George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Lafayette, 30 October 1780

From Major General Lafayette

Light Camp [near Cranetown, N.J.]
October the 30th 1780

My dear General

In our Conversations upon Military operations, You often have told me that Since the Beggining of the Campaign Your Eyes Were turn’d towards a project upon which I Generally Agree in Opinion With you, and Beg Leave to offer Some Observations.

Far from lessening My desire of finishing the Campaign By Some Brillant Stroke, the project of Staten island, tho’ Miscarried, has Strengtened My opinions as I have Clearly Seen By the details of this operation that We should in all human probability have Succeeded and that our Men were fully Equal to Any enterprise of this kind.1

My Reasons for Wishing to Undertake Some thing Are these 1st Any Enterprise will please the people of this Country, show them that when we have Men we do Not Lay Still, and Even a defeat (provided it was not fatal) would have Its Good Consequences 2dly the french Court have often Complain’d to me of the inactivity of that American Army who Before the Alliance had distinguish’d themselves By theyr Spirit of Enterprise—they often have told me, Your friends Leave us Now to fight theyr Battles and do no more Risk themselves—it is Moreover of the Greatest political Importance to let them know that on our side We Were Ready to Cooperate—Be Sure, My dear General, that Many people’s interest will be to let it Believe that We Were Not Ready, and if Any thing May Engage the Ministry to Give us the ask’d for Support it will be our proving to the Nation that on our Side We had been Ready—So far Was the chevalier de la luzerne Convinc’d of this (and on this point the Minister’s interest is the Same With ours) that he Was Made happy By My Mentionning to him the Staten island Affair—I well know the Court of Versailles, and Was I to go to them, I would think It very impolitical to go there Unless we had done Some thing2 3dly It is More than probable that Mediators will interfere this Winter Into A Negotiation3—there England will Say, how Can we give up people whom we Consider as half Conquered—theyr Best fortified City has been taken By an army Not Much Superior to the people that were to defend it4—theyr Southern Army Was Routed almost as Soon as look’d at By the British troops5—Newyork is So much ours that they dare Not Approach it, and General Washington’s Army does not exceed five thousand Men—what shall france Answer principally Now that from the Letters I have Receiv’d I find that the Charlestown affair has Brought our Arms into Contempt6—But what difference if france Might Say—the American Army has taken Sword in hand your Best Works—they have offered to you the Battle upon your own island, and perhaps, May they add, (for News Encrease in travelling) are they Now in possession of Newyork.

Upon these Considerations, My dear General, what I Want is this—to find an expedition which May wear a Brillant Aspect, which affords probable advantages, and an immense tho’ very Remote one; which if unsucessful does not turn fatal to us, for the loss of two or three hundred Men half of them Being inlisted for two Months I don’t Consider as a fatal adventure.7

The Basis of the plan will be that fort Washington Being in our possession May with the fort Lee Batteries protect our Crossing North River, and be a Security for our Retreat, principally if Some works are added on the point of Reimbarkation—the taking of fort Washington We May demonstrate to be Very probable, and upon that point you are of My opinion.

The Ennemy have on the upper part of the island from fifteen hundred to two thousand men who would immediately occupy all the other upper posts—theyr Army on Long island would Repair to Newyork, and there would also Retire the troops posted at harlem.

As Soon as fort Washington Would be ours, the Army Should Cross over to the island, and those of West point Arrive in the Same time (which Calculation May be Easely done) So that We would effectually or possess all the upper posts or Cutt them off from theyr Main Army—Some Militia would Come to our Assistance and As those posts are Not well furnish’d with provisions we should take them at least by famine.

The Ennemy’s Army Consist of Nine thousand Men—they Must Certainly leave one thousand in theyr Several posts—fifteen hundred of them at least will be either kill’d at fort Washington or Block’d up at Laurel hill &c.—they will then have Between Six or Seven thousand men to Attak ten—the two thousand Militia (in Supposing that they durst take them out) I don’t Mention Because we May have four thousand Militia for them—under Such Circumstances is it probable that Sir henry Clinton will Venture a Battle? if he does and By chance Beats us we Retire under fort Washington—But if we Beat him, his Works will be at Such a distance, that he will be Ruin’d in the Retreat—if on the Contrary, principally if he knows that the french Army is Coming, and if we Spread the Report of a Second division or Count de guichen Being upon the Coasts he will keep into his Works,8 and we will Some way or other Carry the Upper posts—when we are upon the Spot we may Recconnoitre Newyork and See if Something is to be done—if Clinton was Making a forrage into the jersays I would be clear for pushing to the City.

if we undertake, the Circumstances of the weather Mak[e] it Necessary that we undertake immediately—I would Move the Army as Soon as possible to our position Near the New Bridge—this Movement May invite Clinton into the jersays and Brings us Nearer to the point of execution.

