George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major General Lafayette, 16 May 1780

To Major General Lafayette

Head Quarters Morris Town 16th May 1780.1

My Dear Marquis

Since you left me,2 I have more fully reflected on the plan which it will be proper for the French fleet and army to persue, on their arrival upon the Coast and it appears to me in the present situation of the enemy at New York, that it ought to be our first object to reduce that post and that it is of the utmost importance not to lose a moment in repairing to that place. I would therefore advise you to write to the Count De Rochembeau and Monsr De Ternay in the following spirit—urging them in the strongest terms to proceed both fleet and army with all possible expedition to Sandy Hook, where they will be met with further advices, of the precise situation strength and disposition of the enemy and of our army and with proposals for their future movements; unless they should have received authentic accounts that the fleet and troops now operating in the Southern states, have evacuated them and formed ajunction at New York.3 In this case; if they arrive at Rhode Island, they can disembark their troops dispose of their sick and wait till a more definitive plan can be concerted; or if they arrive off Cape Henry they can proceed directly to Rhode Island and make the same arrangements.4 But in case they should not have received the accounts abovementioned of the evacuation of the Southern states and junction at New York, and should proceed directly to Sandy Hook as is recommended they can send their sick and every thing of which they wish to be disencumbered, to Rhode Island.

The reasons for proceeding immediately to New York in the present situation of the enemy there are these—Their whole effective land force in regular troops is about 8000 men to which may be added about 4000 refugees and such of the militia as they would be able by persuasion or force to engage; but on the militia they can I should suppose place no great5 dependence. Their naval force is one ship of 74 guns and three or four small frigates.6 If the arrival of the French succour should find them in this situation, the fleet can enter the harbour of New York without diff[ic]ulty, and this is a point on which the success of the whole enterprise absolutely turns—By stopping at Rhode Island, if they arrive there or by passing from Cape Henry to Rhode Island, the most precious time will be lost which will multiply the chances to the enemy of concentering their force, of receiving a naval reinforcement from England or the West Indies of increasing their precautions to obstruct the Channel,7 and their preparations for the defence of their posts By gaining possession of the Harbour and cutting off its communications the present garrison at New York would be unable to resist the efforts of the combined forces; and together with their ships must in all probability fall into our hands. On the contrary if they have time to concenter all their sea and land force on the Continent at New York, the enterprise against that place becomes extremely arduous has much less prospect of success and will at least exhaust the whole campaign to bring it to a favourable issue.

The enemy have in the expedition under Sir Henry Clinton about seven thousand land troops—three ships of the line one fifty gun two forty four—and some smaller frigates.8 If these ships were added to the force at New York, they would I apprehend be sufficient to exclude the French Squadron, unless aided by a vigorous cooperation by land towards Sandy Hook; and the garrison increased to fourteen or fifteen thousand regular troops would present immense difficulties in the way of its reduction.

I observed that the French Squadron would find no difficulty in entering the Port of New York, with the present naval force of the enemy there. The only possible obstacle to this is the obstructions the enemy are preparing; but I am inclined to hope these will be ineffectual and will be easily removed. They last fall made an attempt of the kind on the expectation of Count D’Estaing, but it failed from the depth of the water and rapidity of the current.9 Pilots for the harbour can be ready at Black point in the Jerseys, from which they can go on Board the fleet at its first appearance.

I would wish you to place these things in the fullest light to the French Commanders—by way of recommendation, leaving it to them to act according to the condition of the fleet and troops, with respect to health and other essential matters, and if they prefer it to go immediately to Rhode Island from Cape Henry, or if they arrive at the former place in the first instance, to wait till a definitive plan is adopted. But I think every reason points to the mode here recommended.

You will be sensible my Dear Sir, that we can at present only touch upon preliminary measures—The plan for ultimate operations must be the result of mature deliberation, a full view of our resources and must be formed in conjunction with the General and Admiral of the French forces.

I refer Mr Galvan to you for instructions;10 but I send you a letter to Governor Jefferson of Virginia to give him any assistance he may require and to correspond with him on the state of Southern affairs.11 His own discretion and the information he will get on the spot must chiefly govern him. He cannot be dispatched too soon.

I request you in writing to the Count De Rochembeau and Mr De Ternay to assure them of all my respect and consideration, of the high sense I entertain of this distinguished mark of His Christian Majestys friendship to these states, and of the happiness I anticipate in a personal acquaintance and cooperation with Gentlemen, whose reputations have inspired me with the greatest esteem for their talents and merit. You will add that I will do every thing on my part to give success to the intended operations, and that I flatter myself they will be attended with the happiest consequences.

