George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Benedict Arnold, 6 March 1780

From Major General Benedict Arnold

Philadelphia March 6th 1780

Dear Sir

I am requested by the Board of Admiralty to Inform your Excellency, that they have in Contemplation an Expedition with several of their Frigates, which will require Three, or four, hundred Land Forces to Act in Conjunction, and who may Act as Marines when on Board, which will obviate the great dificculty of procuring Men for the Ships—They wish to be informed If the Men can be Spared From the Army; They will be wanted to Embark (probably at New London) by the Middle of April, for an Expedition of about two Months; If Seamen can be Drawfted they will be much preferable to other Troops.

From the Injury I have received in my Leg, and the great Stifness in my Ancle, my Surgeons are of Opinion it will not be prudent for me to take a Command in the Army for some time to come. As I wish to render my Country every Service in my Power, I have offered the Board to take the Command of the Expedition (provided it is agreable to your Excellency[)], and the Men Can be spared from the Army, in which Case I shall soon have the honor of laying the Plan before your Excellency, and believe you will think it an object of Importance.1

I have Just received a Letter from Major Clarkson Dated Charls Town, Jany 30th, who writes me, “that the Fleet which Sailed from New York in Decr are Certainly Arived and Ariving at Savannah; Their Force uncertain But very large. Two of our Frigates have Captured 4 Brigt with Clothing, and Two Sloops with Dragoons of Lord Cathcarts Legion, who have saved only two Horses of Forty five, The Fleet were dispersed in a few days after they Sailed, and greatly Injured by Several Storms.[”]2

I Suppose your Excellency will Receive particular Information from Congress.3 I have the honor to be with great Respect and Esteem Your Excellencys Affectionate & Obedient Humble Servt

B. Arnold

ALS (duplicate), enclosed in Arnold to GW, 20 March, DLC:GW. Arnold’s original letter has not been found, but GW received it on 13 March (see GW to the Board of Admiralty, 15 March, DLC:GW).

Arnold enclosed this duplicate of his 6 March letter with his letter to GW of 20 March; that letter, dated at Philadelphia, reads: “The foregoing is Copy of a Letter I did myself the honor of writing your Excellency, which went by Express the day it was wrote; from Colonel Mitchels Office, as a Fortnight has elapsed, and I have not been favoured with an answer I Conclude the Letter has miscarried, I therefore take the Liberty of Sending a Copy. If the Service will Not admit of a Drawft of Men from the Army, the Expedition must of Course be declined, as there is Not the least probibility of Maning the Ships without; In which Case I must request of your Excellency leave of Absence for the ensueing Summer, or untill my Wounds are so well as to admit my Riding and walking with some degree of ease, and of Course being able to take the Command of a Division in the Army.

“Your Excellency will believe I should Not ask this Indulgence, Could I with Justice to myself, or Country take a Command in the Condition I am at present. My Surgeons flatter me that a Voyage to Sea, and Bathing frequently in Salt water will be of great Service in Strengthning my Leg, and Relaxing the Muscles which are greatly Contracted And thereby Rendering it more useful.

“Mrs Arnold yesterday presented me with a Son. She Joins me in best respects to Mrs Washington” (ALS, DLC:GW).

1Arnold proposed this naval expedition to the board (see Arnold to Silas Deane, 22 March, in Isham, Deane Papers, description begins Charles Isham, ed. The Deane Papers. 5 vols. New York, 1887-91. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 19–23. description ends 4:116). In his 15 March letter to the Board of Admiralty, GW explained that he could spare no troops to act as marines (DLC:GW). After receiving GW’s letter, the board terminated planning for the expedition (see Board of Admiralty to GW, 23 March, DLC:GW).

GW did not reply to Arnold until after receiving Arnold’s letter of 20 March. On 28 March, GW wrote to Arnold informing him that the men could not be spared from the army, but authorizing his leave of absence subject to Congress’s approval of any furlough for travel outside the United States (DLC:GW).

2For the British expeditionary force and its operations, see Benjamin Lincoln to GW, 11–12 Feb., n.4. For the cruise of the two Continental frigates, see Lincoln to GW, 23–24 Jan., n.3.

3Arnold probably had hoped to gain prize money from this proposed naval expedition to help ease his strained financial condition. Congress had yet to settle his accounts from the Canadian expedition of 1775–76, and in May he lodged a protest against the Board of Treasury’s recommendations regarding the settlement. That same month, Arnold changed his mind regarding a leave of absence, began seeking the command of the Highlands department and West Point, and reinitiated his treasonous conversations with the British high command (see Van Doren, Secret History, description begins Carl Van Doren. Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America now for the first time examined and made public. New York, 1941. description ends 251–60, 458–59).

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