Tho’ My private Glory, and yours, My dear General, Both of which are Very dear to My heart, are Greatly interested Not So Much for the opinions of America But for those of europe in our doing Some thing this Campaign, I hope You know me too well to think I would insist upon Steps of this Nature, unless I knew that they are politically Necessary, and have a Sufficient military probability. I have the honor to be Yours


The 600 men of Lauzun’s legion Might be got in twelve days9—if our movements had no other effect But to Make a diversion in favor of the Southward it would on that footing Meet with the approbation of the world, and perhaps impeach the operations of General Leslie.10

ALS, PEL. For the location in the dateline, see Lafayette to GW, 28 Oct., source note.

1For this aborted operation, see Lafayette’s letters to GW on 27 Oct. [letter 1; letter 2]; see also Timothy Pickering to GW, 28 October.

2Lieutenant General Rochambeau’s son and aide-de-camp, vicomte de Rochambeau, was then sailing to France to seek additional military and financial support (see General Rochambeau to GW, 5 Oct., and n.2; see also General Rochambeau to GW, 29 Oct., n.1).

3Lafayette probably refers to the League of Armed Neutrality (see GW to Samuel Huntington, 6 July, n.6).

4Lafayette references New York City, which the British occupied in fall 1776 after driving away GW’s army.

5Lafayette presumably alludes to the surrender of Charleston on 10 May and the Battle of Camden on 17 Aug. (see Duportail to GW, 17 May, n.1, and Horatio Gates to GW, 30 Aug., n.1).

6Lafayette likely means letters like one he received from French foreign minister Vergennes, written at Versailles on 7 Aug., that described how the loss “of Charleston, which we had been accustomed to regard as a defensible place, caused all the more astonishment here since the number of defenders, if the English reports are to be believed, was about equal to that of the assailants. I am most reluctant to believe that a slackening of principles could have brought about this disgrace. The English neglect nothing to persuade Europe that the love of independence is much weakened in America and that the most common wish is for a coalition with the mother country and a return to her bosom. I shall be the last to believe this strange phenomenon, but if the Americans do not put more vigor into their conduct one will have reason to believe that they have but a feeble attachment to that independence for which they showed such enthusiasm at the beginning of the revolution” (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 , 3:127–30, quote on 129).

7The enlistments for six-month levies in Continental service would expire before 1 Jan. 1781 (see State of Matters Laid Before the Committee at Headquarters, 25–31 May 1780, and Circular to the States, 2 June 1780).

8French reinforcements known as the second division never left for the United States, and French rear admiral Guichen’s fleet had sailed for Europe (see GW to James Bowdoin, 28 Aug., and n.2 to that document, and William Heath to GW, 6 Sept., n.3; see also GW to Guichen, 12 Sept.).

9Brigadier General Lauzun’s legion soon left Newport for winter quarters in Connecticut (see Rochambeau to GW, 29 Oct., n.6).

10A British expedition under Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie had embarked from New York to Virginia (see GW to Huntington, 17 Oct., n.2; see also Nathanael Greene to GW, 31 Oct., and n.4 to that document).

GW replied to Lafayette on this date: “It is impossible my Dear Marquis to desire more ardently than I do to terminate the campaign by some happy stroke; but we must consult our means rather than our wishes; and not endeavour to better our affairs by attempting things, which for want of success may make them worse. We are to lament that there has been a misapprehension of our circumstances in Europe; but to endeavour to recover our reputation, we should take care that we do not injure it more.

“Ever since it became evident that the allied arms could not cooperate this campaign, I have had an eye to the point you mention, determined if a favourable opening should offer to embrace it; but so far as my information goes, the enterprise would not be warranted. It would in my opinion be imprudent to throw an army of ten thousand men upon an Island against Nine thousand, exclusive of seamen and militia. This from the accounts we have appears to be the enemy’s force. All we can therefore do at present is to endeavour to gain a more certain knowlege of their situation and act accordingly. This I have been sometime employed in doing but hitherto with little success—I shall thank you for any aid you can afford. Arnold’s flight seems to have frightened all my intelligencers out of their senses” (Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW). For arrests of spies in New York following Benedict Arnold’s escape to the British, see Benjamin Tallmadge to GW, 11 Oct., n.2.

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