Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 13: Temperate Measures: Disappointment with the French, Stalemate with the British (July to December 1778) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 13: “Temperate Measures”: Disappointment with the French, Stalemate with the British (July to December 1778) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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“Temperate Measures”: Disappointment with the French, Stalemate with the British (July to December 1778)
Count D’Estaing arrives with a French fleet.—Meditates an attack on the British fleet in the harbor of New York.—Relinquishes it.—Sails to Rhode Island.—Is followed by Lord Howe.—Both fleets dispersed by a storm.—General Sullivan lays siege to Newport.—D’Estaing returns.—Sails for Boston.—Dissatisfaction of Sullivan.—He raises the siege of Newport.—Action on Rhode Island.—Sullivan retreats to the continent.—Exertions of Washington to assuage the irritations of Sullivan and D’Estaing.—Lord Howe resigns.—Colonel Baylor surprised.—Skirmish between Colonel Butler and Captain Donop.—Pulaski surprised.
1778Early in July, intelligence was received that a powerful French fleet, commanded by the Count D’Estaing,1 had appeared off Chingoteague inlet, the northern extremity of the coast of Virginia. The Count had sailed from Toulon on the 13th of April, with twelve ships of the line and six frigates,2 having on board a respectable body of land forces. His destination was the Delaware; and the extraordinary length of his voyage, occasioned by adverse winds, saved the British fleet and army.
Having failed in accomplishing his first object, he proceeded along the coast of New York, in the hope of being able to attack the British fleet in the harbor of that place.
At Paramus, in Jersey, on the 13th of July, General Washington received a letter from the President of Congress, advising him of this important event, requesting him to concert measures with the Count for conjoint and offensive operations, and empowering him to call out the militia from New Hampshire to Jersey, inclusive. He determined to proceed immediately to the White Plains, whence his army might more readily co-operate with the fleet; and despatched Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, one of his aids, to the French Admiral, with all the information that could be useful to him.
The Count, on arriving off the Hook,3 communicated his strength and his views to General Washington. His first object was to attack New York. Should this be found impracticable, his second was Rhode Island.
Fearing that the water on the bar4 might not be of sufficient depth to admit the passage of the largest French ships, General Washington had turned his attention to other eventual objects;5 and, on the 21st of July, had directed General Sullivan, who commanded the troops in Rhode Island, to prepare for an enterprise against Newport; and had reinforced him with two brigades commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette. The next day he received the final determination of the Admiral to relinquish the meditated attack on the fleet in the harbor of New York.
On the 25th of July, the fleet appeared off Newport, and cast anchor just without Brenton’s Ledge; soon after which General Sullivan went on board the Admiral, and concerted with him a conjoint plan of operations. The French and American troops were to land at the same time on opposite sides of the island.
Aug. 8As the militia of New Hampshire and Massachusetts approached, the continental troops were united at Tiverton; and it was agreed with the Admiral that the fleet should enter the main channel immediately, and that the descent should be made the succeeding day. The militia not arriving precisely at the time they were expected, General Sullivan could not hazard the movement which had been concerted, and stated to the Count the necessity of postponing it till the next day. Meanwhile, General Pigot, having observed preparations for a descent, drew his troops in the night from the north end of the island into Newport. In the morning Sullivan determined to avail himself of this circumstance; and, crossing the east passage, took possession of the works which had been abandoned. This movement gave great offence to the Admiral, who resented the indelicacy committed by Sullivan in landing before the French, and without consulting him. Unfortunately, some differences on subjects of mere punctilio6 had previously arisen.
At this time a British fleet appeared, which came to anchor off Point Judith, just without the narrow inlet leading into the harbor.
So soon as the destination of Count D’Estaing was ascertained, he was followed by a squadron of twelve ships of the line, under Admiral Byron. The vessels composing the squadron, were dispersed in various storms; and arrived, after lingering through a tedious passage, on different and remote parts of the American coast. Four ships of sixty-four and fifty guns arrived separately at Sandy Hook, within a few days after the departure of D’Estaing from that place.
This reinforcement, though it left the British considerably inferior to the French fleet, determined Lord Howe to attempt the relief of Newport. He sailed from New York on the 6th of August; and appeared on the 9th in sight of the French fleet. D’Estaing determined to stand out to sea and give battle. Lord Howe also stood out to sea, and both fleets were soon out of sight.
The militia who had now arrived augmented Sullivan’s army to ten thousand men; and he determined to commence the siege immediately. Before this determination could be executed, a furious storm blew down all the tents, rendered the arms unfit for immediate use, and greatly damaged the ammunition. The soldiers suffered extremely; and several perished in the storm, which continued three days. On the return of fair weather, the siege was commenced, and was carried on without any material occurrence for several days. On the 19th the French fleet reappeared.
