George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Armstrong, Sr., 15 October 1779

From John Armstrong, Sr.

Philada 15th Octobr 1779

Dear General

The Counts expected approach to these Shores begins to be thought tedious, but the lodgment of the Enemy to the South being in two places considerably distant from each other, I’m persuaded no time has yet elapsed wherein we cou’d reasonably look for an Official account of that event. A letter from Hampdon of the 9th Inst. asserts the certainty of a compleat Capture of Provosts Army & various Vessels &c. which however donoted by many I’m inclined to think favourably of, as our late Southerly winds might give a quick passage to that intelligence.

You know Sir that the present moment however premature will create military Speculation—Some that a great Post or two will fall, others that it’s impossible otherwise than by Starving, or at least that the Sacrifice must be too great—Again—the attack must be general and uniform by Land & Water &c. &c.—I dare not with so imperfect knowledge of the situation &c. form an Idea of either a general or particular Rule in a great effort, but pray god to form & determine for you, but confess the Idea of piece-male work Strikes me as naturally as any other, that is the Operation of the Fleet upon that of the Enemies—first removing out of the way Such batterries as may be practicable & by which the inbound passage of the Shiping may be much Obstructed—So much for guess work. A Sufficient Supply of Provision, and ammunition are important points, the former very clearly and Seasonably pointed out by your Excellency which from the distance and Small Stock on hand requires faithfull attention—I am much pleased that Governor Ried will command his Own Militia.1

It has not been in my power with any degree of facility, yet to get on the farther Subsistance for the General Officers of the Army, but a good foundation is laid for it, and a Short time will bring it on I hope to their Satisfaction without the necessity of a memorial2—A farther provision for the Surgeons of the Hospital, has been already committed and will probably soon be reported.3 Mr Gerard & Mr Jay sets out in two or three days4—preparations for foreign Courts & the revision of Some points formerly determined, has of late much engrossed the attention of Congress, in which I cannot but apprehend that rather hard measure has fallen to the Lot of Dr Lee.5 The Late appointment of Mr John Adams may Serve as a Spunge to wipe of[f] the Stain of culpable neglect—a tryal this Sufficient in my Opinion to all that gentlemans gravity and plain brown hair6—Permit me to recommend to the honor of yr Excellencies acquaintance my good hibernian friend Doctor Shiell, and thro’ your farther polite offices to the General Officers of the Pennsylvania Line, to whom at present I cannot write7—The Doctor is a young Gentleman of liberal Sentiments & education possessed of a handsome fortune a warm Whigg & a man of Sense. I am now leaving Congress having exerted the last dregs of any remaining talent I had under various impediments8—Finance, (for which I never had any talent) is the only present ghost that Stares every honest man in the face—Taxation, altho’ the radical means of appreciation as well as of the payment of publick debt, is a remedy too remote for our support⟨—⟩the disease has ran too long to be overtaken by any common cure. A general regulation of prices by Law is said to be impracticable—I have therefore wished to throw out some higher inducement to money holders on lone than any yet offered rather than the Ship Shou’d get aground, but a large majority thought the present offers Sufficient to procure all we shou’d want untill supplyed by Tax—the expectation is futile & without political foundation—I presume however that some new push will be made for a foreign Loan. retrenchmt of expences is in it’s place highly necessary & Sooner or later a great Share of the burthen of such a plan is likely to fall upon you, which rather ought to be done by others. I shall take the liberty of amusing you a moment in reading the inclosed, only because it is the clearest account of the occasions of the late misfortune at Ponobscot that has yet reached this place, and as likely to be true.9 Major Armstrong on that occasion has been indulging young ambition in following that Army I suppose with Jacksons Regimt and probably without the approbation of Genl Gates, until the wiser winds corrected the error.10 I am with perfect respect & every wish for your Safety & Success—Your Excellencys Most Obedient humbe Servt

John Armstrong

I had the pleasure of your Obligeing letter, and perfectly Satisfied with [what] you Say on the Subject in Berkley.11


1Armstrong is addressing issues GW raised in his letter to Samuel Huntington of 4 Oct.; see also GW to George Clinton, that date. For the full scope of GW’s preparations for a joint offensive with the French fleet, see Planning for an Allied Attack on New York, c.3–7 October.

2The general officers of the army were in fact preparing a memorial to Congress regarding their pay; see GW to Robert Howe, 27 Sept., and n.2 to that document.

3On 27 Oct., Congress approved a measure granting the officers of the hospital department the same subsistence pay as the officers of the line (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 15:1213–1214).

4On 27 Sept., Congress had elected John Jay, who had been serving as president of Congress, minister plenipotentiary to the court of Spain to negotiate a treaty of alliance, amity, and commerce (see 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 15:1113). He departed for Europe on 17 Oct. with Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, former minister plenipotentiary of France, see Jay to GW, 14 Oct., and n.2 to that document.

5Armstrong is referring to Arthur Lee.

6Congress recently had appointed John Adams minister plenipotentiary for negotiating a treaty of peace and a treaty of commerce with Great Britain (see 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 15:1113).

7Hugh Shiell (d. 1785), a native of Dublin, Ireland, was a doctor who had recently arrived in America and was living in Philadelphia. He probably visited the camp of the Pennsylvania division in late 1779 (see Armstrong to William Irvine, 30 Oct. 1779, in 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 14:78). Declaring that he had immigrated to America with the intent of becoming a citizen of the United States, Shiell, in August 1780, sought and obtained from Congress a passport for the transportation of his property from Ireland to Philadelphia (his letter to Huntington, dated 10 Aug. 1780, is in DNA:PCC, item 78; a copy of his passport, dated the same date, is in DNA:PCC, item 177). From 1780 until his death, Shiell engaged in mercantile and shipping business. He died in Kentucky.

8Armstrong left Philadelphia about 20 Oct. for his home in Carlisle, Pa., but returned to Congress in May 1780.

9Armstrong enclosed a copy of a letter to him from his son, Maj. John Armstrong, Jr., dated 30 Aug. at Boston. In this letter, the younger Armstrong reported that he had been recommended by the council of Massachusetts to command the light infantry of the expedition that state sent against the British outpost at Penobscot Bay in the district of Maine, but that the ship on which he had embarked was forced by contrary winds to put into Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There, he learned of the defeat of the Massachusetts expedition. From his interviews with “the most Intelligent of both Fleet and Army,” he provided his father with his assessment of the reasons for the expedition’s failure: “Deficient supplies—furnished by a Council, unacquainted with the wants of an Army but too selfsufficient to consult any Military Man upon the Subject.

“Of the 1500 Men voted for the Expedition 800 only, arrived—& the greater part of them, draughted into the Service & illy appointed—acted very reluctantly.

“Not so entire an agreement in Opinion, between the General & Commodore, as might be wished—both unexperienced, too prudent for Enterprize, and without Decision in any thing. But the last and great cause, was in not considering the uncertainty of Military Events” (DLC:GW).

10Col. Henry Jackson’s Additional Continental Regiment did not participate in the expedition to Penobscot.

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