Volume 16: July – Sept. 1778


The summer of 1778 was a time of enormous optimism for GW and other supporters of the American cause. The welcome news of a French alliance in May had been followed by the British evacuation of Philadelphia in mid-June and capped by what the Americans believed to be a glorious victory at the Battle of Monmouth on 28 June. It seemed possible that the British, weakened by the loss of “at least 2000 Men & of their best Troops” in the march through New Jersey (GW to John Augustine Washington, 4 July), might even abandon their remaining strongholds at New York City and Newport, R.I., for Canada or the West Indies.

As this volume, which covers the period from 1 July to 14 September 1778, opens, GW, having concluded that he could not seriously hinder the British evacuation from New Jersey to New York, was putting his army in motion to take up a position better suited to the defense of the Hudson River. Even before that movement was completed, GW received welcome news of the arrival on the American coast of a powerful French fleet commanded by the Comte d’Estaing. For once GW would be planning a campaign in which an American ally, and not the British, controlled the sea lanes.

GW’s preferred alternative was clearly to capture the main British army at New York, and he stationed his army at White Plains, where it could cooperate with the French navy in joint operations against the city. However, he also anticipated the possibility of an attack on the British forces at Rhode Island and directed Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to prepare for such an eventuality, authorizing him to “immediately apply in the most urgent manner, in my name” for an additional 5,000 men (GW to Sullivan, 17 July). As it turned out, the pilots determined that it was inadvisable for the larger French ships to attempt to enter New York Harbor, so GW detached two brigades and some of his most trusted generals to assist Sullivan in the attempt to take Newport, and d’Estaing’s fleet sailed east to support that operation.

In consequence, the most crucial activity of the summer campaign would depend on the diplomacy, energy, and strategy of someone other than GW. If Sullivan and d’Estaing succeeded in capturing Newport, they would cement the French and American alliance with a glorious victory and, by taking a second British army, might force the British to sue for peace. With American expectations of ultimate success raised to a high pitch, GW could only pepper Sullivan with letters conveying what little useful intelligence he could gather from New York, offering suggestions about what Sullivan might do to improve the chances for victory, encouraging Sullivan’s diligence and energy, and above all, pleading for information: “Even if nothing material should happen in the course of a day or two, just to hear that all is well will be a relief to me” (GW to Sullivan, 4 Aug.).

Unfortunately, the venture, which began with glowing reports of high morale and good understanding among allies, degenerated into disappointment and recriminations as weather and circumstance combined to defeat the objects of the American expedition. On 10 August, as Sullivan was preparing to attack, Admiral Richard Howe’s British fleet from New York, strengthened with the first arrivals of a naval reinforcement from England, appeared off Rhode Island, and d’Estaing sailed away to meet them. Then both fleets and armies were battered by a massive three-day storm. When d’Estaing appeared again on 20 August, it was only to announce that his fleet would withdraw to Boston for repairs. Sullivan’s position thus became untenable. He could not hope to reduce Newport without the aid of the French fleet, and the narrow window of French maritime superiority was closing. Although Sullivan continued siege operations for another week in hopes of a prompt French return, by the 28th he decided to withdraw to the northern end of the island, and after an inconclusive battle with pursuing British troops on 29 August, Sullivan, advised by GW of British reinforcements, successfully withdrew to the mainland.

The summer of promise had ended in nothing. Instead of celebrating victory, GW was carefully trying to soothe French feelings wounded by Sullivan’s protests of their withdrawal and to ensure that American trust in the French alliance would not be severely damaged by the unexpected failure of the Rhode Island expedition. With the arrival of more of the reinforcing fleet, the British once again had control of the sea and the initiative. Although GW asked a council of war on 1 September to consider whether his army might make an assault on New York City while the British forces there were reduced by the troops sent to trap Sullivan on Rhode Island, his generals were agreed that such a project was foolish. As the volume closes, GW is withdrawing his army to positions better suited to a defensive response to British actions, whether directed against the French fleet at Boston or the American posts on the Hudson River.

Although the Newport expedition dominates this volume, other important events occurred during the period. A mixed force of Loyalists and Indians destroyed the American settlement at Wyoming in Pennsylvania, and New York frontier communities also became increasingly concerned about the possible threat from Loyalist-Indian allies. In mid-July, GW detached the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment and a part of the rifle corps to assist in frontier defense, but the larger detachments to Rhode Island left him unable to offer more help.

Courts were held to consider Maj. Gen. Charles Lee’s recent behavior at the Battle of Monmouth and Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s role in the loss of Ticonderoga in 1777, with Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler’s trial for Ticonderoga awaiting the completion of St. Clair’s. The necessary engagement of generals on those courts exacerbated the chronic shortage of qualified general officers, and GW continued to press Congress to fill vacancies more promptly.

He also pressed Congress for completion of the army reorganization, and by mid-September the members of Congress sent to camp to join with GW as a reorganization committee had begun considering a number of long-standing disputes about the ranks of officers.

Precisely because GW’s strategic decisions had given the main active roles to others, this volume is particularly revealing of his diplomatic skills, whether in dealings with the French, with Congress, or with his subordinate officers. The advice that GW sent to Sullivan also provides useful information about the military precepts that he tried to follow. Moreover, his awareness of the importance of intelligence and his efforts to obtain it are well displayed, even though the results fell short of what he and Vice Admiral d’Estaing desired.

Jacket Essay

Volume 16 of the Revolutionary War Series documents the period from the beginning of July to mid-September 1778, a time of unusual optimism for Washington and his army. One of the first documents in the volume is Washington’s detailed report to Congress of what was seen as a great victory at the Battle of Monmouth, and by July 11, the day on which Washington conveyed to the army Congress’s congratulations on that victory, he received the welcome news that a French fleet had arrived in American waters. As it became clear that the fleet, commanded by the Count d’Estaing, was powerful enough to overawe even the British naval force then at New York, Washington, who understood the advantages usually afforded to the British army by their control of the seas, looked to deliver a decisive blow that might end the war. That aim meant he could do little in response to the destruction of the Wyoming settlement in western Pennsylvania and other rumblings of British, Tory, and Indian activity on the northwestern frontier.

Washington’s preferred option was to capture the main British army at New York City, so he moved his army to White Plains, where he would be in position to cooperate with the French fleet in operations against that city. However, he also prepared another option, directing Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, commanding in Rhode Island, to call up militia, ready magazines and boats, and gather intelligence for a possible assault on the British garrison at Newport. When d’Estaing reported that his ships were unable to enter New York harbor, Washington soon had a large detachment of troops and some of his best generals racing to join Sullivan in Rhode Island.

As Washington, reduced to a spectator, pleaded for news, offered advice, and diligently gathered intelligence, the campaign opened with great promise. Sullivan’s army marched to the British lines at Newport with little opposition, while the British destroyed their own ships at Newport to prevent capture by the French. But when Lord Howe brought his fleet from New York to challenge the French and d’Estaing sailed out to meet him, both fleets were battered by a massive storm that left the ships in need of repair. D’Estaing’s decision to take his fleet to Boston for that work put the American army in a perilous position, especially as a fleet arriving from England strengthened Howe and returned control of the seas to the British. Although Sullivan’s return to the mainland was accomplished safely, the expedition had failed.

By mid-September, Washington’s position was less promising than it had been in July. No longer planning offensives and speculating about a possible British withdrawal from America, he was instead using his best diplomacy to prevent the failed expedition from creating a rift in the French alliance. The initiative had returned to the British, whose intentions were not clear. As the volume closes, Washington has begun withdrawing his army to positions better suited to defense.

David R. Hoth, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 16, July – September 1778. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

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