George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Rear Admiral Guichen, 12 September 1780

To Rear Admiral Guichen

Head Quarters Bergen County September 12th 1780


The Marquis De la Fayette arrived in America in april last charged by the Court of France, to announce to me its intention to send a fleet and army to cooperate with the troops of these States.1 Foreseeing that this succour would not have the intended effect, from an insufficiency of the naval force, which would probably be found inferior to the enemy, I requested the Marquis to represent to you the situation of affairs on this Continent, the necessity of an active campaign, the great utility of a detachment from your fleet to reinforce the one expected from Europe, and give efficacy to the generous intentions of your Court. I was persuaded, that if it were compatible with your instructions, and the plans in contemplation in the Islands, you would chearfully afford your assistance in a co-operation so necessary to this country, so beneficial to the common interest.2

It appears since to have been the intention of your court to send a larger succour than was at first mentioned; and that a second division was ⟨to⟩ have followed that which has arrived at Rhode Islan⟨d.⟩ The late advices however from Europe show that the execution of this project will at least be suspended by the appearance of the British fleet off the port of Brest; and there is little hope that the second division can arrive in time to undertake any operations against the enemy in this part of the Continent.3

The Chevalier De Ternay has informed you of h⟨is⟩ being blocked in the port of Rhode Island by a superior British fleet—And the French troops are of course under a necessity of remaining there for the security of the fleet against a combined attack by sea, and land—Nor indeed could they be more useful to us in any other position, a naval superiority being essential to every enterprize in these States.

In consequence of the expected aid, great exertions have been made on our part for offensive operations⟨—⟩an additional expence (immense to this country in its present exhausted state) has been incurred—great expectations have been excited among the people—and if events do not permit us to derive corresponden⟨t⟩ advantages, the disappointment will no doubt be attended with effects very injurious to our affairs.

The situation of America at this time is critical—the Goverment without finances—its paper credit sunk, and no expedients it can adopt capable of retreiving it—the resources of the country much diminished, by a five Years war, in which it has made efforts beyond its ability—Clinton with an army of ten thousand regular troops, aided by a considerable body of militia, whom, from motives of fear and attachment he has engaged to take arms, in possession of one of our capital towns, and a larg⟨e⟩ part of the State to which it belongs—the savages desolating the other frontier—a fleet superior to that of our allies, not only to protect him against any attempt of ours, but to facilitate those he may project against us—Lord Cornwallis with seven o⟨r⟩ eight thousand men in complete possession of two States, Georgia and South Carolina—a third, North Carolina, by recent misfortunes at his mercy, his force dayly increasing by an accession of adherents, whom his successes naturally procure him in a country inhabited in great part, by emigrants from England and Scotland, who have not been long enough transplanted to exchange their ancient habits and attachments, in favor of their new residence.

By a letter lately received from General Gates⟨—⟩we learn that on the 16th of last month, attempting to penetrate and regain the State of South Carolin⟨a,⟩ he met with a total defeat near Camden, in which many of his troops have been cut off, and the remainder dispersed, with the loss of all their canno⟨n⟩ and baggage.4

The enemy are said to be now making a detachment from New York for a Southern destination—if they push their successes in that quarter, there is no saying where their career may end. The opposition will be feeble, unless we can give succour from hence, which from a variety of causes must depend on a naval superiority.

In addition to the representation made to ⟨y⟩ou by the Marquis De la Fayette, the Chevalier De Ternay has done me the honor to impart to me, that he has also applied to you for a reinforcement to put him in condition to act.5

Though I have entire confidence, that the steps already taken will determine you to give us all the assistance which your situation, and the plans you have formed will permit; Yet as The Honorable The Congress have lately thought proper to vest me with full power to concert with the Officers of their most Christian and Catholic Majesties, any enterprises which appear to me advantageous to the common cause6—it becomes my duty to address you immediately myself, and to expose to you the dangers and difficulties we experience in the present posture of our affairs—that you may judge how essential your assistance would be to us at this juncture.

