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. . . The morning after my arrival here I was honored with your Excellency's despatches of the 11th and 18th instant. By them I find that you think if an offensive army could be spared, it would not be advisable to employ it in this province. It is natural for every officer to turn his thoughts particularly to the part of the war in which he has been most employed ; and as the security at least of South Carolina, if not the reduction of North Carolina, seemed to be generally expected from me, both in this country and in England, I thought myself called upon, after the experiment I had made had failed, to point out the only mode in my opinion of effecting it and to declare that until Virginia was to a degree subjected we could not reduce North Carolina, or have any certain hold of the back country of South Carolina, the want of navigation rendering it impossible to maintain a sufficient army in either of these provinces at a considerable distance from the coasts and the men and riches of Virginia furnishing ample supplies to the rebel southern army.
I will not say much in praise of the militia of the Southern colonies, but the list of British officers and soldiers killed and wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.
Your Excellency being charged with the weight of the whole American war, your opinions of course are less partial and are directed to all its parts; to those opinions it is my duty implicitly to submit.
Being in the place of General Phillips, I thought myself called upon by you to give my opinion with all deference on the attempt upon Philadelphia. Having experienced much disappointment on that head, I own I would cautiously engage in measures depending materially for their success upon active assistance from the country; and I thought the attempt upon Philadelphia would do more harm than good to the cause of Britain, because, supposing it practicable to get possession of the town (which, besides other obstacles, if the redoubts are kept up, would not be easy), we could not hope to arrive without their haying had sufficient warning of our approach to enable them to secure the specie and the greatest part of their valuable public stores by means of their boats and shipping, which give them certain possession of the river from Mud Island upwards. The discriminating of the owners, and destroying any considerable quantify of West India goods and other merchandize dispersed through a great town, without burning the whole together, would be a work of much time and labour. Our appearance there, without an intention to stay, might give false hopes to many friends, and occasion their ruin ; and any unlucky accident on our retreat might furnish matter for great triumph to our enemies. However, my opinion on that subject is at present of no great importance, as it appears from your Excellency's despatches that, in the execution of those ideas, a co-operation was intended from your side, which now could not be depended upon, from the uncertainty of the permanency of our naval superiority, and your apprehensions of an intended serious attempt upon New York : I have therefore lost no time in taking measures for complying with the requisition contained in your despatch of the 15th instant.
Upon viewing York, I was clearly of opinion that it far exceeds our power, consistent with your plans, to make safe defensive posts there and at Gloucester, both of which would be necessary for the protection of shipping. The state of the transports has not yet been reported to me, but I have ordered the few that are at Portsmouth to be got ready, and as soon as I pass James River (for which purpose the boats are collecting), and can get a convoy, they shall be despatched with as many troops as they will contain, and shall be followed by others as fast as you send transports to receive them. When I see Portsmouth, I shall give my opinion of the number of men necessary for its defence, or of any other post that may be thought more proper. But as magazines, &c., may be destroyed by occasional expeditions from New York, and there is little chance of being able to establish a post capable of giving effectual protection to ships of war, I submit it to your Excellency's consideration, whether it is worth while to hold a sickly defensive post in this bay which will always be exposed to a sudden French attack, and which experience has shown makes no diversion in favour of the southern army.
Tarleton was lucky enough to intercept an express with letters from Greene to La Fayette, of which the inclosed are copies. By them you will see General Greene's intention of coming to the northward, and that part of the reinforcements destined for his army, was stopped in consequence of my arrival here. There can be little doubt of his returning to the southward, and of the reinforcements proceeding to join his army. .
I still continue in the most painful anxiety for the situation of South Carolina. Your Excellency will have received accounts of Lord Rawdon's proceedings previous to his arrival at Monk's Corner, and of his intended operations. My last account from him is in a note to Lieut-Colonel Balfour, dated the 9th instant at Fourhole Bridge, and he was then in great hopes of being in time to save Cruger. I have ordered Colonel Gould to proceed, as soon as convoy could be procured, with the 19th and 30th regiments to New York, leaving the 3rd regiment and flank companies in South Carolina till your pleasure be known. I named the flank companies, because they might be distant at the time of the arrival of the order, and as a corps capable of exertion is much wanted on that service.
Your Excellency well knows my opinion of a defensive war on the frontiers of South Carolina. From the state of Lord Rawdon's health it is impossible that he can remain, for which reason, although the command in that quarter can only be attended with mortification and disappointment, yet as I came to America with no other view than to endeavour to be useful to my country, and as I do not think it possible to render any service in a defensive situation here, I am willing to repair to Charlestown, if you approve of it ; and in the mean time I shall do everything in my power to arrange matters here till I have your answer.
La Fayette's Continentals, I believe, consist of about 1700 or 1800 men, exclusive of some twelvemonths men, collected by Steuben. He has received considerable reinforcements of militia, and about 800 mountain riflemen under Campbell He keeps with his main body about eighteen or twenty miles from us, his advanced corps about ten or twelve, probably with an intention of insulting our rear-guard when we pass James River; I hope, however, to put that out of his power by crossing at James City Island, and if I can get a favourable opportunity of striking a blow at him without loss of time, I will certainly try it I will likewise attempt water-expeditions, if proper objects present themselves after my arrival at Portsmouth.
I have &c.
- Charles Cornwallis
- Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, Vol I, Charles Ross, Esq., London, 1859