Washington, George (1732-1799) to Henry Laurens re: skirmish with Cornwallis and parole of Burgoyne
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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC05572 Author/Creator: Washington, George (1732-1799) Place Written: Head Qrs near the Gulph Type: Letter signed Date: 14-15 December 1777 Pagination: 5 p. + docket 33 x 21.1 cm
Large skirmish with Cornwallis, question of parole for Burgoyne & Burgoyne's new opinion that Britain cannot win and should grant America its independence, and self-criticism for problems taking supplies from inhabitants: "I confess, I have felt myself greatly embarrassed with respect to a vigorous exercise of military power. An ill place humanity perhaps and a reluctance to give distress may have restrained my too far...."; sensitive to evils of "Jealousies of military power." Written from the Gulph, now known as West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. Five days after writing this letter, Washington reached his winter headquarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the scarcity of supplies became critical.
At first glance, George Washington (1732-1799) might seem to be an unlikely choice to lead the Continental Army. His only previous military experience, during the Seven Years' War, had not been particularly successful. He and his men had been ambushed at Pennsylvania and then been forced to surrender Fort Necessity.
During the Revolution, however, Washington proved to be a mature and politically astute leader. Even though he lost more battles than he won, he was nevertheless a brilliant strategist who understood that the key to victory lay not in holding territory but in keeping his forces intact and maintaining his soldiers' morale. He also demonstrated sensitivity toward civilians and loyalists--a sensitivity that he exhibits in the following letter.
In September 1777, at Brandywine Creek in southeastern Pennsylvania, a British force came perilously close to defeating Washington's army. A contingent of British troops attacked the Washington's forces from behind, surprising the American forces, but Washington and his men managed to retreat. In October, at Germantown, north of Philadelphia, the Americans again had to retreat.
Meanwhile, a British army led by Lieutenant General John Burgoyne (1722-1792) had advanced southward from Canada, intending to cut New England off from the other colonies. In October, Burgoyne became stranded near Saratoga, New York. Finding himself surrounded, he surrendered. The Americans took nearly 6000 prisoners and large supplies of arms.
The battle of Saratoga was a major turning point of the war. It encouraged France to recognize American independence and to intervene in the war on the American side. And it convinced the Britain to concentrate on conquering the colonies from the south, while protecting its possessions in the West Indies.
Signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Head Q[uarte]rs near the Gulph Decr 14: 1777
On Thursday Evening I had the Honor to receive your Favor of the 8th Inst. From the Several Letters which have lately passed between Genl Howe & myself, I am fully convinced that any propositions by me to release the Baron St. Ouary from captivity, either by an Exchange or on parole, would be unavailing [strike-out]. In his letter of the [blank space] he [Sir William Howe] has explicitly stated his Sentiments, and has declared himself to be utterly against a partial Exchange. The situation of the Baron, thro the interest and acquaintance of the Marquis Fayette with an officer in the Guards, is much more comfortable than that of any of our Officers, who are prisoners, he being on parole in the City, whilst they are all confined in the State House. I do not know that it is the practice in Europe not to consider Volunteers as Prisoners. I am inclined to believe, that it is not, and that they are generally held as Such, unless the contrary is particularly stipulated by Cartel. However this may be, they have been held in the present contest on both sides on the footing of other prisoners, and exchanged as such. Besides this, I fear, that a prop[osition] calculated for the peculiar benefit of the Baron, would be illy [sic] received by our Unhappy Officers, who have been much longer in confinement - whose Sufferings are far greater than his, & who claim a right to exchange in due course.
The inquiries directed in the Resolutions contained in your Letter of the 30th Ulto. respecting the loss of the Forts in the Highlands and of Fort Mifflin, I shall order  to be made, as soon as circumstances will admit. These However, it is probable will not be effected in a short time from the situation of our affairs & inevitable necessity.