I cannot forbear recalling your attention to the importance of doing every thing possible to engage the Count De Guichen to come upon this Coast without delay.12 The more I reflect upon it, the more essential it appears. With this addition to our present plan we should have reason to flatter our selves with every thing; without it we have a great deal to apprehend—and instead of the happiest, the worst conseque⟨nces⟩ may ensue to the common cause. I am my Dear Marquis with the greatest truth and affection Yr friend & servant.

P.S. I am just informed that a Gentleman called your Aide De Camp and the Consul of France at Boston have had a duel in which the latter has been mortally wounded. Tis probable the Gentleman supposed to be your Aide is The Chevalier De Fayolles13—If so it may perhaps throw him into embarrassments which may put it out of his power to execute the intended Commission, which makes it prudent to think of some other person.14

Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. GW’s aide-de-camp Richard Kidder Meade docketed the draft: “To the Marquis De la Fayette at Philadelphia by Major Galvon” (see GW to William Galvan, this date).

1GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman wrote the dateline.

2Lafayette left Morristown for Philadelphia on 14 May with dispatches for Congress and French minister La Luzerne (see GW to James Duane, 13 May; see also GW to Lafayette, 19 May, n.2).

3Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (1725–1807), accorded the rank of lieutenant general on 1 March 1780, received orders from Louis XVI to command the French expeditionary corps in America. Rochambeau had been in the military since his youth. He attained the rank of captain in 1743, colonel in 1759, and maréchal de camp in 1761. A member of the royal and military order of Saint-Louis, Rochambeau was named a chevalier du Saint-Esprit in 1783 as a reward for his service in America. The king appointed him governor of Picardy in 1784 and a member of the Assemblée des Notables in 1788. He became maréchal de France in 1791.

Charles-Henri-Louis d’Arsac, chevalier de Ternay (1723–1780) began his career in 1738 as a midshipman and rose through the ranks to captain in 1761. He served during the Seven Years’ War, and was commandant general of Île de France (now Mauritius) and Île Bourbon (now Réunion) from 1772 to 1776. As chef d’escadre (rear admiral), Ternay commanded the squadron that transported Rochambeau and his expeditionary corps to America. The fleet sailed from Brest on 2 May 1780 and arrived at Newport Harbor, R.I., on 11 July. Lafayette wrote French minister La Luzerne on 11 Aug. that he had become unhappy with Ternay, who was “not liked by the naval forces or the land forces” (Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 3:137–39). Ternay died at Newport in December 1780.

Lafayette wrote Rochambeau on 19 May from Philadelphia: “This letter will be handed to you by M. de Galvan, a French officer in the service of the United States, and you may receive with confidence the various accounts which he will have the honour to give you. I have appointed him to await your arrival at Cape Henry, and you will see that my instructions to this officer are in conformity with those which I have received from the Count de Vergennes.

“I reached Boston on the 26th of April. On the morning of the 10th of May, I was at head-quarters, and after passing four days with General Washington, I went to meet the Chevalier de la Luzerne. The military preparations and the political measures which it was necessary for us to attend to, have delayed M. de Galvan up to the present moment. I now hasten to despatch him to his destination, and shall keep him informed of whatever news may be interesting to you, continuing to add the ideas of the general, with regard to the best means of improving present circumstances.

“Immediately upon my arrival, confidential persons were sent out to procure plans and details upon the different points which become interesting for the operations of this campaign. As to other matters, the Chevalier de la Luzerne has had the goodness to enable me, as far as possible, to fulfil my instructions, and he has taken the first measures requisite to procure a supply of food and other necessaries for the land and naval forces. Although the scarcity of all things is infinitely greater than when I left America, the precautions taken beforehand by the Chevalier de la Luzerne, and the measures we are now taking here, render it certain that the French will not be in want, either of flour or of fresh meat.

“I will now give you a summary of the present situation of the enemy on the continent. I shall say nothing of Canada, or Halifax, or the Penobscot, from whence we are expecting news, and which, for the moment, are not of essential importance. Rhode Island is in our possession; you can enter there in full security; letters, signals, and pilots will await you there, agreeably to my instructions. Your magazines, your sick, and all your unnecessary baggage, can go up the Providence by water; I shall soon send to Rhode Island more particular information on this point.

“The enemy have, at the present moment, seven thousand men of their best troops employed at the siege of Charlestown; they have also some ships of the line without the harbour; one vessel of fifty guns, two frigates of forty-four, and several smaller vessels. According to news from New York, Charlestown still held out on the 3rd of this month. On the Islands of New York, Long Island, and Staten Island, the forces of the enemy consisted of eight thousand regular troops, a few militia, upon which they place no dependence, and a small number of royalists, very contemptible in all respects. They have only one ship of seventy-four guns, and some frigates. The American army is in three divisions; one guards the fort of West Point and keeps open the North River; another is in South Carolina; and the third, which is the largest, is in the Jerseys, under the immediate command of General Washington. This last division, not very numerous at present, will be increased in a few days; and for that reason, I shall defer till another letter giving you a more exact account of its situation.

