George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 29 November 1779

To Samuel Huntington

Peck’s Kill [N.Y.] Nov. 29th 1779


Since I had the honor of addressing Your Excellency on the 20th I have received sundry reports, though not through the Channel I could have wished—and yet through such as seem to make the Reports worthy of credit—that the Enemy are making or preparing for a pretty considerable embarkation of Troops from New York.1 From this circumstance—although their destination is not known—and from the importance of securing the States of Georgia and South Carolina—which possibly may be their Object—and which from the accounts I have received from Col. Laurens are in a more defenceless condition than I had even apprehended—I have determined, illy as they can be spared—to put the whole of the Virginia Troops in motion, except those whose terms of service will expire by the last of January, to give them farther succour—if Congress shall judge it expedient, after considering the full state and extent of our force, as communicated in my Letter of the 18th2—I am full of opinion—that this detachment can be illy afforded—but possibly from the disagreable consequences that might result from the Enemy’s gaining possession of these two States or even of attempting it—it may be adviseable to hazard a good deal here for their security. At any rate from the unhappy reduction of our force—by the expiration of inlistments—we should be obliged to pursue great caution for our security—and if this detachment is made—it will be necessary to encrease it—and to act if possible on a more defensive plan.

From the great distance from hence to Charles Town—from Virginia’s lying in the way & from the inclement season—I am persuaded if the Troops proceed by Land—that their number, by fatigue—sickness—desertion and the expiration of their Inlistments, will be so reduced—that their aid would be scarcely of any consideration when they arrived. In this view—and as their going will deprive the Army here of a material part of it’s force—I cannot think—if Congress should determine the measu⟨re⟩ expedient—that they should proceed by Land. I am satisfied a Land march would exhaust the whole of the detachment and that but little if any aid would be derived from it to the Southern Army, if it were to proceed in this way. From these considerations Congress will be pleased to determine, how far it may be adviseable and practicable to send the Troops by Sea. A boisterous season—Winds generally blowing off the Continent—the risk of capture, are all circumstances I will take the liberty to observe, that appear to me, of importance in deciding the point. Without a good convoy, I should apprehend the measure would, at any rate, be unadviseable—as the capture or loss of the Troops would give a severe shock to our affairs and such as we should not recover without great difficulty. How far this will be practicable will be with Congress to determine. If it can be obtained and Congress think that this detachment should be sent—yet I would take the liberty to suggest farther—that the Troops had better sail from Chesapeak bay, than from the Delaware—as they will be more distant from New York—and of consequence not so liable to fall in with any of the Enemy’s Ships & Cruizers. And as it frequently happens at this season—that Vessels are blown off the Coast and kept at sea for a considerable time—I should suppose it will be necessary for the Transport Vessels to be provisioned—wooded & watered at least for six weeks. A passage may be effected perhaps in a ⟨fe⟩w days, but provision should be made against contingencies & in doing this—it may be material to consider the state of our supplies and whether they will admit of so large a quantity being shipped. It also appears to me, if the embarkation is made—that it should be in Transports employed solely for the purpose, as events possibly might arise, if they were on board other Vessels, which might render it at least inconvenient for them to proceed. I am now thus far on my way to Jersey3—and shall put the Virginia Troops in motion as soon as it can be done for philadelphia. Congress will be pleased to have against their arrival, such instructions ready, as they may deem necessary, with respect to their farther movements. I have the Honor to be with great respect Yr Excellency’s Most Obedt sert

Go: Washington

P.S. As it appears to me for the reasons above—that we can not attempt to succour Georgia & South Carolina—by a land march of Troops—and it will at least take several days before the arrangement of Transports—Convoy—provisions &ca, can be made—I have concluded not to move the Troops till I hear from Congress on these subjects and in the mean time shall hold the Troops in readiness & employ them in building Huts.

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Obscured material is supplied in angle brackets from the copy. Congress read GW’s letter on 4 Dec., adopted a resolution that authorized his suggested movement of the Virginia line, and sent the letter to the Board of War with instructions “to take measures for carrying into execution the views of the General” (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 15:1347).

Also on 4 Dec., Huntington wrote GW from Philadelphia: “I am honour’d with your several favours of 23d 24th 27th & 29th Ulto.

“By the enclos’d Act of Congress of this Day your Excellency will be inform’d it is their desire that the Troops of the Virginia line be immediately put in Motion agreable to what is mentioned in your letter of the 29th of November” (LS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA:PCC, item 14). For this letter’s arrival at 11:15 A.M. on 8 Dec., see GW to Huntington, that date. GW’s letter to Huntington of 23 Nov. has not been found. The enclosed resolution is in DLC:GW.

While waiting to hear from Congress, GW wrote Brig. Gen. William Woodford from Morristown, N.J., on 6 Dec.: “As it is highly probable the Virginia Troops will shortly move to the Southward, it is necessary in order that you may be prepared for such an event to give you notice of it—But as it is very much my wish to keep it secret, I must intreat you to take every necessary step to prepare them for marching without disclosing the intention—Your being incumbered with State supplies, added to other circumstances induces me to request you will exert yourself to have them with the rest of your baggage, stragling Men &c. in the most perfect readiness to move should you be ordered to that quarter. … P.s. You will continue to build your Huts with the usual industry” (LS, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, DLC:GW; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW; see also GW to Woodford, 7 Dec.).

