Writings of George Washington, ed. Fitzpatrick, 22:352-55
An astonishingly candid, wide-ranging, and lengthy letter in which Washington reflects on the crisis facing his home state, the impossibility of any reconciliation with Great Britain, the problem of an independent Vermont, and the characters of Baron von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Washington was frequently subject to special pleading from fellow Virginians. As the nascent Yorktown Campaign threatened to devolve into chaos, Governor Thomas Jefferson, Colonel Richard Henry Lee, and Virginia Congressional delegate Joseph Jones all urged the Commander himself to come to the Virginia theatre. In a letter of 20 June, Jones requested specific cavalry reinforcements—and relayed Benjamin Harrison's complaint about Baron von Steuben, who Harrison characterized as "a good officer on the Parade but the worst in every other respect in the American Army": "We have 600 fine Men under Baron Stuben wch. he will not carry into action, what are his Reasons I know not, but I can assure you his Conduct gives universal disgust and injures the Service much, the People complaining and with reason that they are draged from their Families at a time when they are most wanted to make bread for them, whilst the Soldiers they have hired at a very great expence lay Idle—in short my dr. Sr. his Conduct does great mischief and will do more if he is not recalled, and I think it behoves you to bring it about" (Letters of Delegates, 17:336–38).
In his answer, Washington apologizes for being late in responding to Jones's letter, which arrived just as he was to begin the march to Dobb's Ferry. "The attention necessary to these kind of movements occupy all ones time, and must plead my excuse, ..." Washington also reminds Jones that he is to write to Richard Henry Lee, and explains in depth the impossibility of supplying the reinforcements Jones has requested.
"You must be much unacquainted with the true state of Sheldon's Regiment, and the Marischausi Corps when you apply to have them sent to the Southward—the first is yet to raise, and the last is about to disband; and besides, is very deficient in Horses, without a State to adopt them, or the means of purchasing.—Sheldon has but 60 Horses in all, and only 25 of these accoutred—To the State of Connecticut he looks for the rest—These Horses are to perform the Ordinary duties of Expresses, Paroles, and the ordinary duties of the Field; while the Marischausi Corps consists of no more than abt. 40 men and half that No. of Horses, 12 of which are with me, and from the smallness of the number are continually on duty, carrying orders to one part and another of the Camp. Judge you therefore of the impracticability of deriving succor from either of these Corps." Washington suggests that Jones instead apply to Moylan's Dragoons for relief.
Washington will not be drawn into the controversy about Steuben, particularly as he believes that Lafayette will be able to deflect criticism from him. "The complaints against the Baron de Steuben are not more distressing than unexpected, for I always viewed him in the light of a good officer—If he has formed a junction with the Marquis, he will be no longer Master of his own conduct, of course the clamours against him will cease with his command. ..." Washington's surmise was correct; Steuben's difficulties in getting along in Virginia were an aberration in his faithful Continental service, and perhaps—as Washington likely realized—not entirely of his own making.
Jones is reassured that General Nathanael Greene will soon be moving north to Virginia, since the "principle theatre of action" had shifted there from the Carolinas. But, in the meantime, Washington pledges that Virginia will be well protected by Lafayette, the young Frenchman whom he considered almost as an adopted son: "it is my opinion, the command of the Troops in that State cannot be in better hands than the Marquiss—He possesses uncommon Military talents, is of a quick and sound judgment, persevering, and enterprizing without rashness, and besides these, he is of a very conciliating temper & perfectly sober, which are qualities that rarely combine in the same person; & were I to add that, some men will gain as much experience in the course of three or 4 years, as some others will in ten or a dozen, you cannot deny the fact, and attack me upon that ground."
As if to make the point that Virginia was not the part of the united colonies facing challenges, Washington writes that simple "facts, will be a sufficient expression of my mortified situation." The Quartermaster's and Commissary's departments need more men; expected militia have not arrived to strengthen West Point; and moving his army progresses like "a Cart without wheels." But although he knows that "friends will make allowances" and "enemy's will censure," Washington, as ever, retains the consolation "of knowing that my whole time and attention is devoted to the public service, however short I may fall of its expectation."
Washington also passes on to Congress the texts of some letters intercepted from Lord Germain that he had received from Henry Laurens, then a minister to France. "I transmit mine to made use of as occasion requires, a publication of them with proper comments, would, undoubtedly, answer very valuable purposes as the Ministers Sentiments respecting our Government &ca. &ca. are too obvious to be mistaken, and must be too alarming to those who are panting for the constitutions, to be explained away or relished."
The intercepted letters almost certainly were from Lord Germain to Frederick Haldimand, governor of Quebec, regarding the latter's efforts to bring Vermont under British authority. Vermont has resisted joining the United States as it sought to free itself from the jurisdictional claims of both New York and New Hampshire. And in closing, Washington turns his attention to the potential dilemmas posed by Vermont's position as an independent territory, a posture it would maintain until 1792 when it joined the Union as the fourteenth state. "For a considerable time past I have had strong suspicions and uneasy moments on acct. of the People of Vermont. I have at different times been on the point of communicating them to Congress, but motives of delicacy have restrained me. Convinced I am that these people wd. Become a formidable barrier if they were made a seperate State, equally convinced I am that Neutrality is the most we have to expect from them if they are not. ... at present, that State gives protection, and is an asylem to all deserters; to every person who wishes to avoid taxation &ca. by which means their strength is augmented in proportion to our loss; and the manner in wch. they mean to apply it is very equivocal. ... I do not now believe that the people, as a body, have any evil intention, but I firmly believe that some of their leaders have, and that they will prevent us from deriving aid, though they may not be able to turn the Arms of their Countrymen against us."
The tenor of this letter makes clear that Washington could not anticipate that scarcely three months later Vermont's independence would cease to be a matter of national security when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Present with Washington at that epochal battle were the two foreign generals whom he so warmly endorsed in this letter, Baron von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette.
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