Volume 20: Apr. – May 1779


The onset of warmer weather in the late spring of 1779 freed GW from some of the administrative tedium associated with winter camp, but it also forced him to face a series of new military challenges as the campaigning season approached. Volume 20 begins on 8 April 1779, with the Continental army arrayed in its winter cantonments around Middlebrook, N.J., and ends on 31 May. GW, who had spent much of the winter and early spring working with boards of general officers to settle rank within the various regiments, had nearly completed this tiresome and difficult project by April. The removal of this distraction came just as British forces in New York City began showing signs of activity. The British commander, Gen. Henry Clinton, moved significant British and German forces to eastern Long Island in early April, with the obvious intention of launching amphibious raids on Connecticut across Long Island Sound. Clinton eventually canceled his planned attack, but GW watched him closely in the meantime.

The ongoing problem of prisoners of war, meanwhile, re-emerged as Congress, in response to a petition from American prisoners of war held in New York City, passed a resolution authorizing GW to arrange a prisoner exchange. GW consequently sent Col. William Davies and Lt. Col. Robert Hanson Harrison to meet with British counterparts at Perth Amboy, N.J., on 12 April. Nine days of negotiation failed to produce an agreement, however, and the two opposing armies reverted to small-scale, occasional exchanges.

The failure to arrange a major prisoner exchange barely distracted GW from weightier affairs. On 25 Feb., Congress had resolved that he should prepare and launch an offensive operation against the Indian tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Six Nations, who had been conducting troublesome raids along the frontier for several months. GW appointed Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to command the proposed expedition after Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates declined to take charge. Sullivan arrived at headquarters on 10 April and attended a Council of War that GW convened on 15 April to consider the expedition’s organization and objectives. At the same time, GW sought and received intelligence from Philip Schuyler and others relative to possible routes of march into Iroquois territory. On 12 May, he entertained a delegation of Delaware Indian chiefs at headquarters and pumped them for information about frontier geography. GW felt confident enough in his knowledge of the frontier to issue detailed instructions to Sullivan on 31 May.

GW’s preoccupation with preparations for Sullivan’s expedition perhaps prevented him from devoting adequate attention to the burgeoning feud between Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold and Joseph Reed, president of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council. In February, Arnold had written to Congress requesting to be put on trial for charges of misconduct that Reed had brought against him in January. After suspending Arnold from the army and referring his complaints to a committee, Congress resolved on 3 April to transfer the case to GW for investigation and trial. GW, chagrined at becoming caught between Arnold and Reed, neither of whom he wished to offend, had no choice but to issue orders for a court-martial to be convened on 1 June. Unfortunately, procedural bickering, bureaucratic confusion, and enemy movements toward the end of May forced repeated delays that pushed the court-martial all the way back to the end of the year. Arnold meanwhile grew frustrated with what he regarded as a deliberate attempt to humiliate him; and shortly after writing a desperate letter to GW on 5 May begging for his intervention, he initiated secret contacts with the British.

Late April brought a few comparatively minor but welcome pieces of good news. The Continental frigates Warren, Ranger, and Queen of France returned to port after a successful Atlantic cruise that resulted in the capture of several British ships. Col. Goose Van Schaick’s 1st New York Regiment undertook a successful raid against Onondaga Indians who had refused to ally themselves with the United States. And on 1 May the French minister to the United States, Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, and the Spanish agent to the United States, Juan de Miralles, arrived in camp with much fanfare. GW deliberated with his visitors about plans for the coming campaign, which would culminate in October with a Franco-American attack on British-held Savannah, Georgia.

