Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 14: Diplomacy; Frontier Attacks; Congress's Grand Plan (June 1778 to February 1779) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 14: Diplomacy; Frontier Attacks; Congress’s Grand Plan (June 1778 to February 1779) - 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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Diplomacy; Frontier Attacks; Congress’s Grand Plan (June 1778 to February 1779)
Terms of reconciliation proposed by the British Commissioners.—Answer of Congress.—Attempts of Mr. Johnstone to bribe some members of Congress.—Manifesto of Commissioners.—Arrival of Monsieur Gérard, Minister of France.—Irruption of the Indians into Wyoming.—Battle of Wyoming.—Colonel Dennison capitulates for the inhabitants.—Colonel Clarke surprises Vincennes.—Plan for the invasion of Canada.—General Washington induces Congress to abandon it.
1778About the last of November, the commissioners appointed to give effect to the late conciliatory acts of Parliament, embarked for Europe.1 Their utmost exertions to accomplish the object of their mission, had been unsuccessful. Great Britain required that the force of the two nations should be united under one common sovereign; and America was no longer disposed, or even at liberty, to accede to this proposition.
June 1778On their arrival in Philadelphia, they addressed a letter “To the President and other members of Congress,” inclosing copies of their commission and of the acts of Parliament, together with propositions founded on those acts, drawn in the most conciliatory language.
Some expressions having been introduced into it, reflecting on the conduct of France, the reading was interrupted, and a motion made to proceed no further. A debate took place, and Congress adjourned. The following day, the letter was read, and committed after some opposition. The report of the committee, which was transmitted to the commissioners, declared that “nothing but an earnest desire to prevent the further effusion of blood, could have induced them to read a paper containing expressions so disrespectful to his Most Christian Majesty,2 the good and great ally of these states, or to consider propositions so derogatory to the honor of an independent nation.”
The resolutions proceeded to declare, that the propositions were totally inadmissible; but that Congress would be ready to enter upon the consideration of a treaty of peace and commerce not inconsistent with treaties already subsisting.
On the 13th of July, after arriving at New York, the commissioners addressed a second letter to Congress, in terms well calculated to make an impression on those who had become weary of the contest. On receiving it, that body resolved that, as neither the independence of the United States was explicitly acknowledged, nor the fleets and armies withdrawn, no answer should be given to it.
The first packet contained several private letters written by Governor Johnstone,3 one of the commissioners, in which he blended, with flattering expressions of respect, assurances of the honors and emoluments to which those would be entitled who should contribute to restore peace and harmony to the two nations.
In compliance with a resolution requiring that all letters of a public nature, received by any member, from any subject of the British crown, should be laid before Congress, these letters were produced; and Mr. Read4 stated a direct offer which had been made to him by a third person, of a considerable sum of money, and of any office in the gift of the crown, to use his influence for the restoration of peace. Congress published a solemn declaration, in which, after reciting the offensive paragraphs of the private letters, and the conversation stated by Mr. Read, they expressed their opinion, “that these were direct attempts to bribe the Congress of the United States, and that it was incompatible with their honor to hold any manner of correspondence or intercourse with the said George Johnstone, esquire.” After an unsuccessful attempt to involve the other commissioners in the same exclusion, this declaration was transmitted to them. On receiving it, Mr. Johnstone withdrew from the commission. The other commissioners, without admitting the construction put by Congress on his letter, or the authority of the person who held the conversation with Mr. Read, denied all knowledge of those letters or of that conversation. They at the same time repeated their detail of the advantages to be derived by America from acceding to the propositions they had made.
In the hope that a knowledge of the terms they had offered, would make an impression on the people, they published a manifesto before their departure, addressed to Congress, the Provincial Assemblies, and all the inhabitants of the colonies, recapitulating the several steps they had taken, and the refusal of Congress even to open a conference with them. They declared their readiness still to proceed in the execution of their powers, and proclaimed a general pardon to all who should, within fifty days, withdraw from their opposition to the British government, and conduct themselves as faithful subjects. Thirteen copies of the manifesto were executed,5 one of which was transmitted by a flag of truce to each state. A vast number of copies were printed, and great exertions were made to disperse them among the people.
Congress declared this measure to be contrary to the law of nations, and recommended it to the executive departments of the several states, to secure in close custody every person who, under the sanction of a flag or otherwise, was found employed in circulating those manifestoes. They at the same time directed a publication of the manifesto in the American papers; taking care however that it should be accompanied with comments made by individuals calculated to counteract its effect.
Thus ended this fruitless attempt to restore a connexion which had been wantonly6 broken, the reinstatement of which had become impracticable.
July 14In the midst of these transactions with the commissioners of Great Britain, the Sieur Gérard7 arrived in the character of minister plenipotentiary of his Most Christian Majesty. The joy produced by this event was unbounded; and he was received by Congress with great pomp.
While these diplomatic concerns employed the American cabinet, and the war seemed to languish on the Atlantic, it raged to the west in its most savage form.