GW actually ordered the Virginia troops southward on 8 Dec. (see GW to Woodford, that date; see also GW to Stirling, and Stirling to GW, both 9 Dec.). A problem immediately surfaced that GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman addressed when he wrote John Mehelm, commissary general of hides for New Jersey, from Morristown on 10 Dec.: “Some hundreds of the Virginia troops who are under marching orders are unable to move off the Ground for want of Shoes, none of which are yet come on from New Windsor—Be pleased therefore, if possible, to send up five hundred pairs with the greatest dispatch to this place, if you have not so many; send what you have. At any rate be pleased to let us know by return of the Express what may be expected from you. Should there be any which may be collected in a day or two, let them be got together and sent here with all possible dispatch” (DLC:GW).

The two Virginia brigades in GW’s army totaled more than 3,100 officers and rank and file, but subtracting those whose enlistments would expire within the next few months reduced the force sent south to roughly 2,000 (see Lesser, Sinews of Independence, description begins Charles H. Lesser, ed. The Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army. Chicago, 1976. description ends 140, and GW to Huntington, 18 Nov., and n.2 to that document). A congressional committee and the Board of War met and decided to transport these men largely by water from Trenton to Williamsburg (see Board of War to GW, 10 Dec.; see also GW to Woodford, 13 Dec., and Nathanael Greene to Charles Pettit, 14 Dec., in Greene Papers, description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends 5:175–76) Lt. Col. John Laurens, however, while in Philadelphia, discovered to his dismay that “all hopes of passing our reinforcement for the Southern department by sea are out of the question” because too few French ships had arrived in Chesapeake Bay (Laurens to Alexander Hamilton, 12 Dec., in Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 2:225–27). New York delegate Robert R. Livingston explained when he wrote his fellow delegate Philip Schuyler from Philadelphia on 20 Dec.: “The troops ordered to the [Sou]thard are stoped by the Ice so that they will be ob[li]ged to go by Land after every arrangemt. had been made to send them down the bay” (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 14:285; see also Benjamin Lincoln to GW, 23 Dec., n.4).

Compelled to march, the troops began from northern New Jersey between 9 and 11 Dec. (see GW to Huntington, 10–11 Dec.; see also Greene to Henry Young, 10 Dec., in Greene Papers, description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends 5:162–63). A notice under “TRENTON, December 15” in The New-Jersey Gazette (Trenton) for the same date reads: “Since our last most of the troops of the Virginia line arrived here, under the command of General Woodford, being on their way to the southward.—They are in high spirits, and make a martial appearance” (see also Moore Furman to Greene and to Clement Biddle, both 20 Dec., in Furman Letters, description begins Historical Research Committee of the New Jersey Society of the Colonial Dames of America, ed. The Letters of Moore Furman: Deputy Quarter-Master General of New Jersey in the Revolution. New York, 1912. description ends 45–47). The Virginia troops in Trenton acknowledged Martha Washington on 28 Dec. (see GW to John Mitchell, 6 Nov., n.3). Their entire departure from Trenton apparently did not occur until 31 Dec. (see Woodford to GW, 28 Dec.).

GW believed that Congress or the Board of War needed to exercise overall command and supply responsibility for the Virginia troops upon their arrival in Philadelphia (see GW to the Board of War, 14 Dec., and to Woodford, 24 Dec.). A potential jurisdictional dispute was avoided when the Board of War took charge of the marching troops (see Woodford to GW, 28 Dec.). Due to weather and logistical problems, the Virginians did not reach Charleston, S.C., their final destination, until April 1780 (see Woodford to GW, 6 and 13 Jan., 8 Feb., 8 March, and 9 April, all in DLC:GW; see also Young to Greene, 12 and 31 Jan. and 18 Feb., and John Mitchell to Greene, 14 Jan., in Greene Papers, description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends 5:264–65, 271, 336, 400, 402). For an overview of the entire movement, see John Robert Sellers, “The Virginia Continental Line, 1775–1780,” Ph.D. diss., Tulane University, 1968, pages 354–60.

1GW probably is alluding to the lack of reports from the Culper spy ring. He had last heard from that source in early November (see Benjamin Tallmadge to GW, 8 Nov.). Trying to confirm British intentions became a priority (see Henry Lee, Jr., to GW, 30 Nov., and Anthony Wayne to GW, 2 Dec.; see also GW to Huntington, 7 Dec.)

2GW recently had met Laurens on that officer’s return from service in the southern department (see GW to Henry Laurens, 5 Nov., and n.8; see also GW to Huntington, 2 Dec.).

Laurens described meetings with Congress and GW when he wrote his father, Henry, from Morristown on 7 Dec.: “I have the satisfaction of informing you that I found such a disposition in the Committee for southern affairs—and the Commander in chief as ensured the success of my embassy—so far as related to ordering reinforcements to Genl Lincoln—In addition to the North Carolina brigade, the General proposed detaching the Virginia Line—and Baylors Regiment of horse—if Congress will authorise the purchasing a few remounts for the latter” (Laurens Papers, description begins Philip M. Hamer et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003. description ends 15:210; see also Massey, John Laurens, description begins Gregory D. Massey. John Laurens and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C., 2000. description ends 150).

3A final decision on Jockey Hollow near Morristown for the army’s winter encampment in New Jersey settled GW’s destination (see GW to Greene, 30 Nov., and n.2 to that document; see also Greene to GW, 14 Nov., n.1).

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