Even as GW conferred with his foreign visitors, a major British expedition got under way. Seeking to damage the tobacco trade, disrupt the flow of American reinforcements to Georgia and South Carolina, and destroy stores that the Americans had laid up at Portsmouth, Va., Gen. Henry Clinton collaborated with Commodore George Collier in launching a raid on Virginia. The expedition, consisting of about 2,000 troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward Mathew, embarked at New York City on 1 May, sailed from Sandy Hook, N.J., on 5 May, and landed near Portsmouth on 10 May. After capturing the American fort at Portsmouth, Mathew’s troops and British privateers ravaged the port and the surrounding area, destroying stores, capturing numerous ships, occupying Norfolk, and burning Suffolk. The troops re-embarked on 24 May, stood to sea two days later, and arrived back at Sandy Hook on 29 May, having inflicted severe damage on southeast Virginia and hindered a force of state levies under Brig. Gen. Charles Scott from joining the rapidly weakening American army in South Carolina.

GW’s expanding and improving espionage network, meanwhile, provided him with intelligence of British movements in and around New York City. Working under the oversight of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, the co-called Culper spy ring gained detailed information about British troop strength and defensive preparations in the city. Other spies—recruited, supplied, and instructed by American officers such as Brig. Gen. William Maxwell and Col. Israel Shreve—also gathered valuable information, making use of invisible ink, codes, and other methods to get their letters safely across enemy lines and into GW’s hands. These spies also intercepted enemy correspondence, including a number of letters originally written in invisible ink that are transcribed in this volume, and passed on false information to the British at GW’s behest.

These espionage activities paid off on 21 May when Elijah Hunter, a double agent recruited by Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall and John Jay, provided GW with advance intelligence of an impending British expedition up the Hudson River toward King’s Ferry and West Point. GW accordingly alerted McDougall to take measures for the protection of West Point, and ordered Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam to prepare to reinforce McDougall if necessary. On 28 May, Clinton assembled approximately 6,000 troops at King’s Bridge, N.Y., and on the following day British Commodore George Collier’s naval squadron arrived off Sandy Hook, N.J., bearing the troops under Mathew that had just finished ravaging Virginia. Clinton, as planned, sent Collier up the Hudson that same day; and on 30 May another 4,500 of his troops embarked at King’s Bridge and headed toward King’s Ferry.

A fair wind favored the British expedition, which moved quickly up the Hudson, and on 31 May, Clinton set his troops ashore, quickly capturing King’s Ferry along with the small American forts overlooking it at Stony Point on the west bank of the Hudson and Verplanck Point on the east bank. The British capture of King’s Ferry happened too fast for GW to stop. The threat to West Point, only 12 miles further north, nevertheless induced GW to break camp at Middlebrook on 3 June and move his army to support McDougall. Six weeks later, he would dispatch his light infantry under Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne to assault the British positions at Stony Point, initiating one of the most daring military enterprises of the war.

Jacket Essay

Volume 20 of the Revolutionary War Series covers 8 April to 31 May 1779. As it begins, Washington is gathering intelligence in preparation for a summer expedition against the Iroquois Confederacy. After considering various intelligence reports compiled with the help of scouts and spies, he issued comprehensive orders to the expedition’s commander, Major General John Sullivan, laying out his plan of campaign. At the same time, Washington viewed with concern the worsening situation in the south, where the British had captured Savannah, Georgia, and were pressuring Charleston, South Carolina. His attempts to dispatch reinforcements southward were interrupted, however, by a devastating British raid on Portsmouth, Virginia, in early May.

Washington’s development of his espionage network in New York City reaped dividends later that month when one of his spies–a double agent–alerted him ahead of time of a British attack up the Hudson River toward West Point. Thanks to this timely intelligence, Washington prepared his troop dispositions and defenses in advance; and although the British managed to capture King’s Ferry, New York, at the end of May, they posed no threat to West Point. Beneath the surface, however, a new and potentially more dangerous threat was brewing: Major General Benedict Arnold, enraged at Washington’s inability to clear up Arnold’s dispute with Congress and the Government of Pennsylvania, initiated secret contacts with the British.

Edward G. Lengel, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 20, 8 April – 31 May 1779. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2010.

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