Volume 22: Aug. – Oct. 1779


This volume opens on 1 Aug. 1779 with GW at the strategically important fortress at West Point, New York. The American commander in chief had established his headquarters there on 22 July, shortly after the conclusion of the light infantry’s attack on the British fort at Stony Point, New York. GW maintained his headquarters at West Point for the duration of the campaign. By the late summer and early fall, the campaign of 1779 had resolved itself into a contest for control of the forts along the Hudson River. GW concentrated on the defense of West Point, looked for opportunities to attack British forts on the river, and prepared for prospective offensive operations in conjunction with the French fleet.

After the British had seized the forts at King’s Ferry, N.Y., in early June, GW had arrayed the brigades of the Continental army in defensive positions on both sides of the Hudson River with their center on West Point, the last remaining American bastion on the Hudson. GW desired to put the defenses of the great fortress “into as perfect a state of security as possible” (GW to Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, 20 Aug.). Detailed reports from three of his generals in a single day (20 Aug.) on the defenses of the post, the construction of new water batteries, and the provision of cannon for the fort’s many redoubts and batteries suggest GW’s level of interest in the progress of the fortifications. The construction of the new works at the fortress continued throughout the weeks covered by this volume.

In the month of August, GW was fully engaged with planning for both offensive and defensive operations. In both, his designs focused on control of the Hudson. Desiring to follow up the successful assault on Stony Point in July with another blow at a British fort on the river, GW planned a surprise attack on the fort at Paulus Hook, N.J., almost directly opposite New York City. He planned the assault in conjunction with Major General Stirling and Henry Lee, major-commandant of the Partisan Corps, a mixed force of infantry and light dragoons. It is apparent from GW’s letter to Lee of 10 Aug. that preparations for the attack, largely in Lee’s hands, had been under way for some time, probably as early as late July. Lee carried out the assault on the night of 18-19 Aug. with his own corps and elements of Stirling’s brigade. He succeeded in capturing the garrison and effecting a retreat back to the American lines in New Jersey. His report to GW of 22 Aug. reveals the meticulous level of detail put into the design of this assault, typical of GW’s planning in this period.

Paulus Hook was not the only offensive action GW projected in August. The American commander sought to keep the main army active with raids on other enemy outposts. When reconnaissance revealed that only two provincial regiments and the Hessian Jaeger Corps remained in the British outposts above King’s Bridge, N.Y., GW authorized Major General Howe on 20 Aug. to “beat up” the outposts. GW was forced to cancel the raid on 5 Sept., though, due to the arrival of British reinforcements at New York that necessitated his drawing Howe’s division closer to West Point. On 11 Sept., GW acknowledged a letter from Howe reporting on the success of a raid by a force under the command of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge against a Loyalist fort at Lloyd Neck on New York’s Long Island. On 10 Aug., GW had authorized Howe and Maj. Gen. William Heath to carry out the assault, but he subsequently ordered the attack temporarily “laid aside” for “private motives” (GW to Howe, 15 Aug.). The successful raid that Howe reported was smaller in scale than the original plan, but Tallmadge’s surprise attack offers another example of the army’s aggressiveness in this period.

Although GW sought such opportunities to strike exposed British outposts, his overriding concern in August, other than strengthening the defenses of West Point, was the long-anticipated arrival of British army reinforcements sent out from Great Britain with the naval squadron of Vice Adm. Marriot Arbuthnot. GW expected that British commander Gen. Henry Clinton, with the aid of these reinforcements, would renew his offensive up the Hudson. Already, GW on 20 July had ordered Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam to prepare his divisions west of the Hudson for a defensive focused on protecting West Point. After he received information confirming Arbuthnot’s arrival on 27 Aug., GW pushed his defensive preparations into high gear. On 28 and 29 Aug., the American commander issued a series of orders designed to concentrate the main army and gather information about the reinforcements and Clinton’s intentions. GW ordered colonels David Hall and Moses Hazen to march their detached regiments to rejoin the main army, and he directed Howe and Stirling to move their divisions closer to West Point. He alerted Howe, Lt. Col. John Taylor, and Major Tallmadge to have their spies provide intelligence on the reinforcements and on Clinton’s intentions. GW also directed Major General Heath to ready the brigades of his left wing in the Highlands east of the Hudson for a defensive battle, and he ordered the commander of Major Lee’s Partisan Corps, stationed west of the Hudson, to scout out and immediately report any signs of an enemy movement up the river.

