George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major General Lafayette, 20 February 1781

To Major General Lafayette

[New Windsor, 20 Feb. 1781]


I have ordered a detachment to be made at this post to rendezvous at Peeks Kill the 19th instant, which together with another to be formed at Morris Town from the Jersey troops will amount to about twelve hundred Rank & file.1

The destination of this detachment is to act against the corps of the enemy now in Virginia in conjunction with the Militia and some ships from the fleet of The Chevalier Des touches, which he informs me sailed the 9th instant from New Port.2

You will take the command of this detachment which you will in the first instance march off by batalions towards Pompton there to rendezvous and afterwards proceed with all possible dispatch to the Head of Elk.

You will make your arrangemts with the Qr Master General concerning the route you are to take—concerning transportation tents intrenching tools and other articles in his department of which you may stand in need; with the Commissary General concerning provisions;3 with the Clothier concerning Clothing shoes &c. And with General Knox concerning the artillery and stores you will want for the expedition. The result of these several arrangemen⟨ts⟩ you will report at Head Quarters.

When you arrive at Trenton, i⟨f⟩ the Delaware is practicable and boats are readily to be had, you will save time by going from thence by water to Christeen bridge Marcus hook4 ⟨or Chester;5 but⟩ if you cannot avail yourself of this mode you must proceed by land, by the route which the Qr Mr and Commy may designate as most convenient for covering and supplies.

You are not to suffer the detachment to be delayed for want either of provision forage or waggons on the route; where the ordinary means will not suffice with certainty you will have recourse to military impress.

You will take your measures with the Qr Mr General in such a manner that vessels may be ready by your arrival at the Head of Elk to convey you down6 the bay to Hampton road or7 to the point of operation, and you will open a previous communication with the officer Commanding the ships of His Christian Majesty to concert your cooperation and to engage8 him to send (if it can be spared)9 a frigate up the bay to cover your passage without which, or some other armed Vessels10 might be otherwise insecure.

When you arrive at your destination you must act as your own judgment and the circumstances shall direct.

You will open a correspondence with the Baron De Steuben who now commands in Virginia informing him of your approach and requesting him to have a sufficient body of Militia ready to act in conjunction with your detachment. It will be adviseable for him to procure persons in whom he can confide well acquainted with the Country at Portsmouth and in the Vicinity, some who are capable of giving you a military idea of it and others to serve as guides.

You should give the earliest attention to acquiring a knowlege of the different rivers but particularly James’ River, that you may know what harbours can best afford shelter11 and security to the cooperating Squadron, in case of blockade by a superior force.

You are to do no act whatever with Arnold that directly or by implication may skreen him from the punishment due to his treason and desertion, which if he should fall into your hands, you will execute in the most summary way.12

Having recommended it to the Count De Rochambeau to detach a land with the naval force that might be destined for Chæsapeak bay (though from the disposition what has already taken place it is not probable that land forces will be sent yet) if the recommendation should be complied with, you will govern yourself in cooperating with the Officer commanding the French troops agreeable to the intentio⟨ns⟩ and instructions of His Most Christian Majesty of which you were the bearer, and which being still in your possession it is unnecessary for me to recite.13

You will keep me regularly advised of your movements & progress; & when the object of the detachment is fulfilled (or unfortunately disappointed) you will return with it by the same rout, if circumstances admit of it and with as much expedition as possible to this Post.14

I wish you a successful issue to the enterprise and all the glory which I am persuaded you will deserve. Given at Head Quarters New Windsor Feby 20th 81.

Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Mutilated or obscured portions of the draft are supplied in angle brackets from the Varick transcript.

Lafayette’s corps departed from Peekskill, N.Y., soon after 19 Feb., crossed the Hudson River at King’s Ferry, and marched into New Jersey. Lafayette halted the corps at Pompton on 23 Feb. due to heavy rain (see Lafayette’s first letter to GW of 23 Feb.). On 24 Feb., Lafayette reported to GW from Morristown, N.J., where the battalion of New Jersey troops joined the corps and the men were supplied with provisions. The corps then proceeded to Princeton. While Lafayette went ahead to Philadelphia to make arrangements for the support of his corps, his officers marched the troops out of Princeton on 28 February. The corps arrived the next day at Trenton, where Lafayette had arranged for their reception and a supply of three days’ provisions (see Lafayette to Joseph Vose, 28 Feb., and to Timothy Pickering, 1 March, in 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 , 3:354–57). As ordered by GW, Lafayette embarked his troops on boats at Trenton early on 1 March, and the corps sailed past Philadelphia on that afternoon. By 2 March, Lafayette could report to GW that his corps would arrive at the Head of Elk in Maryland the next day at the latest. After landing in Delaware, Lafayette marched his corps overland to Head of Elk, where his troops were to embark on transport vessels for the trip down Chesapeake Bay. After some difficulties obtaining vessels, Lafayette reported to GW on 7 March that his men would be embarked the next day (DLC:GW). Foreseeing difficulty due to contrary winds with any French frigate coming to escort his transports down the bay, Lafayette determined to sail his transports only so far as Annapolis (see Lafayette to GW, 8 March, DLC:GW). The corps arrived at Annapolis before 15 March, when Lafayette reported to GW that he himself had gone forward in a barge to Yorktown, Va., where he arrived on 14 March (DLC:GW). Lafayette had sent GW regular reports with details of his detachment’s march.

