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TO THE DUKE D'AYEN.
Camp Gulph, Pennsylvania, Dec. 16th, 1777.
This letter, if it ever reaches you, will find you at least in France; some hazards are averted by this circumstance, but I must not indulge in many hopes. I never write a letter for Europe without deploring before hand the fate most probably awaiting it, and I labour, undoubtedly, more for Lord Howe than for any of my friends. The bad season is fortunately drawing near; the English ships will be obliged to quit their confounded cruising stations; I may then receive letters, and forward them from hence with some degree of security; this will make me very happy, and will prevent my wearying you by a repetition of events which I wish you to be acquainted with, but which I do not wish to remind you of each time I write. I am very anxious for the account of your journey. I depend principally on Madame de Lafayette for its details; she well knows how interesting they will be to me. The Marshall de Noailles tells me, in general terms, that the letters he receives from Italy assure him the travellers are all in good health. From him I have also learnt the confinement of Madame Lafayette; he does not speak of it as if it were the happiest of all possible circumstances; but my anxiety was too keen to be able to make any distinction of sex; and by kindly writing to me, and giving me an account of the event, he rendered me far, far happier than he imagined, when he announced to me that I had only a daughter. The Rue de St. Honor? has now for ever lost its credit, whilst the other Hotel de Noailles has acquired new lustre by the birth of Adrian. It is truly an ill-proceeding on my part to throw that disgrace on a family from whom I have received so much kindness. You must now be freezing on the high roads of France; those of Pennsylvania are also very cold, and I endeavour vainly to persuade myself that the difference of latitude betwixt this and Paris ought to give us, comparatively speaking, a delightful winter: I am even told that it will be more severe. We are destined to pass it in huts, twenty miles from Philadelphia, that we may protect the country, be enabled to take advantage of every favourable opportunity, and also have the power of instructing the troops by keeping them together. It would, perhaps, have been better to have entered quietly into real winter quarters; but political reasons induced General Washington to adopt this half-way measure.
I wish I had sufficient skill to give you a satisfactory account of the military events passing in this country; but, in addition to my own incapacity, reasons, of which you will understand the weight, prevent my hazarding in a letter, exposed to the capture of the English fleet, a relation which might explain many things, if I had the happiness of conversing with you in person. I will, however, endeavour to repeat to you, once more, the most important events that have occurred during this campaign. My gazette, which will be more valuable from not containing my own remarks, must be preferable to the gazettes of Europe; because the man who sees with his own eyes, even if he should not see quite correctly, must always merit more attention than the man who has seen nothing. As to the gazettes which the English shower upon us, they appear to me only fit to amuse chairmen over their mugs of ale; and even these men must have indulged in liberal potations, not to perceive the falsehoods they contain. It seems to me that the project of the English ministry was to cut in a line that part of America which extends from the bay of Chesapeak to Ticonderoga. General Howe was ordered to repair to Philadelphia by the Elk river; Burgoyne to descend to Albany, and Clinton to ascend from New York by the North river: the three generals might in this manner have joined hands; they would have received, or pretended to receive, the submission of the alleged conquered provinces; we should only have retained for our winter quarters the interior of the country, and have depended solely for our resources on the four southern states. An attack on Charlestown may also, perhaps, have been intended: in the opinion of the cabinet of the King of England, America was thus almost conquered. Providence fortunately permitted some alterations to take place in the execution of this finely-conceived project--to exercise, probably, for some time, the constancy of the British nation.
