George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Colonel Timothy Pickering, 28 October 1780

From Colonel Timothy Pickering

Camp at Totowa Octr 28th 1780


Sensible how mortifying is Disappointment especially when the Object of our wishes is almost within our Grasp; aware that the supposed Cause of the Disappointment is ever the Subject of Censure and Resentment; and fearing your Excellency will deem me greatly culpable for the Failure of the late Enterprize of the Light Infantry; I beg you will do me the Favor to read the Orders I gave on the Occasion, Copies of which I inclose. Each was given on the Instant of receiving from Colonel Hamilton his several communications on the subject.1

After dispatching an Express with the Letter No. 1 and another Express with the Letter No. 2, and the Instructions No. 3; I rode myself to Major Cogswell; that I might be assured of his having received my Orders. He arrived soon after, having received my Letter from the Express, whom I had directed not to cease riding untill he had found him. The Major instantly wrote his Orders relative to the Removal of the Boats, and sent them to his Conductor before I left him.

The next Day (the 25th) late in the Afternoon my Express returned from Kings Ferry—Mr Kiers the Quarter Master there was sick; and unable to do anything; but the Express agreeably to the conditional Instructions I had given him executed the Orders with so much promptitude, that the next Day he put into the Boats near Suffrans three and forty Oars. He informed me that there were no double Trees at the Boats; but that the Conductor would endeavor to procure some of the neighbouring Farmers, and if he failed, the Conductor said he would send back one of his People to fetch them from his quarters, and in the mean Time get on with the Boats as far as he could—About seven that Evening I sent off the Letter No. 5 to Major Cogswell, and immediately afterwards rode myself to Head Quarters—With what passed there Colonel Hamilton is acquainted.

On the first Notice of the affair I directed Colonel Baldwin to repair the Carriages (which I went to examine) of the Boats in Camp and get them ready to move by ten the next Morning—On the 26th I went to the Boats to see if they were in Readiness. The Carriages had been repaired, but the Wheels wanted Tar; and the Boats thole Pins—These Defects I caused to be remedied, and some spare thole pins to be made, lest the other boats should be deficient,2 and about the Time the Teams were fixed to them the Boats were ready to move.

In the afternoon I rode to the two Bridges3 (hurrying on the Boats as I passed) where I expected to find the Boats from Suffrans; but to my extreme Mortification they had not arrived. I immediately rode to Dodds4 where I found Major Cogswell who informed me the Boats were near at Hand. I waited a little for the Arrival of some and rode forward to meet the rest. They advanced with Rapidity; and after seeing half of them over the Hill, and the Residue just ascending I returned to the two Bridges where I expected to meet some Officer with Orders whether to proceed with the Boats or to stop them. For not knowing the Distance they would have to march beyond the Point to which they were ordered to proceed, I could not determine tho I feared, that they would arrive too late. But on coming to the two Bridges, whither Major Cogswell had galloped a little before me, he presented me with Major Langborn’s Orders to drive on the Boats with all possible Dispatch, and they were pushd accordingly.5

In the Course of the Business I gave many verbal Directions all tending to effect a punctual Execution of Orders, but they would be too tedious to relate, and some as they arose from the Occasion, I could not now recollect.

I am sorrey to trouble Your Excellency with so long a Detail; but I have felt too much pain not to attempt by a Relation of Facts, to remove any unfavorable Impressions on your Excellency’s mind, which the Event of the Affair may have produced. I should also be happy that the Marquis were acquainted with the state of the Matter as here given, if in your Excellency’s Opinion it amounts to a Justification, or will in any Degree lessen the Blame I may otherwise incur.6

I should sooner have laid before your Excellency Copies of my Orders on this Occasion, with such Remarks as I have now made; but the Business of my Office, especially the writing divers public Letters, which did not admit of Delay, prevented me. I have the Honor to be With the greatest Respect Your Excellency’s Most Obedt servt

Tim: Pickering Q.M.G.

ALS, MHi: Pickering Papers. GW may have returned this letter to Pickering, or it possibly never was sent. No reply from GW has been found.

1Pickering’s enclosures have not been identified, but GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton had written Pickering from Totowa on the evening of 25 Oct.: “You will have the boats at Dodd’s [tavern] and those now with the army, properly furnished with oars, transported by horses for the sake of expedition—brought to the Notch, tomorrow evening precisely at five O Clock (i.e. half an hour before sunset) where they will receive further orders. You will have with each set a confidential person on whom you can absolutely rely for punctuality to a moment. The greatest secrecy is necessary, and it is essential that the boats should not arrive a moment sooner nor later than the time fixed.

“You will have fresh teams ready at the same place at the same time under a confidential person also, to relieve those in the Waggons, in order to transport the boats with the more celerity. … If you will be so good as to call at Head Quarters this evening there may be some other points. … The boats are to be kept in readiness ’till further order” (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 26:402–3; see also Hamilton to Joshua Mersereau, 24 Oct., in Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 2:488).

GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman had written Pickering on “Thursday Ev’g” (presumably 26 Oct.) from headquarters: “I send you the despatches for Millet—There are among them two letters—one for Morris Town and one for Baskenridge which he is to deliver—they are of consequence and therefore be pleased to give him a charge respecting them.

“His Excellency only wishes to have four more Boats upon Carriages. If you can have them mounted from those upon the North River—the remainder may be all sent up above the Highlands” (DNA: RG 93, manuscript file no. 25714).

For the intended Light Infantry attack against British forces on Staten Island, N.Y., see Lafayette’s letters to GW on 27 Oct.; see also Lafayette to GW, 12 Oct., and n.3 to that document. Publicly attacked for his actions in 1808, Pickering wrote that GW would have dismissed him as quartermaster general if there had been “cowardice or a want of fidelity in the affair.” He detailed how a misunderstanding involving Col. Jeduthan Baldwin had resulted in the inability to transport the boats in carriages. “I perfectly remember stating the facts immediately at head-quarters to Colonel Hamilton, principal aide-de-camp to General Washington; whose answer was, that the General attached no blame to me” (Pickering and Upham, Life of Pickering description begins Octavius Pickering and Charles W. Upham. The Life of Timothy Pickering. 4 vols. Boston, 1867–73. description ends , 1:260–62) .

2Tholepins secured the oars for rowers in a boat.

3Two Bridges is where the Passaic and Pompton rivers in northern New Jersey flow together to continue as the Passaic. One bridge crossed each river just above the confluence.

4Dodd’s tavern was just south of Totowa along a branch of the Passaic River.

5William Langborn (1756–1814), Martha Washington’s relative through the Dandridge family, joined the 6th Virginia Regiment as an ensign in April 1777. Promoted to lieutenant and then major, he first became an aide-de-camp for Major General Lafayette and then for Maj. Gen. Robert Howe. Langborn went to the southern department with Lafayette in 1781 as his aide-de-camp and deputy quartermaster general. A congressional resolution adopted on 6 Oct. 1783 breveted him lieutenant colonel (see 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 , 25:646). See also Curtis Carroll Davis, “The Curious Colonel Langborn: Wanderer and Enigma from the Revolutionary Period,” Va. Mag. description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 1893–. description ends 64 (1956): 402–32.

6Lafayette apparently held no grudge. He wrote Pickering on 27 Feb. 1781 to praise his exertions as quartermaster general (see 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 , 3:349–50).

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