Desiring to support Lafayette’s detachment, the French commanders at Newport had readied an expedition to Virginia (see Destouches to GW, 25 Feb., and Rochambeau to GW, same date). The expedition fleet departed Newport on 8 March (see Destouches to GW, that date, DLC:GW). The British fleet sailed soon after in pursuit. Encountering the British fleet off Cape Henry on 16 March, Destouches scored a tactical victory but failed to get his ships into Chesapeake Bay, which the British entered on 18 March (see Destouches to GW, 19 March, DLC:GW, and the entry for 11 March in Mackenzie Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 2:504). Destouches returned to Newport, ending any hope GW had of the French aiding Lafayette in Virginia.

Lafayette learned of the presence of the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay on 26 March, when at Williamsburg, and informed GW that he intended to bring his corps back to New York, per his orders (two letters, both 26 March, both DLC:GW). On 5 April, GW expected Lafayette to be marching the corps to New York (DLC:GW). However, the next day, GW reversed himself. With Lafayette’s corps already advanced 300 miles from the main army, and considering the “vast importance” of reinforcing Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene’s southern army “as speedily as possible,” GW ordered Lafayette to resume his march to Virginia (DLC:GW). Before the arrival of GW’s new orders, Lafayette had directed his troops to march back to the Head of Elk, and he had returned there himself. There he received GW’s orders to march into Virginia (see Lafayette to GW, 8 April, DLC:GW).

Having learned of the initial southward march of Lafayette’s corps, British general Henry Clinton on 2 March decided to reinforce Arnold. He placed the expedition under the command of newly exchanged Maj. Gen. William Phillips, whose corps consisted of the British light infantry, the 76th Regiment of Foot, and the Hessian Regiment Erbprinz, some 2,000 troops. The reinforcement sailed from New York City on 20 March (see the entries for 2 and 20 March in Mackenzie Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 2:477, 491, and Willcox, American Rebellion description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends , 276). Phillips and his corps arrived at Portsmouth, Va., in early April. On 19 April, he and Arnold launched a raid up the James River, taking Petersburg on 25 April, and penetrating all the way to Manchester, opposite Richmond, on 30 April (see Benedict Arnold to Henry Clinton, 12 May, in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 20:142–45; see also Willcox, American Rebellion description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends , 280–81).

While these British operations were taking place, Lafayette had marched with his corps from Head of Elk on 12 April, and the troops had crossed the Susquehanna River on 13 and 14 April (see Lafayette to GW, 12, 13, and 14 April, all DLC:GW). Lafayette had reached Baltimore by 18 April, where the corps stayed only long enough for Lafayette to purchase shoes and clothing for the troops on his own credit. From a letter from Maj. Gen. Steuben of 10 April, Lafayette learned that Phillips had arrived at Portsmouth with 2,000 men. Leaving his tents and artillery under guard to follow as fast as possible, Lafayette left Baltimore on 19 April and moved his corps by forced marches into Virginia (see Lafayette to GW, 18 April, DLC:GW). He marched through Alexandria and Fredericksburg, and reached Richmond on the evening of 29 April, saving that place from Phillips’s raiders. For an overview of Lafayette’s operations in Virginia from May to July 1781, see Boatner, Encyclopedia description begins Mark Mayo Boatner III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York, 1966. description ends , 1152–55.

1GW wrote the previous three words on the draft, and he made several other emendations (see notes 4–10 and 14 below). For the orders, see GW to William Heath, 15 (first letter) and 17 Feb., and GW to Elias Dayton or the Officer Commanding the New Jersey Brigade, 16 February.

3On 19 Feb., Ephraim Blaine, commissary general of purchases, wrote Hamilton from Newburgh, N.Y.: “youl please to inform his Excellency Genl Washington, that I have Just returnd from Fish Kill that the whole of the provisions necessary for the detachment will move this Evenning—I have sent fifty head of good Cattle and five H[ogs]h[ea]ds rum. Mr Stevens D[eputy] C[ommissary] I[ssues] has ordered a person to attend at Peeks Kill, to take charge of the stores” (DLC:GW).

4GW wrote the previous four words.

5GW wrote the previous two words (see Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799. 39 vols. Washington, D.C., 1931–44. description ends , 21:254).

6GW wrote this word.

7GW wrote the previous four words.

8GW wrote the previous two words.

9GW wrote the previous five words.

10GW wrote the previous seven words.

11Hamilton inadvertently wrote “shelder.”

13For his recommendation for the French army detachment, see GW to Rochambeau, 15 February. For the instructions of Louis XVI to Lafayette, given through French foreign minister Vergennes, see Lafayette to GW, 27 April 1780, n.2; see also Rochambeau to GW, 12 July 1780, n.16.

14GW wrote this paragraph.

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