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I received your ciphered letter of the 11th instant on the 20th, in consequence of which the expedition was detained, and on the 21st I was honored with your despatches of the 8th and 11th instant, the contents of which I will confess, were to me as unexpected as, I trust, they are undeserved.
As a subordinate officer I think it my duty to obey positive orders, or in exercising discretionary powers to act as much as possible conformable to the apparent wishes of my superior officer, combined with the evident good of the service ; and in my late conduct I hope I have not deviated from those principles : for permit me to remark that I cannot discover in the instructions to General Phillips, and the substance of private conversations with him (extracts of which I take the liberty to enclose) to which I am referred, nor in our former correspondence, any trace of the extreme earnestness that now appears to secure a harbour for ships of the line ; and your assent to my engaging in operations in the Upper Chesapeak, if I could have brought myself to think them expedient, would, if I had doubted before, have convinced me that securing a harbour for line-of-battle ships was not with you a primary and immediate object. In my letter of the 26th of May I informed your Excellency that, after destroying the stores at Richmond and the adjoining country, I should move back to Williamsburgh, keeping the army in readiness to comply with your further instructions. I arrived at that place on the 25th and on the 26th of June I received your despatches of the 11th and 15th of the same month, being the first letters that I received from yon since my arrival in Virginia. In the first you tell me New York is threatened to be attacked by a very numerous enemy, and, therefore, wishing to concentrate your force, you recommend to me to send a body of troops to you, as I can spare them, in the order mentioned in a list, unless I have engaged in operations in the Upper Chesapeak ; and in the despatch of the 15th, taking for granted that I have not engaged in those operations, you require that the embarkation of those troops may begin with the greatest despatch. After a full compliance with this requisition the force left under my command would have been about 2400 rank and file fit for duty, as will appear by the returns, which in a post adapted to that number I hoped would be sufficient for a defensive, and desultory water expeditions. You mention Williamsburgh and York in your letter of the 11th as defensive stations, but only as being supposed healthy, without deciding on their safety. Williamsburgh having no harbour, and requiring an army to occupy the position, would not have suited us. I saw that it would require a great deal of time and labour to fortify York and Gloucester, both of which are necessary to secure a harbour for vessels of any burden, and to effect it, assistance would have been wanted from some of the troops then under embarkation orders, which, when New York was in danger, I did not think myself at liberty to detain for any other purpose than operations in the Upper Chesapeak ; and supposing both places fortified, I thought they would have been dangerous defensive posts, either of them being easily accessible to the whole force of this province, and from their situation they would not have commanded an acre of country. I therefore, under these circumstances, with the most earnest desire to comply with what I thought were your present wishes, and to facilitate your intended future operations in Pennsylvania, did not hesitate in deciding to pass James River and to retire to Portsmouth, that I might be able to send you the troops required ; and I was confirmed in the propriety of the measure when, upon passing James River, I received your despatch informing me that for essential reasons you had resolved to make an attempt on Philadelpia and directing me to embark with the greatest expedition the same body of troops, with stores, &c., for that purpose. Having likewise executed this order with the utmost exertion and alacrity, I must acknowledge I was not prepared to receive in the next despatch from your Excellency, a severe censure for my conduct.
Immediately on receipt of your ciphered letter, I gave orders to the engineer to examine and survey Point Comfort and the channels adjoining to it. I have likewise visited it with the captains of the King's ships now lying in Hampton Road. I have the honour to enclose to you copies of the report of the engineer, and of the opinions of the captains of the navy on that object, with which my own entirely concurs; and I likewise transmit a survey of the peninsula made by the engineers, from which your Excellency will see that a work on Point Comfort would neither command the entrance, nor secure his Majesty's ships at anchor in Hampton Road. This being the case, I shall, in obedience to the spirit of your Excellency's orders, take measures with as much despatch as possible to seize and fortify York and Gloucester, being the only harbour in which we can hope to be able to give effectual protection to line-of-battle ships. I shall likewise use all the expedition in my power to evacuate Portsmouth and the posts belonging to it, but until that is accomplished it will be impossible for me to spare troops ; for York and Gloucester from their situation command no country, and a superiority in the field will not only be necessary to enable us to draw forage and other supplies from the country, but likewise to carry on our works without interruption.
Your Excellency having been pleased to disapprove of my going to South Carolina, I have sent General Leslie, who sailed on the 25th instant in the Carysfort, to take the command there.
I have the honour, &c.,
- Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, Vol I, Charles Ross, Esq., London, 1859