Description

    General Washington reflects on the Battle of Cape Henry and the failure to capture Benedict Arnold

    George Washington Autograph Letter Signed, With Initialed Postscript and Franking Signature. One page with integral address cover, 13" x 8.25". "New Windsor", March 31, 1781. A superb letter from General Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army to Major General Alexander McDougall concerning the failed expedition against Benedict Arnold. Writing from his New York headquarters to McDougall (1732-1786), Arnold's successor as commander of fortifications at West Point, Washington bemoans the fact that American forces under General Lafayette had failed to trap British forces under the command of Arnold.

    New Windsor March 31st. 1781

    Dear Sir, (Private)

    The Expedition against Arnold has failed-after the favourable moment (occasioned by the disability of part of the British Ships in Gardner's bay) was suffered to pass away, I never was sanguine in it-but the object being great, the risk was warrantable.

    The attempt of the Chevalier Des Touches at the time he sailed was bold & enterprising-for this, and political reasons; and because I know it will be grateful to the French Genl. & Admiral, I take the liberty of hinting to you the propriety (if it is not already done) of Congress paying them a compliment on the occasion. It may have a happy effect which is the only apology I can offer for the freedom of suggesting it.
    I am - Dr. Sir
    With great esteem & regard
    Yr. most Obedt. Servt.
    G: Washington

    PS.
    I have recd. Your letter promising to correspond under the signature of Marcus & shall be happy in the fruits of it, G: W.


    Soon after he was awarded command of American forces at West Point in July 1780, Arnold entered negotiations with the British to surrender the fort. When his treasonous scheme was discovered, Arnold fled to British forces, narrowly avoiding capture by Washington's army. In late 1780 and early 1781, Arnold's troops, made up largely of loyalists, conducted destructive raids in Virginia. Arnold and his forces then withdrew to Portsmouth, Virginia to await British reinforcements.

    Bad winter storms had scattered the British navy, and Washington saw a unique opportunity to capture Arnold; he hoped to trap Arnold between the American army on land and the French fleet at sea. This was "the Expedition against Arnold" Washington references in this letter.

    As part of his plan, Washington directed General Lafayette in February to lead an expedition of 1200 troops from New England and New Jersey and link up with French naval forces under Admiral Rene Dominique Sochet, Chevalier Destouches (1727-1794), which were sailing from Newport, Rhode Island. The initial excursion by the French fleet made little progress; they quickly returned to Newport, with only the capture of the British 44-gun Romulus to show for their efforts. Washington used this modest victory to convince Destouches to launch his entire fleet against the British naval forces, which were anchored at Gardiner's Bay off the eastern end of Long Island. Destouches had been wary of engaging the British Navy, who he perceived as having greater strength. The British fleet had incurred heavy damages during the winter storms, and Destouches was emboldened.

    On March 8, Destouches set sail from Newport with his entire fleet carrying 1200 troops for use in land operations upon arrival in Chesapeake. Vice Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, British fleet commander in North America, heard of Destouches' sailing on March 10 and quickly led his fleet out of Gardiner Bay in pursuit. Favorable winds and speedier vessels gave Arbuthnot the advantage, and the British reached Cape Henry ahead of Destouches.

    Thus the stage was set for the Battle of Cape Henry, which was fought on March 16, 1781. The fleets were evenly matched in number of ships, but the British had the advantage in firepower and seamanship. Arbuthnot outmaneuvered Destouches; and despite incurring heavy damage, British forces were able to hold off the French. Destouches' fleet returned to Newport, leaving the Bay open for the British to reinforce Arnold's army.

    Washington's language in this letter reflect his discipline and tact as a leader. He understands that he must look past his own disappointment and advises a Congressional acknowledgement of the French effort. Despite the failure to defeat Arnold's army, Washington writes that while "I was never sanguine in it," the "object being great, the risk was warrantable." Washington praises the "bold & enterprising" attempt of Destouches' naval forces to dislodge those of the British from Chesapeake Bay and hopes that Congress will officially thank General Lafayette and Admiral Destouches. Six months after this letter was written, British forces under General Cornwallis surrendered to Washington and his army at Yorktown.

    Condition: The letter has slight fold separations which have been expertly repaired, without loss of text. The address leaf has paper loss where it was opened without loss of text.


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