On Thursday morning we marched from Our Old Encampment and intended to pass the Schuylkill at Maddison's [Matson's] Ford, where a Bridge had been laid across the River. When the first Division and a part of the Second had passed, they found a body of the Enemy, consisting from the best accounts we have been able to obtain of Four Thousand Men under the command of Lord Cornwallis possessing themselves of the Heights on both sides of the Road, leading from the River, and the defile called the Gulph, which I presume are well known to some part of your Honble: body. This unexpected event obliged such of Our Troops as had crossed to repass, and prevented our getting over till the succeeding night. This maneuver on the part of the Enemy was not in consequence of any information they had of our movement - but was designed to secure the pass whilst they were foraging in the Neighbouring [sic] Country. They were met in their advance by Genl Potter with part of the Pennsylvania Militia who behaved with bravery and gave them every possible Opposition 'till they were obliged to retreat from their Superior numbers. Had we been an Hour sooner or had had the least intimation of the measure, I am persuaded we should have given his Lordship a fortunate stroke or obliged him to have returned without effecting his purpose, or drawn out All General Howe's force to have supported him. Our first intelligence was, that it was nearly all out. He collected a good deal of Forage and returned to the City the Night we passed the River.  No discrimination marked his proceedings - All property, whether Friends or Foes, that came in their way was seized & carried off.
Enclosed is a Copy of a Letter from Genl Burgoyne by which you will perceive he requests leave to embark his Troops at Rhode Island or at some place on the Sound, and in case this cannot be granted that he may be allowed to go there with his Suite and return from thence to England. His First proposition, as I have observed on a former occasion is certainly inadmissible and for reasons obvious to himself - As to the Second which respects the departure of himself & Suite, Congress will be pleased to determine upon it and to favor me with their Sentiments by the first Opportunity that I may know what Answer to give him. I learn from a Gentleman who has just come from Boston, that this Gentleman either holds, or professes to hold, very different ideas of our power than what he formerly entertained; that, without reserve, he has said it would be next to impossible for Britain to succeed in her views, and that he should with freedom declare his sentiments accordingly on his arrival in England, and seemed to think the recognition of our Independence an eligible measure under a treaty of Commerce upon a large & extensive Scale. How far these professions are founded in sincerity, it is not easy to determine: - but if they are, what a mighty change!... While I am on the subject of Mr. Burgoyne and his Army, I would submit it to Congress, whether it will not be right & reasonable, that All expenses incurred on their Account for Provisions, &c should be paid & Satisfied previous to their embarkation & departure. I mean by an Actual deposit of the Money. Unless this is done, there will be little reason to suppose, that it will ever be paid.  They have failed, that is the Nation, in other instances, as I have been told after liquidating their accounts and giving the fullest certificates, and we cannot expect that they will keep better faith with us than with Others. The payment too, I should apprehend ought to be in Coin, as it will enable us to administer releif [sic] to our Unfortunate Officers and Men who are in Captivity.
Your Favor of the 10th current with it's [sic] Inclosure came to hand Yesterday. Congress seems to have taken for granted a fact that is really not so. All the Forage for the Army has been constantly drawn from Bucks & Philadelphia Counties & those parts most contiguous to the City, insomuch that it was nearly exhausted, and entirely so in the Country below our Camp. From these too were obtained All the Supplies of Flour that circumstances would admit of. The Millers in most instances were unwilling to grind either from their disaffection or from motives of fear. This made the Supplies less than they Otherwise might have been, and the quantity which was drawn from thence was little besides what the Guards, placed at the Mills compelled them to manufacture. As to Stock I do not know that much was had from thence, nor do I know that any considerable Supply could have been had.
I confess, I have felt myself greatly embarrassed with respect to a rigorous exercise of Military Power. An Ill placed humanity perhaps and a reluctance to give distress may have restrained me too far. But these were not all. I have been well aware of the prevalent jealousy of Military power, and that this has been considered as an Evil much to be apprehended even by the best and most Sensible among us. Under this Idea, I have been cautious and wished to avoid, as much as possible, any Act that might improve it. However, Congress may be assured, that no exertions of mine as far as circumstances will admit, shall be wanting to provide our own Troops with Supplies on the one hand, and to prevent the Enemy from them on the Otherâ€¦. At the same time they must be apprized, that many Obstacles have arisen to render the former more precarious and difficult than they usually were from a change in the Commissary's department at a very critical & interesting period. I should be happy If the Civil authority in the several States, thro the recommendations of Congress, or their own mere will, seeing the necessity of supporting the Army, would always adopt the most spirited measures, suited to the end. The people at large are governed much by custom. To acts of Legislation or Civil authority, they have ever been taught to yield a willing obedience without reasoning about their propriety. On those of Military power, whether immediate or derived originally from another Source, they have ever looked with a jealous & Suspicious Eye.
I am extremely sorry for your Indisposition and wishing you the earliest relief from your painful disorder.
I have the honor to be
with great respect
Your most obed servt
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