George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Lafayette, 10 September 1780

From Major General Lafayette

Light Camp August [September] the 10th 17801

Dear General

After having Stated the few facts that have taken place Betwen this and the last Meeting of General Officers, and After having Given to the Council a Return of the Ennemy’s and our own force on this Continent, Your Excellency Wishes to know what plan in our present Circumstances and in the Suppositions We Can Make I Would think Better to pursue.2

In Case We have that Naval Superiority which We May in Some Measure depend upon, I am entirely of Opinion that Our Attention Must point towards the Recovery of the Souther[n] States—I [w]ould therefore from this Moment prepare the provisions which it Will be Necessary to Embark, and advise about the Means Immediately to procure Transports when they Will be Call’d for.

As to Send Any Continental Troops By land, Unless I am Strangely Mistaken about the Inconveniences of Such a journey, I think that the Body of Troops Which Would be Sent there Could not Arrive But with Great expense, Great Loss of Men, and A Greater Loss of time—those three Evils Combin’d together Would only Serve to lessen our force in this Quarter without fulfilling there Any Timely or Material purpose.

I Would therefore Wish that the General officer whosoever that has Made the Retreat of General Gates’s Army be directed to form as Respectable a Body of Troops as will be in his power, and keep the Ennemy in check Without Risquing A General Action.

On Our part I Am Entirely of A different opinion for the Conduct We ought to have Before the Ennemy—The Consequences of A defeat Will alwais in this Quarter be Worse for them Than for us—We ought, I Think, to try every strategem in our power for Bringing the Ennemy to An Action on this Side of the North River, and after our Exertions will prouve fruitless, would Advise (tho’ Not So Strongly) to try the Event of a Battle on the other Side—in Case the Ennemy Were to Make a detachement towards Virginia, I Would fix all My ideas on A Surprise Against New york, and think the object too immense Not to Warrant a Bold Undertaking.

When the Assurance of A Naval Superiority will Warrant our preparations for the Embarkation of troops, I would Advise that six thousand men be ordered to a Safe position about West point, and four thousand be Sent towards New London, while transports and provisions Would be Got in Readiness and as Soon as the Superiority Arrives would Be Sent to New London or Rhode island Where the Embarkation Will take place.

I Would then Wish that Every Mean, Every influence and Even the presence of those Who would have the Greatest Weight be employ’d in Bringing the Southern States to Valuable Exertions It is to be hoped that the States will take Some Measure for to Enlist a part of our Recruits for the War—But in All Cases three or four thousand Men with the Militia Would for A Month or Two Secure the posts at West point—and Such as would be in Carolina Could Not Return till the Expedition Was over as the distance By land Would be Immense.

to that May be objected that We May be Short of provisions &c. But if we have None of those Ressources we are Equally unfitt for Any other Operation.

If from probabilities it is possible to form By Guess any idea I would think that By the Month of december We Might be in Carolina which is very Near the time When a detachement if Sent after the Interrview would Arrive there By land.3

In Case on the Contrary we have No Naval Superiority to Expect, our prospects Would then Be very Gloomy and I don’t See Any Good Chance in our favor, Unless the frost Was to admit of A Coup de Main Against New york.

Without A Naval Superiority the Expedition Against Canada is the only one that has a probability in his favor—But from the want of Cloathing, hard Monney, and Means of Transportation it has Great Inconveniences.4

Nothing But time Can unfold our future Circumstances and decide if A Naval Superiority is to be depended upon in what Case My opinion is positive, or if we are to be alwais inferior at Sea when like Circumstances of the time will fix our ideas, either to attak Canada, or to Send to the Southe[r]n States which May then Become Necessary.

Indeed, Sir, our Ressources of Every kind are So precarious that Unless we depend on a More firm Basis it is Impossible to fix on Any operation—if we hope for A Naval Superiority in the Space of one or two Month, then the impropriety of Sending troops By land, and the propriety of preparing An Expedition By Sea Seem to be obvious—if on the Contrary that hope of a Superiority fails us, Then our Movements Can only be Regulated By the State of our Ressources, the progress of the Army under Lord Cornwallis, the dispositions of the Southern States, and Such other Events as Cannot be presently fix’d upon.

Your Excellency asks if there is any point which we Might for the present attak in Supposing that the Ennemy do theyr duty I do Not See the least prospect of that kind—We have only two Chances Before the winter—the first to draw them out of theyr works—the Second if they were to detach any Considerable force to try the Event of A Surprise Which Cannot be propos’d as a plan and Merely depends upon the determination of the Instant When it May be practicable.


ALS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1Lafayette probably wrote from near Hackensack, N.J. (see n.4 below).

4Lafayette also wrote French minister La Luzerne from “light division camp near Hackensack” on this date: “It appears to me that the French army has collected information about Canada, and although this expedition is the only one proposed and possible if we do not go to the South, I would much prefer the Carolinas” (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 , 3:167–71, quote on 169).

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