George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 29 August 1780

To Thomas Jefferson

Headqrs in the vicinity of Fort Lee [N.J.]
August 29. 1780


I had not the honor till Th[r]ee days ago to receive Your Excellency’s Letters of the 4th Ulto & 2d Instant.1

With respect to your enquiry about sending Tobacco to New York & Long Island for the prisoners—it is not in my power to give You a decisive answer, but I am much inclined to think that it would not be permitted by the Enemy. I have heard by report that the matter has been mentioned, on some occasion, and it was said not to be admissible; and also that they would not allow a quantity of Iron or lumber to be sent from Maryland for their prisoners.2 The more eligible way I believe will be for Your Excellency to pursue the Alternative You proposed, & to transmit the Money.

The good effects arising from proclamations to bring in Deserters have not hitherto been very extensive; however I was induced from the reports I had received that there were Many in Virginia, who would probably surrender themselves on a promise of pardon, to issue One, which I took the liberty of transmitting to Your Excellency in a Letter of the 14th Inst., which I presume will have come to hand before this time.3 I now inclose Your Excellency Another founded on the Act of Assembly transmitted in your Letter of the 2d, with an Additional clause respecting prisoners who have escaped from the Enemy and returned to their Homes. Your Excellency it is probable, will have witheld the former proclamation, if You have—You will be so obliging, after filling up the blank left for inserting the date & manner of publishing the Act to which the present One refers, as to commit it to the printer.4

Our prospects of an operation against New York this Campaign have become very precarious & contingent. The Alliance Frigate has just arrived at Boston from L’orient, which she left the 9th of July, and we learn by her that the Harbour of Brest from whence the Second division intended to cooperate with us was to come, was then blocked up by 32 British Ships of the line, and that the division had not sailed. We also hear through the same channel, that the combined fleet consisting of 36 or 38 Ships of the line had sailed from Cadiz to open the Harbour & form a junction with several Other Ships of War, which were shut in. From this intelligence it is probable we shall soon be informed that a great naval combat has taken place between the Two fleets. I sincerely wish success to our Allies and I will not doubt it, but if it should be the case—the arrival of the 2d division, making a reasonable allowance for their passage and delay afterwards for refreshing the Troops & Seamen, will hardly be in time for us to commence so extensive An Operation as the One against New York—with a reasonable hope of carrying it through, before Winter sits in with severity. But this is not the only objection. The States remain most amazingly deficient in their quotas of Troops and I have too much reason to fear it would be the case—if the remainder of the french force was here.5 This is—it must be the consequence of our fatal system of Short inlistments, by which we have Armies to raise on the spur of the occasion—and by the repetition of which the patriotism & purses of the people have been so often & so far extended—that they are discouraged and go about to comply with any requisitions with an infinite indifference. And besides this failure on our part, I have the mortification to inform Your Excellency—that for several days past, the Army has been almost entirely destitute of meat—on some days without a mouthful—and has drawn the chief part it has had from the scanty supplies in the hands of the Inhabitants in the vicinity of it, who had been impoverished before. Those failures and these wants on our part blast almost every hope of successful operations in any case, and the latter produce a most licentious spirit in the soldiery. An Army should be well fed—well cloathed, and paid & then You may exact & expect almost any thing from it. This is a universally received maxim among military Men & is founded in the most obvious reason, but with respect to Our Army it does not operate in any one of these instances. I have the Honor to be With very great respect & regard Yr Excellency’s Most Obed. st


P.S. If Your Excellency, when this comes to hand, should have published the proclamation transmitted in my Letter of the 14th and should still chuse to publish the present One as being conformable to the wishes of the Legislature—You will be pleased to erase the last paragraph respecting Soldiers who have been prisoners & escaped, before it goes to the press, as the former contained one nearly similar.6 Yrs.

Df, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1Jefferson had written GW from Richmond on 4 July: “The assembly have directed me to send a quantity of tobacco to the Virginia officers in captivity at New York & Long island, or if the enemy will not admit that, that it be sold for hard money and sent to them. I own I do not expect they will admit it. as you are a better judge of this, should you be of opinion they will suffer the officers to receive & dispose of the tobacco, I must trouble you to get permission for a flag to go hence by water with it. if you think they will not consent to it, & will be so good as to inform me of it, I will not give you the trouble of applying for a flag, but will proceed immediately to procure hard money according to the desire of the assembly” (ALS, MA; GW’s secretary Robert Hanson Harrison docketed this letter as received on 26 Aug.; see also Jefferson to GW, 2 Aug. and 3 Sept.).

2The Maryland Council wrote Lt. Col. Nathaniel Ramsay on 21 April regarding “Bar Iron and Pine Plank” that imprisoned Maryland officers might sell for “Specie to purchase Cloaths, Linen and other necessary Apparel and to defray contingent Expences” (Md. Archives description begins Archives of Maryland. 72 vols. Baltimore, 1883–1972. description ends , 43:147–48). Ramsay and others then wrote Maryland governor Thomas Sim Lee on 28 May requesting “Victuals, or money” (Md. Archives description begins Archives of Maryland. 72 vols. Baltimore, 1883–1972. description ends , 43:506–7).

3See Proclamation to Deserters, 15 Aug., and the source note to that document.

4A draft of the enclosure dated 29 Aug. reads: “Whereas Many Soldiers belonging to the Battalions raised by the Commonwealth of Virginia to serve in the Continental Army have deserted from them, and the Honourable the General Assembly of the said Commonwealth apprehending that many of them sensible of their folly and wickedness in violating their faith and Oaths, in dishonourably abandoning the cause of their Country by desertion, would gladly be restored to the favour of their fellow Citizens, by a speedy return to their duty during the war, or for a certain time over and above their several engagements, were it not for the fear of an ignominious punishment, were pleased by an Act passed at their last session, entitled ‘An Act the more effectually to prevent and punish desertion’ which was published [ ] ‘to proclaim pardon to all Deserters from the Virginia line of the Continental Army, who should within Two Months after the publication of the said Act return to their several Companies, if on land, and if at sea, within Two Months after their return, and serve during the War, if so engaged, and if otherwise should serve Two years over and above the time for which he or they engaged.’

“Therefore to quiet the minds of All such Deserters and to prevent all appearance of excuse to Any who shall dare to reject the pardon & indemnification requested and offered by the said Act, I do hereby proclaim & grant a full pardon to All such as have already surrendered themselves to Any Continental Officer in the said Commonwealth (their Companies being in captivity) on the terms contained in the said Act, and also to All such as shall hereafter surrender themselves at Chesterfield or Frederickburg in the said Commonwealth, to Brigadier General Muhlenberg or any other Continental Officer on the terms of service and within the times prescribed by the same, having regard to their being on land or at sea as is therein mentioned.

“And whereas it has been suggested to me that Many Soldiers made prisoners in the course of the War & who have escaped—have most unjustifiably affected to consider themselves entirely discharged from service by their captivity and escape tho the terms of their inlistments were not expired, and have accordingly returned to their homes—I have thought it proper hereby to give notice to All such in said Commonwealth under this description, if any such there be, that they are to repair to Fredericksburg or Chesterfield by the last day of October, and surrender themselves to a Continental Officer under pain of being treated as Deserters if they fail to do it, and serve according to the terms of their respective inlistments, and where these were for a shorter period than during the War, they are moreover to make good the time they have unlawfully absented themselves” (DLC:GW; see also Jefferson to GW, 2 Aug., n.1).

5For these quotas, see Circular to the States, 2 June, n.1.

6A newspaper publication of the later proclamation has not been identified.

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