George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison, 28 November 1780

From Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hanson Harrison

Nanjemoy [Md.]1 Novr the 28th 1780

Dr Sir

I am extremely sorry to inform You, that it will not be in my power to return to Headquarters by any means as soon as I expected & hoped when I came away.2 The business which brought me to Maryland, & which must be adjusted before my departure, will take infinitely more time than I at first apprehended, and will be prolonged the more by the event of my Mother in Law’s death, which has just happened, before a division of the Estate & her dying Intestate.3 Besides this I find that the small estate I had even before my Father’s death, was running me in debt—a circumstance to which I was an entire stranger previous to the War & which I had determined never to experience, and that unless I place it on a better footing and things in some train before I leave Maryland what I received from him, instead of benefitting me, will at least be very injurious to me. Every motive of common prudence and a necessary regard to my present & future support require that I should prevent this. I have no other dependence, as the pay of the Army from the unhappy depreciation of the money, is now & has been a long time but nominal & a more unsubstantial sound. With the strictest œconomy—without being at any expence the few days we were in philadelphia, except for our Horses—Servants & Lodging—the Journey to Alexandria cost Colo. Meade & Myself Three thousand Six Hundred & Twenty Eight Dollars.4 It is possible the pay of the Army may be made substantially good from the beginning, which would in a great measure compensate for loss of time &c., but the point is so contingent, that it ⟨c⟩annot be entirely relied on. States as well as Individuals are not always mindful of past services and have been even often deficient in Acts of Common ⟨J⟩ustice. I hope, more on account of others than any personal consideration, that this will not be the case of Ours. I will not add further on this subject than that Your Excellency may rest assured I will return as soon as circumstances will admit. I cannot ascertain the time, but I hope things will permit me to set out in January or February.5

With respect to News—I am much out of the Channel of it; however we have had report on report of a body of Six Thousand french Troops arriving at the Southward and landing in Georgia—of advantages gained over the Enemy, besides the defeat of Ferguson, and of the retreat of Lord Cornwallis in consequence of the first event—of his being repulsed in attempting to pass the Wateree, by Genl Sumpter, who had thrown himself on the other side with 1800 Men, & of Genls Smallwood and Morgan being in his rear, within Two days march with the remains of the Maryland line and a considerable body of Militia. I suspect the whole intelligence wants foundation, though it is told with confidence, as I am satisfied the account of the French Troops, which seems to be the basis of it, cannot be true & especially as they are said to be the Second division.6

As to The Detachment into Chesepeak bay; the information respecting them is vague & uncertain.7 It is said, & I think it is most probably the Object of the expedition, that they are foraging & killing all the fat Cattle in the Counties of Norfolk & princess Ann, in the latter of which I am told there were many good—& that it was assessed last year or this Spring at Twenty five Thousand head (all sorts) and that it also had many sheep. It is likewise reported that a Letter from Genl Leslie who commands the Detachment, to Lord Cornwallis, has been intercepted, which places him under his Lordships Orders, from which it would seem the Detachment had originally a double Object, both to forage the lower Country & to cooperate with him, either by an actual junction or a diversion.8 The defeat of Ferguson, I should suppose, has deranged their plans a little, and this probably may have induced Lord Cornwallis to fall back, supposing he should have done it, as reported. The Militia of Virginia from what I saw & heard, discovered on the arrival of the Enemy a good a⟨mount⟩ of spirit and a readiness to turn out. The numbers below on the Governor’s requisition & of Volunteers were so much more complete than he expected, I imagine, that those from the upper Counties were countermanded by the time they were well in march. But a good many, in consequence of a previous Draft for three Months only (I think) were at or proceeding to the Southern Army.9 I have inveighed as far as I have had opportunities against the destructive & ruinous system & particularly to Colo. Mason, to whom I made a short visit, and endeavoured to give him the best idea I could of our military affairs & to show the indispensable necessity of a better One. This General Greene will have done much more forcibly, who, I hop[e] called on the Colo. on his way to the Southward.10