When I arrived at the army, in the month of August, I was much astonished at not finding any enemies. After having made some marches into Jersey, where nothing occurred, General Howe embarked at New York. We were encamped, and expecting their descent, on the Chester side, when we learnt that they were at the mouth of the Elk river. General Washington marched to meet them, and after having taken up several stations, resolved to wait their arrival upon some excellent heights on the Brandywine stream. The 11th of September the English marched to attack us; but whilst they were amusing us with their cannon, and several movements in front, they suddenly detached the greater part of their troops, the choicest men of their army, with the grenadiers, under the command of General Howe, and Lord Cornwallis, to pass a ford four miles distant on our right. As soon as General Washington became aware of this movement, he detached his whole right wing to march towards them. Some unfounded reports, which had all the appearance of truth, and which contradicted the first accounts received, arrested for a length of time the progress of that wing, and when it arrived, the enemy had already crossed the ford. Thus it became necessary to engage in an open field with an army superior in numbers to our own. After having for some time sustained a very brisk fire, though many were killed on the side of the English, the Americans were obliged to give way. A portion of them was rallied and brought back: it was then that I received my wound. In a word, to cut the matter short, everything went on badly on both sides, and General Washington was defeated--because he could not gain the first general battle which had been fought during the war. The army reassembled at Chester; but having been carried to a distance from it, I have not been able to follow its different movements. General Howe took advantage of the disorder which a tremendous rain had occasioned in our army to pass the Schuylkill; he repaired to Philadelphia, to take possession of it, and stationed himself between that town and Germantown. General Washington attacked him on the 4th of October; and we may assert that our general beat theirs, although their troops defeated ours, since he surprised him, and even drove back the English for some time; but their experience proved again triumphant over our unpractised officers and soldiers. Some time before this event, an American brigadier, placed in detachment on the other side of the river, had been attacked at night in his camp, and had lost some of his men. These are the only important events which took place on our side during the six weeks that I was absent from the camp, whilst obliged to keep my bed from my unclosed wound: at that time we received good news of General Burgoyne. When I first rejoined the army, whilst General Howe was on the water, I learnt that Ticonderoga had been precipitately abandoned by the Americans, leaving there several cannons and a quantity of ammunition. This success inflamed the pride of General Burgoyne, and he issued a pompous proclamation, for which he has since paid very dearly. His first act was to send a detachment, which was repulsed; he was not, however, discouraged, but marched on, through immense forests, in a country which contained but a single road. General Gates had under his orders fifteen or sixteen thousand men, who distressed the enemy by firing upon them from behind the trees. Whether conqueror or conquered, General Burgoyne's force became gradually weakened, and every quarter of a league cost him many men. At length, surrounded on all sides, and perishing with hunger, he was obliged to enter into a convention, in virtue of which he was conducted by the New England militia into that same state of Massachusets in which it had been asserted in London he was to take up his winter quarters. From thence he is to be conveyed, with whatever troops he may have remaining, to England, at the expense of the king his master. Ticonderoga has been since evacuated by the English.
General Clinton, who had set out rather late from New York, after having taken and destroyed Fort Montgomery, on the north river, endeavoured to reach the rear of Gates; but, hearing of the convention, he returned on the same road by which he had advanced. If he had been more rapid in his march, the affairs of General Gates would not have ended so fortunately.
When my wound permitted me, after the space of six weeks, to rejoin the army, I found it stationed fifteen miles from Philadelphia; our northern reinforcements had arrived; General Howe was much incommoded by two forts, one on the Jersey side, the other on the little Island of Mud, that you will find on your map, below the Schuylkill. These two forts defended the chevaux de frise of the Delaware; they held out for a long time, against all the efforts of the English troops, both by sea and land. Two young Frenchmen, who were acting there as engineers, acquired much glory by their conduct; MM. de Fleury, of the regiment of Rouergue, and Mauduit Duplessis, who had also at the same time the command of the artillery: he is an artillery officer in France. Some Hessians, commanded by Count Donop, attacked the fort in which Mauduit was stationed, and were repulsed with considerable loss. Count Donop was taken and received a mortal wound. These forts, after having made a vigorous resistance, were at length evacuated. Lord Cornwallis then passed into Jersey with five thousand men. The same number of our troops was stationed there, under one of our major-generals. As I was only a volunteer, I went to reconnoitre the ground, and having met, accidentally, with a detachment near the enemy's post, the good conduct of my soldiers rendered an imprudent attack justifiable. We were told that his lordship had been wounded. He then again re-crossed the river, and we also did the same. Some days afterwards our army assembled at Whitemarsh, thirteen miles from Philadelphia. The whole army of General Howe advanced to attack us: but having examined our position on every side, they judged it more prudent to retire during the night, after four days of apparent hesitation. We then executed the project of crossing over on this side of the Schuylkill, and after having been delayed on the opposite side, from finding on this shore a part of the enemy's army, (although they only fired a few cannon balls at us,) they left us a free passage the next day, and we shall all repair unto our huts for the winter.
Whilst remaining there, the American army will endeavour to clothe itself, because it is almost in a state of nudity,--to form itself, because it requires instruction,--and to recruit itself, because it is feeble; but the thirteen states are going to rouse themselves and send us some men. My division will, I trust, be one of the strongest, and I will exert myself to make it one of the best. The actual situation of the enemy is by no means an unpleasant one; the army of Burgoyne is fed at the expense of the republic, and the few men they may obtain back, for many will be lost upon the road, will immediately be replaced by other troops; Clinton is quite at ease in New York, with a numerous garrison; General Howe is paying court to the belles of Philadelphia. The liberty the English take of stealing and pillaging from friends as well as foes, places them completely at their ease. Their ships at present sail up to the town, not, however, without some danger, for, without counting the ship of sixty-four guns and the frigate which were burnt before the forts, and without counting all those that I trust the ice will destroy, several are lost every day on the difficult passage they are obliged to undertake.
