"If we succeed in the glorious Struggle in which we are engaged, and establish our Independency, perhaps the forfeited Estates in our Commonwealth may be apply'd to the Purpose of compensating the Sufferers"William Ellery Autograph Letter Signed ("W. E.") with Free Frank ("Wm. Ellery") to "William Vernon/ Merchant" of Newport, Rhode Island, containing significant content, such as a justification for the Declaration of Independence; an early request pertaining to the Continental Navy; and surprising news of British troop movements that would --in a matter of days -- conclude with one of General Washington's worst defeats. Two and one-half pages, 8.25" x 13", [Philadelphia], November 7, 1776. Evenly toned with minor foxing. Small tears have been repaired and evidence of the seal remains. Slight separations at fold intersections.
Only five months after signing the Declaration of Independence, William Ellery, still in Philadelphia as a Rhode Island delegate in the Second Continental Congress, begins this letter by informing his friend and fellow Newport merchant William Vernon that the information - "abstracts" - that Vernon had earlier supplied to Ellery reporting the "Losses sustained" by the residents of Rhode Island would be used "to vindicate their Conduct" (likely a reference to the creation of the Declaration of Independence). Ellery also notes that any hope of reconciliation with Great Britain has "utterly vanished". He writes, "I have laid the abstracts of the account of Losses sustained by the Inhabitants of our State by the ministerial Fleet stationed formerly in Newport, before the Comm[itt]ee appointed to collect by Congress to collect such accounts. The Sufferers have nothing to expect from this Quarter, the Design of the Resolve of Congress having been answered another Way. The Intention of Congress was by collecting such accounts to show to the World the Provocations and Injuries they had sustained from Britain, to vindicate their Conduct; and if a Reconciliation should take Place to endeavour at a Compensation for such Losses; but if there ever were any Prospects of this Sort they have utterly vanished. If we succeed in the glorious Struggle in which we are engaged, and establish our Independency, perhaps the forfeited Estates in our Commonwealth may be apply'd to the Purpose of compensating the Sufferers."
Next, Ellery, a member of the Marine Committee of Congress, seeks information from Vernon about the British Navy. The thirteen-member Marine Committee managed the young Continental Navy, which was formed in October 1775 when Congress provided funding to arm two vessels. Ellery and the other committee members had much to learn about a navy (John Adams, an early member, admitted that he knew nothing, but he made himself an expert by reading and seeking counsel). Vernon was a logical source of information for Ellery. As a merchant whose vessels traveled to Europe, Africa, and the West Indies, Vernon was well acquainted with maritime matters. So Ellery writes, "I should be glad to know what is the Office of Commissioners of the Navy [in the British government], and that you would point it out particularly; unless you can refer Me to some Author who particularly describes the Conduct of the Affairs of a Navy as well as those of an Army we are yet to learn. We are still unacquainted with the systematical Management of them, although We have made considerable Progress in the latter. It is the Duty of every Friend to his Country to throw his knowledge into the common stock. I know you are well skilled in commerce and I believe you are acquainted with the system of the British Navy, and I am sure of your Disposition to do every service to the Cause of Liberty in your Power." Vernon had only recently lost one of his ships loaded with cargo in the Newport harbor to the British Navy and likely needed no motivation to comply with Ellery's request. He would prove much more useful in maritime matters, though, to the Continental Congress later in 1777 when he was chosen to serve on the Eastern Navy Board (the board managed the navy of the New England states).
On November 10, Ellery adds to the letter important information -- just arrived "this Morning by Express from G. Washington" -- about movements by General Howe's British army which caught the Continental Army by complete surprise: "the Army under Genl. Howe had broke up their Encampment and on the 5th of this Month had retreated toward Kingsbridge, but whether it was only a Feint and that he meant by making a sudden Wheel to our flank to surround our Army was uncertain. That he had sent off Detachments to harass them in their Retreat and watch their Motions. That if it was a Maneuver he should send a Body of his Men over to the Jersey to prevent the enemy's getting Foot there. That our loss in the Skirmish of Monday fortnight was not great, that the Enemy had lost 400 killed and wounded, and among them Col. Carr of the 35th. That by Advices the Enemy meant to invest [lay siege] Fort Washington. That 70 Transports with 3000 Men were at Redhook, and that it was said that they were destined for Rhode Island, but that for various Reasons he did not believe it and particularly mentioned that the Season of the year was against it. That it was more probable that they were destined for the Southward, where they might carry on some Expedition during the Winter. Genl. [Hugh] Mercer in a Letter of the 8th Instant wrote that he had rec'd a Letter from G.[eneral Nathanael] Greene at Fort Lee informing him that about 10,000 of the Enemy had appeared opposite Dob's Ferry and that he imagined they meant to cross the North River. Mr. [Solomon] Lovell . . . writes . . . to get into complete Readiness, Transports for 15,000 (Mr. Lowell was then on board [as a captive] a Ship in the Fleet). What the Destination of this Body is is unknown some conjecture they are bound to this City [Philadelphia], some that they are bound further to the Southward. I rather think that they are destined for this Place. . . . I imagine Rhode Island is not an object sufficient to engage the attention of Mr. Howe at this Time, to be sure it would not require so great a Force as 15,000 Men to subdue it." The sense of confusion communicated by Ellery at the British movements was being felt throughout Washington's staff, who met with his generals to try to determine what the British intended. The presence of the British at Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson River further confused the situation. When Ellery wrote this to Vernon on the 10th, Washington was still uncertain and indecisive. The general eventually reasoned that Howe was headed to Fort Washington, which he was. Howe captured the fort on November 16, just six days after Ellery's letter, and dealt one of the most disastrous blows that the Continental Army received during the unfortunate New York campaign. Washington, arriving in time to watch the battle across the Hudson River, is said to have wept at the sight. After the fort fell, General Howe sent 6,000 troops to take Newport, which likewise fell in December without a fight. William Vernon, who owned a magnificent house there, buried his silver and waited until he saw the British ships arrive in the harbor. Then he fled to Boston. His house is still standing today, but Ellery's Newport home was burned. From the Papers of William Vernon.
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