In this defensive but strategic warfare, quality intelligence was vital. GW demanded accurate information to enable him to determine General Clinton’s intentions. Numerous letters in this volume show GW managing this important aspect of his generalship—his function as spymaster. Through his generals and trusted field officers, GW managed several networks of spies, but the American commander particularly relied on his operatives in New York City, chief of whom were the “Culper” spies. Because of the increasing importance of the Culper spy ring, an editorial note explains and highlights its operations and intelligence reports.

The success of GW’s network of spies allowed him to quickly pivot back to offensive designs. By 7 Sept., GW’s careful assessment of his intelligence reports on the British reinforcements had convinced him that the forces were too few to enable Clinton to launch an offensive against West Point. GW began to try to determine Clinton’s alternative strategy, and when reports of a large French fleet on the coast began to arrive at headquarters in the middle of the month, his mind began to turn to offensive operations.

The American commander focused his plans for offensive action on New York. On 13 and 14 Sept., GW issued a series of letters to his generals designed to position the army’s brigades for operations in conjunction with the French fleet to cut off the British forces on Manhattan Island from their outlying garrisons at King’s Ferry, Staten Island, and Long Island, and at Newport, Rhode Island. The “hints” for these operations that GW provided Vice Admiral d’Estaing, commander of the fleet, on 13 Sept. outlined the campaign. A major part of the plan was to capture the forts at the strategically important King’s Ferry.

In the midst of these plans and operations, GW had occasion to exercise the diplomatic aspect of his duties as commander in chief, a critical and often overlooked facet of his generalship. For two days in mid-September, GW hosted at his headquarters the new French minister plenipotentiary to the United States, Anne-César, chevalier de La Luzerne—a visit that included dinners, inspection of the troops, tours of the fortifications, and a conference on military plans. On 16 Sept., GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton prepared a summary of the conference held during the visit. GW’s letters to Major General Lafayette—three in the period covered by this volume—represent another part of GW’s diplomacy as American commander in chief. The Frenchman’s influence was critical to the French ministry’s decision to send an expeditionary army to aid the United States in 1780.

Even after he dismissed as unreliable the September reports of the arrival of the French fleet, GW continued to think of offensive operations. On 26 Sept., two days after learning that Clinton had withdrawn several regiments from King’s Ferry, GW began planning for attacks on the forts guarding the ferry. He ordered Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne to provide a covering party for a reconnaissance of the forts by the generals commanding the army’s artillery and engineers.

Two offensives away from the main army—but nevertheless under GW’s purview as commander in chief—concluded in September. Both were important to the defense of the frontier against British-allied Indian tribes. Maj. Gen. John Sullivan and Col. Daniel Brodhead completed their expeditions against these western Indians, Sullivan against the Iroquois in New York and Brodhead against the Seneca and Muncy on the upper reaches of the Allegheny River. Throughout August, GW monitored the progress of Sullivan’s expedition and worked to ensure that supplies were in place to support it. GW restated his strategic objectives for the campaign to Sullivan on 15 Sept., but by that time Sullivan was well on his way to completing his devastating expedition. By 28 Sept., when Sullivan delivered his final report on the campaign, the western army had returned to its forward base at Chemung, New York. On 3 Oct., GW ordered Sullivan to march his brigades to the camps of the main army on the Hudson to maximize the army’s strength for a projected attack on New York. Although GW did not receive Brodhead’s report until 15 Oct., the colonel had completed his operation on 14 September. He reported to GW on 16 Sept., noting that he had destroyed 11 villages, over 160 houses, and a “great quantity of Corn” without the loss of a man.

In early October, when GW received from Congress both an official confirmation of d’Estaing’s arrival on the American coast and a directive to prepare for joint operations with the French commander, GW began planning for even larger-scale offensive operations—an allied attack on New York City and its outlying bastions. Because of the importance of GW’s plans and preparations for this joint campaign, which he intended as a “decisive stroke” (GW to New York governor George Clinton, 4 Oct.) to capture virtually the whole of the British army in North America, an editorial note has been provided. The note pulls together ten key documents, highlighted by GW’s own memorandum on the attack plan and his two letters to d’Estaing with proposals for the offensive.