The admirals had consumed two days in manoeuvring. When on the point of engaging, they were separated by the storm which had been felt so severely on shore. Both fleets were dispersed, and retired in a shattered condition, the one into the harbor of New York, and the other into that of Newport. A letter from D’Estaing informed Sullivan that, in pursuance of orders from the King, and of the advice of all his officers, he had determined to carry the fleet to Boston.
This communication threw Sullivan and his army into despair.
Generals Greene and Lafayette were directed to wait on the Admiral with a letter, remonstrating against this resolution. The remonstrances of Sullivan, and the representations made by these officers, were ineffectual.
Sullivan made another effort to retain the fleet. In his second letter he pressed the Admiral, in any event, to leave his land forces. The bearer of this letter was also charged with a protest signed by all the general officers, except Lafayette, the only effect of which was to irritate D’Estaing, who sailed immediately for Boston. Sullivan was so indiscreet as to express his dissatisfaction in general orders,7 insinuating a suspicion that the French nation and their Admiral were indisposed to promote the interests of the United States.
A council of general officers were in favor of attempting an assault, if five thousand volunteers, who had seen nine months’ service, could be obtained. But this number could not be procured; and in a few days the army was reduced by desertion to little more than five thousand men. The British being estimated at six thousand, it was determined to retire to the north end of the island, there to wait the result of another effort to induce D’Estaing to return.
On the night of the 28th the army retired by two roads, having its rear covered by Colonels Livingston and Laurens, who commanded light parties on each.
Early next morning the British followed in two columns, and were engaged on each road by Livingston and Laurens, who retreated slowly, until the British were brought within view of the American army, drawn up in order of battle on the ground of their encampment. The British formed on Quaker hill, rather more than a mile in front of the American line.
The two armies cannonaded each other for some time, and a succession of skirmishes was kept up till two in the afternoon, when the British advanced in force against a redoubt8 in front of the right wing. It was supported by General Greene, and a short engagement ensued, which was continued about half an hour, when the British retreated to Quaker hill.
The loss of Sullivan in killed, wounded, and missing, was two hundred and eleven. That of the British was stated by General Pigot at two hundred and sixty.
The next day the cannonade was renewed; but neither army was inclined to attack the other. The British waited for reinforcements, and Sullivan had determined to retire from the island.
The commander-in-chief had been induced, by some movements among the British transports, to suggest to Sullivan the necessity of securing his retreat. A fleet of transports soon put to sea, of which notice was given to the commanding officer in Rhode Island, in a letter recommending his immediate return to the continent. The whole army passed over unobserved by the enemy, and disembarked by two in the morning of the 31st, about Tiverton.
Never was retreat more fortunate. Sir Henry Clinton, who had been detained by adverse winds, arrived the next day with a reinforcement of four thousand men.
The complete success of this expedition had been confidently anticipated throughout America; and the chagrin produced by disappointment was proportioned to the exaltation of their hopes. In the first moments of vexation, several evidences of ill-humor were exhibited both by the civil departments and the army, from which the most disastrous consequences were apprehended. The discontent in New England generally, and in Boston particularly, was so great as to inspire fears that the means of repairing the French ships would not be supplied. In its commencement, General Washington foresaw the evils with which it was fraught, and labored to prevent them. He addressed letters not only to General Sullivan, but also to General Heath, who commanded at Boston, and to several individuals of influence in New England, urging the necessity of restraining the intemperance of the moment. For the same objects, General Hancock repaired from camp to Boston; and Lafayette followed him on a visit to D’Estaing.
The General also seized the first opportunity to recommence his correspondence with the count, and his letters were calculated to soothe every angry sensation which might have been excited. A letter from the Admiral, stating the whole transaction, was answered in terms so perfectly satisfactory, that the irritation which threatened such serious mischief appears to have entirely subsided.
Congress, too, in a resolution which was made public, expressed their full approbation of the conduct of the count; and directed their President to assure him that they entertained the highest sense of his zeal and attachment.
These prudent and temperate measures restored harmony to the allied armies.
On receiving information that the Count D’Estaing was proceeding towards Boston, Lord Howe sailed for the same port, in the hope of reaching it before him. Being disappointed in this expectation, he returned to New York, and resigned the command to Admiral Gambier.
General Clinton, finding that Sullivan had retreated to the continent, returned to New York, leaving the troops on board the transports, under the command of General Grey, with orders to conduct an expedition eastward, as far as Buzzard’s bay.
Grey destroyed a number of vessels in Acushnet river; and having reduced part of the towns of Bedford and Fairhaven, together with some stores, to ashes, he re-embarked his troops, before the militia could be assembled, and sailed to Martha’s Vineyard, where he destroyed several vessels, and some salt-works, and levied9 a heavy contribution on the inhabitants.