“Your voyage is known at New York. Advices were immediately sent on to Charlestown, recalling either the troops, or at least the ships of war. They are erecting fortifications on the Island, and preparing vessels loaded with stones to obstruct the passage; in a word, if it be true that the present divided state of the English forces seems to insure their destruction, and to promise us the conquest of New York, it is equally true that, at the moment of your arrival, if by good fortune things remain in their present state, we shall have no time to lose in taking advantage of those favourable circumstances.

“At the same time that I here execute the orders of my general, and communicate to you the sentiments of my friend, permit me to assure you of the strong desire of our army to do whatever may please you, and how much we shall all endeavour to merit the friendship and the esteem of troops, whose assistance at the present moment is so essential to us. You will find amongst us a great deal of good will, a great deal of sincerity, and above all, a great desire to be agreeable to you.

“I send a duplicate of this letter to the Chevalier de Ternay, and I shall send the same to Point Judith and Seaconnet; so that in case you should make land at Rhode Island, you may at once sail for Sandy Hook. The next letter which I shall have the honour to write to you, will be dated at headquarters. The confidence of General Washington, which M. de Galvan has deserved, and the means which he has of fulfilling his instructions, all assure me that you will be satisfied with our choice” (Lafayette, Memoirs description begins Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert Du Motier, marquis de Lafayette. Memoirs, Correspondence and Manuscripts of General Lafayette Published by His Family. New York, 1837. description ends [New York], 321–25).

4The French expeditionary force had planned to land at Rhode Island or near Cape Henry, Va. (see Lafayette to GW, 27 April, n.2, and GW to Thomas Jefferson, 15 May, n.3).

5GW interlined “no great” on the draft. Hamilton initially wrote “little” at this place.

6William Smith, royal chief justice of New York, wrote in his memoirs under 10 May that the “Russell (Capt. Drake) of 74 Guns and a Guard Ship lay at the Hook” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs [1971], 261).

7For the British plan to sink vessels in the Sandy Hook channel, see Robert Howe to GW, 11 May, n.6; see also Elias Dayton to GW, 15 May.

8For this British expedition to Charleston, S.C., see Benjamin Lincoln to GW, 11–12 Feb., and n.4 to that document.

9To defend New York the previous fall, the British sank eight hulks near the bar at Sandy Hook, N.J., in a largely unsuccessful attempt to restrict the channel (see Planning for an Allied Attack on New York, c.3–7 Oct., 1779, editorial note, and GW to Samuel Huntington, 21 Oct. 1779; see also GW to Edmund Pendleton, 1 Nov. 1779, and n.5 to that document).

12Lafayette wrote Rear Admiral Guichen, who commanded a French squadron in the West Indies, from Philadephia on 16–20 May. He summarized the significant military intelligence contained in GW’s letter and urged Guichen to proceed to the American coast “TO STRIKE THE MOST telling blow against England.” Lafayette then added a qualification: “it is not the intention of General Washington … to induce you to take this step if it may involve the slightest risk to the West Indies or stop the operations desired by the government. The winter season is the only time FOR WHICH WE DARE ASK, and, while we submit to you the reasons THAT MAKE OUR CASE, it is you, Monsieur le Comte, who must weigh them against those that should ENGAGE YOU ELSEWHERE” (Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 3:17–20; see also GW to James Duane, 13 May, n.8). Guichen remained in the West Indies with more than twenty ships of the line until August and then returned to Europe.

13Lafayette’s friend Major Fayolle fought a duel on 5 May with Joseph de Valnais, the French consul at Boston, in which the latter was wounded, but not mortally. Lafayette described the encounter when he wrote La Luzerne on 24 May and noted that Fayolle’s conduct was “generally approved” (Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 3:33–35).

Pierre, chevalier du Rousseau de Fayolle (1746–1780) had served several years in the French army when he left for the United States with Lafayette in 1777. Not receiving a commission from Congress, Fayolle volunteered with Vice Admiral d’Estaing’s squadron in Rhode Island in 1778 before returning to France. He went back to America with Lafayette but died in an accident. The Connecticut Journal (New Haven) for 22 June 1780 printed an item dated 10 June at Newport that described Fayolle as a “Major in the French service,” who “died very suddenly last Thursday, as he was going off from the south part of this Island to the frigate Hermione; a Gentleman of a most amiable character, and whose death is greatly lamented by all his acquaintance.”

14Fayolle had been charged with delivering Lafayette’s dispatches to the French commanders of the expeditionary force upon its arrival at Rhode Island (see GW to William Greene, 23 May; see also Lafayette to La Luzerne, 24 May, in Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 3:31–33).

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