In the midst of all these operations, GW’s administrative burden did not diminish. In addition to maintaining correspondence on the various aspects of keeping the Continental army supplied, clothed, equipped, and fed, GW had to deal with several unique administrative matters. In a 15 Aug. letter to John Jay, president of the Continental Congress, GW defended himself at length against implications by Major General Sullivan that the latter’s expeditionary army had been inadequately supported. Evincing his formidable administrative skills, GW included more than seventy-five enclosures to support his case. Congress declared itself “perfectly satisfied” with GW’s conduct (Jay to GW, 29 Aug., n.1). Responding to discontent among the Virginia officers, GW also had to defend his selection of Major Lee to command the assault on Paulus Hook (GW to Stirling, and to Woodford and Muhlenberg, both 28 Aug.). And between 30 Sept. and 20 Oct., GW exchanged a series of letters with British major general William Phillips, who commanded the Convention Army prisoners, regarding Phillips’s parole in New York. The episode became personally embarrassing to GW when he was forced by Congress to rescind his previous authorization of Phillips’s parole and instead detain the British general in Pennsylvania. Worse, GW was not able to give the actual, secret reason for Phillips’s continued detention—the concern that Phillips might give important aid to the British commander during the anticipated allied attack on New York. GW’s feeling of personal embarrassment was such that he expressed his “great regret” in an official letter, a rarity for GW (GW to the Board of War, 2 Oct.).

Although d’Estaing’s repulse at Savannah in early October prevented GW from being able to execute the allied attack on New York, the campaign of 1779 ended with the British evacuation of King’s Ferry and Newport. Both were of major strategic consequence. The battle for control of King’s Ferry—a struggle that had dominated the operations of the two armies for months—ended on 21 Oct., the last day covered by this volume, when GW learned that the British had abandoned the two forts guarding the ferry. Shortly thereafter, GW was told that the British also had left the deepwater port of Newport. Because the French expeditionary army and fleet later made Newport their base in 1780 and 1781, this was perhaps one of the greatest British strategic blunders of the war. While these evacuations were a strategic prize for GW, they prefaced General Clinton’s campaign in South Carolina and the fall of Charleston, the greatest American disaster of the war.

Jacket Essay

Volume 22 of the Revolutionary War Series covers 1 Aug. through 21 Oct. 1779. As it begins, Washington is focused on expanding and strengthening the fortifications at West Point, N.Y., in the wake of the British attack in June that had captured King’s Ferry, New York. Although he had to concentrate his army on the defense of West Point, Washington sought to launch whatever strikes he could against the British forts on the Hudson River and bring his operations on the western frontier to a successful conclusion. To follow up the successful assault on Stony Point, N.Y., Washington planned a surprise attack on Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Maj. Henry Lee carried out the assault on 19 Aug. and succeeded in capturing the garrison and effecting a retreat back to the American lines in New Jersey. During the weeks covered by this volume, Maj. Gen. John Sullivan successfully completed his devastating expedition against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations. Though not in tactical command of the expedition, Washington, particularly in August, had to dedicate a substantial portion of his time to supervising logistical support for the expedition and defending himself against Sullivan’s charges of failing to properly support the campaign.

Washington’s overriding concern in August, other than strengthening the defenses of West Point, was the long anticipated arrival of British army reinforcements that would enable the enemy to renew their attack up the Hudson. After he received information confirming arrival of the reinforcements in late August, Washington pushed his defensive preparations into high gear, issuing orders designed to concentrate the main army near West Point and gather information about the reinforcements and British intentions.

But within two weeks, Washington’s assessment of his intelligence reports had convinced him that the British reinforcements were too few to enable the enemy to launch an offensive. When intelligence reports of a large French fleet on the coast began to arrive in September, he turned to planning his own offensive operations.

The prospect of the arrival of the powerful French fleet of Vice Admiral d’Estaing on the American coast promised an opportunity to overcome British naval superiority. Washington first designed a limited attack on the British outposts surrounding New York City. Then, after receiving official confirmation from Congress of the arrival of the French admiral on the American coast, Washington planned a major attack on New York itself; an attack, as the letters in this volume show, which Washington designed to be decisive, to drive the British from North America, and potentially end the war.

Benjamin L. Huggins, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series volume 22, 1 August – 21 October 1779. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2013.

Purchase from the University of Virginia Press.

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