I write to you with that confidence and cando⟨r,⟩ which ought to subsist between allies, and between military men. In my eye the interest of France and America are the same—and to conceal our embarrassments would be to betray both—While I assure you that the latter stands in need of the most vigorous assistance of its friends—I entreat you to beleive, that I am as remote from exaggerating as from palliating—and that I do not heighten the picture from a partiality to our own interest. The Chevalier De la Luzerne, whom I shall beg to transmit you this Letter in cyphers, will I doubt not add his testimony to mine.7

To propose, at this time, a plan of precise co-operation would be fruitless—I shall only observe in general, that any succour you could send in consequence of this letter, must arrive too late for an enterprize against New York—but an unequivocal naval superiority would I hope enable us to act decisively in the Southern extremity.8 The 20th instant is appointed for an interview with the Count De Rochambeau and the Chevalier De Ternay, in which we shall probably combine several plans dependent for the execution on different contingencies—one of which will be the arrival of a detachment from your fleet.9

Convinced as I am, that the independance of America is the primary object of the war with your Court, it is unnecessary to offe⟨r⟩ any other motives to engage your exertions in our favor. I might otherwise remark, that the destruction of the enemy here would greatly facilitate the reduction of their Islands—Supplies in much greater abundance, and on much better terms might then be drawn from hence to forward your operations there; and these States disencumbered of an internal war might unite their inhabitants and resources in vigorous efforts against the common enemy elsewhere for the benefit of the common cause.

I am happy in this opportunity of congratulating you on the advantages you have reaped in your different combats—as glorious to the flag of France, as humiliating to that of Britain. My happiness would be complete if the coasts of this Continent should add to your laurels.10 With the sentiments of the most perfect respect, I have the honor to be Sir Your Most Obedient Humble Servant

Go: Washington

LS, in David Humphreys’s writing, FrPMAE; Df, DLC:GW; copy, in French, FrPMAE; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Obscured material on the LS is supplied in angle brackets from the draft, which is in the writing of GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton.

1See Lafayette to GW, 27 April, and n.2 to that document.

3See GW to James Bowdoin, 28 Aug., and n.2 to that document.

5French rear admiral Ternay’s letter to Guichen has not been identified, but see GW to La Luzerne, 5 Aug., postscript; Ternay to GW, 10 Aug.; and GW to La Luzerne, 16 Aug.; see also Rochambeau, Memoirs description begins M. W. E. Wright, ed. and trans. Memoirs of the Marshal Count de Rochambeau. Relative to the War of Independence of the United States. Paris, 1838. description ends , 16–17.

6See 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 , 17:698–99; see also Huntington to GW, 5 August.

7GW wrote French minister La Luzerne from headquarters in Bergen County on this date: “I have the honor to inclose you a letter which upon the whole I have thought it adviseable to write to the Count De Guichen. As its contents are of a nature to make its falling into the Enemy’s hands in its present form dangerous, and as I have no cypher of communication with the Count I take the liberty to request Your Excellency’s assistance in making use of yours and forwarding it by triplicates with your dispatches by the first opportunities.

“I make no mention of a Land force because though it would be useful it may be dispensed with—But if a body of Troops could conveniently accompany the Fleet, it would give greater energy and certainty of success to our operations—I am the more induced to desire it, as the composition of a considerable part of our Army is temporary and I am not informed what measures may be taken to replace the Men whose times of service will expire.

“I need use no arguments to convince Your Excellency of the extremity to which our affairs are tending and the necessity of support—You are an Eye-witness to all our perplexities and all our wants. You know the dangerous consequences of leaving the Enemy in quiet possessi⟨on⟩ of their Southern conquests, either for negotiatio⟨n⟩ this Winter or a continuance of the War—you know our inability alone to expel them; or perh⟨aps⟩ even to stop their career” (LS, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, FrPMAE; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW; see also Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., to GW, 31 Aug., n.3).

8At this place on the draft, Hamilton wrote and struck out “and after subduing the enemy there, to endeavour to expel them from their possessions in the Floridas.”

9Hamilton wrote and struck out at this place on the draft: “Should you think proper to make such a detachment, a body of troops under its convoy though not necessary would be useful” (see also The Hartford Conference, 20–22 Sept., editorial note).

10Hamilton wrote and then struck out celebratory remarks on Guichen’s fleet on the first page of the draft: “I have since learned with peculiar satisfaction the glorious advantages, you obtained over the British fleet in different combats with equal force—and we are in momentary expectation of hearing of the events of the expedition, in which you are now engaged, and of which the success cannot fail to produce the most important and happy consequences.” For indecisive actions involving Guichen’s fleet, see James Duane to GW, 26 May, n.5.

Index Entries