There appears to me, on account partly of the badness of the Constitution11 injudicious appointments to Offices, & the cursed system we have been pursuing, which has made of late daily & heavy requisitions, without producing any good consequences or such at least as are seen & felt by the people, to be more languor & indifference among them than I could wish. I am sure those are to be ascribed to the causes I have mentioned, the depreciation of the Money and the inordinate capacity of Traders, and not to any falling off in point of real attachment to the cause, or in wishes for it’s successful issue. I was obliged to go a few days ago to portobacco when there was an Election for Two Delegates for the County, which is remarkable for it’s exertions, and was pained to find the matter important as it was & ought to have been considered, could not draw but a handful of people from their Homes.12 I was led to inquire and to conjecture about the cause—and the solution was the Constitution had made All Militia Officers & Others holding Civil Offices ineligible, so that in fact the people who will respect Characters, had but a very limited number of proper Characters at best, out of which to make a choice. In Virginia too much of the same Spirit of indifference prevails, but I can’t say whether it is owing to any radical defect in the Constitution.13 Colo. Mason told me he had it in contemplation to bring in a Bill to remedy the evil or subject the Electors non attending to a heavy penalty. I thought he might atach a paragraph to compel the attendance of Burgesses at the Assembly and Delegates appointed to Congress, to go with equal propriety. The depreciation of the money and its fluctuating state and the enormous prices of Goods, produced in a great measure by the rapacity of Traders in general, is another powerful cause of the languor and indifference among the people. I have long thought it would have been better for us, unless we could have had a plentiful trade, to have had none at all, except on public account. I am more & more convinced of it. The appreciation or depreciation of the money in a great degree depends on the Traders. Hitherto it has been their policy in general to depreciate it—and they have found a benefit in it, as the few who have not made money and traded on virtuous & liberal principles, for Such there are, bear no proportion to those that have made large & substantial fortunes. The moment almost an emission is made, they determine the terms on which it is to exist and if fortunately it is to have a currency, it is to be under some hard restriction or at an under rate. For instance Maryland lately issued some Money on the credit of a Sum She had in the Bank of England and if their Drafts should be refused—then on the lands & property of British Subjects in the State. A good deal of the Money, if not the whole, got immediately into the hands of the people for purchases on the footing of Forty for one of the Old; but the instant it was done, it’s circulation stopped in this County, except in paying public Officers, till the Gents. in trade could be advised from Baltimore how it should be considered.14 Thus the credit of the State’s emission is entirely in the hands of the trading Men.

I beg You to present my respectful Compliments to Mrs Washington. I hope she will, as she was to set out on Friday, have arrived when this comes to hand.15 I also request if You have any commands which I can execute while I am in this quarter, that You will favour me with them. The Letter I have inclosed for Mr Tilghman, You will be pleased to deliver him.16 I am Dr Sir With the most respectful attachmt & regard Yr Most Obedt sert

Rob: H: Harrison

P.S. I am happy to inform You the Crop of Corn is amazingly great—I hear it has been sold for 15£ and as low as 12 in some parts of this County. Meat, that is pork, is high, nevertheless. 35 (or 40) Gold & Silver or the exchange in paper is talked of as the price.


1Nanjemoy was a village in southwestern Charles County, Md., near the Potomac River.

2Harrison had left GW’s military family after learning of his father’s death (see Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, 5 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 , 2:455–56).

3Harrison’s stepmother Elizabeth Dent Harrison (c.1720–1780) had died on 25 November. His father, Richard, had died on 16 September.

4Harrison and GW’s aide-de-camp Richard Kidder Meade were in Philadelphia in later October (see Francisco Rendon to GW, 10 Nov.).

5Harrison subsequently visited GW at New Windsor but never resumed secretarial duties following his appointment in Maryland as “Chief Judge of the General Court” (Md. Archives description begins Archives of Maryland. 72 vols. Baltimore, 1883–1972. description ends , 45:349; see also Harrison to Hamilton, 26 March 1781, in Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 2:584–86).

6No French troops had landed in Georgia, and the second division of the French expeditionary corps never left France. The defeat of Col. Patrick Ferguson’s command at Kings Mountain, S.C., on 7 Oct. 1780 caused Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis to retreat with his force from Charlotte, N.C., but they did not face any particular threat (see Thomas Jefferson to GW, 25 Oct., and notes 3 and 4 to that document, and General Orders, 27 Oct., and n.2 to that document).

7Harrison refers to Maj. Gen. Alexander Leslie’s expedition (see Nathanael Greene to GW, 31 Oct., and n.4 to that document).

8For the intercepted letter from Leslie to Cornwallis, see Jefferson to GW, 10 Nov., and n.1 to that document.

9Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson balanced demands to reinforce the southern army operating in North Carolina and South Carolina and to meet the British incursion into Virginia (see Jefferson to GW, 22 Oct.).

10GW had given Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, the new southern department commander, a letter of introduction to Virginia legislator George Mason (see GW to William Fitzhugh, 22 Oct., n.1; see also Greene’s second letter to GW, 19 Nov.).

11Harrison means the Maryland constitution adopted on 11 Nov. 1776.

12Port Tobacco was in Charles County.

13The Virginia constitution had been adopted on 29 June 1776.

14Harrison probably refers to “An ACT to enable the treasurer of the western shore to draw and sell bills of exchange, and for an emission of bills of credit, if necessary” (Md. Laws, June 1780 description begins Laws of Maryland, Made and Passed at a Session of Assembly, Begun and held at the city of Annapolis, on Monday the twelfth of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty. Annapolis, [1780]. description ends , chapter 24).

15Major General Chastellux wrote in his journal entry for Thursday, 30 Nov., that he met Martha Washington at Joseph Reed’s home in Philadelphia, where she “had just arrived from Virginia. … She is about forty or forty-five, rather plump, but fresh and with an agreeable face” (Chastellux, Travels in North America description begins Marquis de Chastellux. Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782. Translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr. 2 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963. description ends , 134). GW reported her arrival at New Windsor when he wrote Catharine Littlefield Greene on 15 Dec. (found at GW’s second letter to Nathanael Greene, 13 Dec., n.3).

16The enclosed letter from Harrison to GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman has not been identified.

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