Sept. 22Soon after the return of General Grey from New England, the British army moved up the Hudson in great force, and encamped on both sides of the river. Their ships of war maintained the communication between their columns.
Colonel Baylor, with his regiment of cavalry, crossed the Hackensack early in the morning of the 27th, and took quarters at Herringtown, a small village near New Taupaun, where some militia were posted. Immediate notice of his position was given to Lord Cornwallis, the commanding officer on the south side of the Hudson, who formed a plan to cut off both the cavalry and militia. The party designed to act against Baylor was conducted by General Grey, and the other by Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell.
Notice of the approach of Campbell was given by a deserter, and the militia saved themselves by flight. But the corps commanded by General Grey, guided by some of the country people, eluded the patroles, cut off a guard posted at a bridge over the Hackensack, and completely surprised the regiment. Of one hundred and four privates, sixty-seven were killed, wounded, and made prisoners. The number of prisoners was ascribed to the humanity of one of Grey’s captains, who gave quarter10 to the whole of the fourth troop. Colonel Baylor and Major Clough, who were both wounded, the first dangerously, the last mortally, were among the prisoners.
Three days afterwards, Colonel Richard Butler, with a detachment of infantry, assisted by Major Lee with a part of his cavalry, fell in with a party of chasseurs and yagers,11 commanded by Captain Donop, whom he instantly charged, and, without the loss of a man, killed ten on the spot, and took one officer and eighteen privates prisoners. Some interest was taken at the time in this small affair, because it served to revenge, in some measure, the loss of Colonel Baylor.
After completing their forage, the British army returned to New York. This movement had been designed in part to cover an expedition against Little Eggharbor, which was completely successful. The works and store-houses, as well as several vessels, and a large quantity of merchandize, were destroyed.
The Count Pulaski, a Polish nobleman, had obtained permission to raise a legionary corps, which he officered chiefly with foreigners.12 In this corps, one Juliet, a deserter, had obtained a commission. The Count had been ordered towards Little Eggharbor, and was lying a few miles from the coast, when Juliet again deserted, and gave intelligence of Pulaski’s situation. A plan to surprise him succeeded so far as respected his infantry, who were put to the bayonet.
Admiral Byron13 reached New York, and took command of the fleet about the middle of September. After repairing his shattered vessels, he sailed for Boston; but, soon after entering the bay, a furious storm drove him out to sea, and damaged his ships so much, that he found it necessary to put into the port of Rhode Island to refit. The Count D’Estaing seized this favorable moment, and sailed, on the 3d of November, for the West Indies.
The Marquis de Lafayette, expecting a war on the continent of Europe, was anxious to return to France, and to tender his services to his king and native country.
From motives of friendship as well as of policy, General Washington was desirous of preserving the connexion of this nobleman with the American army. He therefore expressed to Congress his wish that Lafayette might have unlimited leave of absence, and might carry with him every mark of the confidence of the government. This policy was adopted by Congress.
A detachment from the British army, of five thousand men, commanded by Major-General Grant, sailed, early in November, for the West Indies; and, towards the end of the same month, a second detachment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, escorted by Commodore Hyde Parker, was destined for the southern states.
In December, the American army retired into winter quarters. The main body was cantoned14 in Connecticut, about West Point, and at Middlebrook. The troops again wintered in huts.
[1. ]Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d’Estaing (1729–94), Admiral in the French navy, though most of his combat experience was with the French army.
[2. ]Ships of the line were the largest of the armed sailing ships, carrying seventy-four guns or more on multiple decks; frigates were the second-largest class of sailing ships of war, carrying from twenty to sixty guns on two decks.
[3. ]Sandy Hook, New Jersey, just south of New York Harbor.
[4. ]A bank of sand (or rock) at the entrance to a harbor or river opening on the sea, over which ships cannot pass (especially at low tide).
[5. ]Consequent or subsequent events and aims.
[6. ]A fine point of exactness in observing ceremony or protocol.
[7. ]The announcement by the commanding general officer to his officers of important commands, directives, regulations, or plans, to be further communicated to the troops.
[8. ]A small defensive work, completely enclosed; usually protecting fortresses, but also used in the field as a temporary defense.
[9. ]Imposed or exacted by force.
[10. ]Sparing the life of a defeated or captured enemy combatant.
[11. ]The British and German terms for light infantry; maneuverable because of light gear and arms, and usually elite or select troops.
[12. ]Count Casimir Pulaski (c. 1748–79), from 1777 volunteer aide-de-camp to Washington, soon named Brigadier General in command of four regiments of light dragoons (mounted light infantry); by 1778 commander of an independent body of infantry and mounted troops (a legion) for which he proposed to recruit deserters and prisoners.
[13. ]John Byron (1723–86), British Admiral, former Royal Governor of Newfoundland; grandfather of the poet Lord Byron.
[14. ]Lodged in temporary housing.