About three hundred white men commanded by Colonel John Butler,8 and about five hundred Indians led by the Indian Chief Brandt,9 entered the valley of Wyoming near its northern boundary, late in June.10 The inhabitants capable of bearing arms assembled, on the first alarm, at Forty fort, on the west side of the Susquehanna, four miles below the camp of the invading army. The regular troops, amounting to about sixty, were commanded by Colonel Zebulon Butler;11 the militia by Colonel Dennison. The combined forces, amounting to about four hundred men, marched on the third of July from Forty fort to attack the enemy. The British and Indians were prepared to receive them. Their line extended from the river about a mile to a marsh at the foot of the mountain. The Americans advanced in a single column, without much interruption, until they approached the enemy, when they received a fire which did not much mischief. The line of battle was instantly formed, and the action commenced with spirit. The Americans rather gained ground on their right where Colonel Butler commanded, until a large body of Indians, passing through the skirt of the marsh, turned their left flank, which was composed of militia, and poured a most destructive fire on their rear. The fate of the day was decided, and a flight commenced on the left which was soon followed by the right. The Indians, rushing on them with the tomahawk, completed the confusion. Rather less than sixty men escaped, some to Forty fort, some by swimming the river, and some to the mountain. Very few prisoners were made, only three of whom were carried alive to Niagara.
Terms of capitulation were granted to the inhabitants. Colonel Butler, with his few surviving soldiers, fled from the valley. The inhabitants generally abandoned the country, and wandered into the settlements on the Lehigh and the Delaware. The Indians, after laying waste the whole settlement, withdrew from it before the arrival of the continental troops who were detached to meet them.
On the first intelligence of the destruction of Wyoming, the regiments of Hartley and Butler, with the remnant of Morgan’s corps commanded by Major Posey, were detached to the protection of that distressed country. They were engaged in several sharp skirmishes, made separate incursions into the Indian country, broke up their nearest villages, destroyed their corn, and, by compelling them to remove to a greater distance, gave some relief to the inhabitants.
While the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania were suffering the calamities incident to savage warfare, a fate equallyJuly 1778 severe was preparing for Virginia. The western militia of that state had taken some British posts on the Mississippi, which were erected into the county of Illinois; for the protection of which a regiment of infantry and a troop of cavalry had been raised, to be commanded by Colonel George Rogers Clark,12 a gentleman whose capacity for Indian warfare had crowned his enterprises against the savages with repeated success. A part of this corps remained with Colonel Clark at Kaskaskia.
Colonel Hamilton, the Governor of Detroit, was at Vincennes with six hundred men, chiefly Indians, preparing an expedition first against Kaskaskia, and then up the Ohio to Pittsburg; afterFeb. 1779 which he purposed to devastate the frontiers of Virginia. Clark anticipated and defeated his designs by one of those bold and decisive measures, which mark the military genius of the man who plans and executes them.
While preparing for his defence, he received information that Hamilton had detached his Indians on an expedition, reserving at the post he occupied only eighty regulars. Clark instantly resolved to seize this favorable moment. After detaching a small galley up the Wabash, with orders to place herself a few miles below Vincennes, and to permit nothing to pass her, he marched in the depth of winter, at the head of one hundred and thirty men through a wilderness, from Kaskaskia to Vincennes. This march required sixteen days, five of which were employed in crossing the drowned lands of the Wabash. The troops were under the necessity of wading five miles in the water, frequently up to their breasts. The town was completely surprised, and readily agreed to change its master. Hamilton, after defending the fort a short time, surrendered himself and his garrison prisoners of war.
Sept. 1779The plan which Congress had formed in the preceding winter for the conquest of Canada, seems to have been suspended, not abandoned. The alliance with France revived the latent wish to annex that territory to the United States; and, towards autumn, a plan was completely digested for a combined attack on all the British dominions on the continent, and on the adjacent islands of Cape Breton and Newfoundland. This plan was matured about the time the Marquis de Lafayette obtained leave to return to his own country, and was to be transmitted by him to Doctor Franklin with instructions to induce the French cabinet to accede to it.13 In October 1778, it was sent to General Washington with a request that he would enclose it by the Marquis to Doctor Franklin, with his observations on it.
This very extensive plan of operations, prepared in the cabinet14 without consulting a single military man, consisted of various parts.
Two detachments, consisting of sixteen hundred men each, were to march from Pittsburg, and Wyoming, against Detroit, and Niagara.
A third was to seize Oswego, and to secure the navigation of Lake Ontario.
A fourth was to penetrate into Canada by the St. Francis, and to reduce Montreal and the posts on Lake Champlain; while a fifth should guard against troops from Quebec.
But Upper Canada being subdued, another campaign would be necessary for the reduction of Quebec, whose garrison might in the meantime be largely reinforced. It was therefore essential to the success of the enterprise that France should be induced to embark in it.
It was proposed to request his Most Christian Majesty to furnish four or five thousand troops, to sail from Brest, the beginning of May, under convoy; the troops to be clad as if for service in the West Indies, and thick clothes to be sent after them in August. A large American detachment was to act with this French army. It was supposed that Quebec and Halifax might be reduced by the middle of October, after which the conquest of Newfoundland might be accomplished.
