [March 1893], 262–66). Lee was appointed an ensign in the 1st Connecticut Regiment in January 1777, was promoted to second lieutenant in January 1778, and became a first lieutenant in June 1778. Lee subsequently served as a regimental and brigade quartermaster, transferred to the 5th Connecticut Regiment in January 1781, and served as a regimental paymaster before leaving the army in June 1782. GW held Lee’s abilities in high regard; see his letter to William Heath of 26 Sept. 1779.

3GW most likely received this intelligence in Lt. Col. John Taylor’s letter of 17 Sept., which has not been found (see GW to Taylor, 19 Sept.).

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