General Washington was forcibly struck with the impracticability of executing that part of this magnificent plan, which was to be undertaken by the United States, should the British armies continue in their country; and with the serious mischief which would result, as well from diverting so large a part of the French force to an object he thought so unpromising, as from the ill impression that would be made on the court and nation by the total failure of the American Government to execute its part of a plan originating with itself.
A plan, too, consisting of so many parts, to be executed both in Europe and America, by land and by water, which required such a harmonious co-operation of the whole, such a perfect coincidence of events, appeared to him to be exposed to too many accidents, to risk upon it interests of such high value.
Nov. 1778In a long and serious letter to Congress, he apologized for not obeying their orders; and, entering into a full investigation of the plan, demonstrated the dangers with which it was replete. This letter was referred to a committee, whose report admits the force of the reasons urged by the commander-in-chief against the expedition, and their own conviction that it ought not to be attempted, unless the British armies should be withdrawn from the United States.
Men, however, recede slowly and reluctantly from favorite projects on which they have long meditated; and the committee proceeded to state the opinion that the posts held by the British in the United States would probably be evacuated before the active part of the ensuing campaign; and that eventual measures for the expedition ought to be taken. For this purpose, the commander-in-chief was still required to write to the Marquis de Lafayette and to Dr. Franklin, that the subject might be laid before the cabinet of Versailles.
This report, which was approved by Congress and transmitted to the commander-in-chief, embarrassed him greatly. In his answer, he repeated his objections to the plan, stated the difficulties he felt in performing the duties assigned to him, and requested, if they still persisted in their purpose, that they would give him more definite and explicit instructions.
In the same letter he expressed his desire to make a full exposition of the condition of the army, and of the requisites necessary for carrying into execution an undertaking that might involve the most serious consequences. “If,” he added, “Congress think this can be more satisfactorily done in a personal conference, I hope to have the army in such a situation before I can receive their answer, as to afford me an opportunity of giving my attendance.”
Dec. 1778This request was acceded to; and, on his arrival at Philadelphia, a committee was appointed to confer with him. The result was that the expedition against Canada was entirely, though reluctantly, given up.
[1. ]See chapter 11, at notes 14–16. Lord North proposed a Peace Commission to Parliament in February 1778, and in late February Frederick Howard, fifth Earl of Carlisle, was appointed its head; in March Parliament passed legislation officially establishing a commission with wide powers to negotiate a peace; in April the remaining members were appointed and the commission departed for America.
[2. ]The King of France.
[3. ]George Johnstone (1730–87), formerly Royal Governor of West Florida, Member of Parliament.
[4. ]George Read (1733–98) of Delaware, Continental Congressman from 1774 to 1777; Vice President of Delaware from 1776, acting President of the state from 1777 after capture of President John McKinly.
[5. ]I.e., produced or made.
[6. ]Carelessly (by the British, Marshall implies).
[7. ]Conrad Alexandre Gérard (1729–90), first French Minister to the United States, serving July 1778 to October 1779.
[8. ]John Butler (1728–96) of New York, Loyalist leader; in 1779 a Provincial with rank of Major (ultimately Lieutenant Colonel) in the British army.
[9. ]Joseph Brant, or Thayendanegea (1742–1807), Mohawk war chief (his mother was not a Mohawk, but an Indian or at least of half Indian descent); fought alongside the British from 1755; in 1775 commissioned a captain in the British army, and in 1779 a Colonel of Indians. Brant was so effective at border warfare—attacking or disrupting the American settlements along the western frontier in New York and Pennsylvania—that he was long said to have been responsible for the Wyoming Valley “massacre,” though later historians agree this is one raid at which he was not present.
[10. ]In Pennsylvania; at the time of the Revolution, a stretch of the Susquehanna River below the mouth of the Lackawanna River was called the Wyoming Valley; it included the site of modern Wilkes-Barre.
[11. ]Zebulon Butler (1731–95) of Connecticut, from 1777 Lieutenant Colonel (full Colonel by 1778) in the Continental army.
[12. ]George Rogers Clark (1752–1818), western explorer, Indian fighter; in 1778 Colonel (eventually Brigadier General) in the Virginia Militia.
[13. ]In 1776 Congress had appointed Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) of Pennsylvania—publisher, scientist, revolutionary patriot, and statesman—as one of three commissioners to negotiate an alliance with France (he was well known there from his previous visits in 1767 and 1769); by 1778 Congress had named him as sole plenipotentiary American minister to France.
[14. ]Since neither the Continental Congress nor the Congress under the Articles of Confederation had a separate executive branch, Marshall is employing the parliamentary or strict definition of a cabinet: the executive committee of a legislative body. In December of 1776, when it fled Philadelphia for Baltimore, Congress had formally appointed a three-man “executive committee” (Robert Morris, George Clymer, and George Walton) to conduct its business during that emergency, but this was dissolved when Congress reconvened in early 1777. While Congress subsequently constituted several standing committees for administering its affairs, it was not until 1781, when Morris was named Superintendent of Finance, that anything like a distinct executive power was allowed by Congress (see chapter 22).