The loss of Philadelphia is far from being so important as it is conceived to be in Europe. If the differences of circumstances, of countries, and of proportion between the two armies, were not duly considered, the success of General Gates would appear surprising when compared to the events that have occurred with us,--taking into account the superiority of General Washington over General Gates. Our General is a man formed, in truth, for this revolution, which could not have been accomplished without him. I see him more intimately than any other man, and I see that he is worthy of the adoration of his country. His tender friendship for me, and his complete confidence in me, relating to all military and political subjects, great as well as small, enable me to judge of all the interests he has to conciliate, and all the difficulties he has to conquer. I admire each day more fully the excellence of his character, and the kindness of his heart. Some foreigners are displeased at not having been employed, (although it did not depend on him to employ them)--others, whose ambitious projects he would not serve,--and some intriguing, jealous men, have endeavoured to injure his reputation; but his name will be revered in every age, by all true lovers of liberty and humanity; and although I may appear to be eulogising my friend, I believe that the part he makes me act, gives me the right of avowing publicly how much I admire and respect him. There are many interesting things that I cannot write, but will one day relate to you, on which I entreat you to suspend your judgment, and which will redouble your esteem for him.
America is most impatiently expecting us to declare for her, and France will one day, I hope, determine to humble the pride of England. This hope, and the measures which America appears determined to pursue, give me great hopes for the glorious establishment of her independence. We are not, I confess, so strong as I expected, but we are strong enough to fight; we shall do so, I trust, with some degree of success; and, with the assistance of France, we shall gain, with costs, the cause that I cherish, because it is the cause of justice,--because it honors humanity,--because it is important to my country,--and because my American friends, and myself, are deeply engaged in it. The approaching campaign will be an interesting one. It is said that the English are sending us some Hanoverians; some time ago they threatened us with, what was far worse, the arrival of some Russians. A slight menace from France would lessen the number of these reinforcements. The more I see of the English, the more thoroughly convinced I am, that it is necessary to speak to them in a loud tone.
After having wearied you with public affairs, you must not expect to escape without being wearied also with my private affairs. It is impossible to be more agreeably situated than I am in a foreign country. I have only feelings of pleasure to express, and I have each day more reason to be satisfied with the conduct of the congress towards me, although my military occupations have allowed me to become personally acquainted with but few of its members. Those I do know have especially loaded me with marks of kindness and attention. The new president, Mr. Laurens, one of the most respectable men of America, is my particular friend. As to the army, I have had the happiness of obtaining the friendship of every individual; not one opportunity is lost of giving me proofs of it. I passed the whole summer without accepting a division, which you know had been my previous intention; I passed all that time at General Washington's house, where I felt as if I were with a friend of twenty years' standing. Since my return from Jersey, he has desired me to choose, amongst several brigades, the division which may please me best; but I have chosen one entirely composed of Virginians. It is weak in point of numbers at present, just in proportion, however, to the weakness of the whole army, and almost in a state of nakedness; but I am promised cloth, of which I shall make clothes, and recruits, of which soldiers must be made, about the same period; but, unfortunately, the last is the most difficult task, even for more skilful men than me. The task I am performing here, if I had acquired sufficient experience to perform it well, would improve exceedingly my future knowledge. The major-general replaces the lieutenant-general, and the field-marshal, in their most important functions, and I should have the power of employing to advantage, both my talents and experience, if Providence and my extreme youth allowed me to boast of possessing either. I read, I study, I examine, I listen, I reflect, and the result of all is the endeavour at forming an opinion, into which I infuse as much common sense as possible. I will not talk much, for fear of saying foolish things; I will still less risk acting much, for fear of doing foolish things; for I am not disposed to abuse the confidence which the Americans have kindly placed in me. Such is the plan of conduct which I have followed until now, and which I shall continue to follow; but when some ideas occur to me, which I believe may become useful when properly rectified, I hasten to impart them to a great judge, who is good enough to say that he is pleased with them. On the other hand, when my heart tells me that a favourable opportunity offers, I cannot refuse myself the pleasure of participating in the peril, but I do not think that the vanity of success ought to make us risk the safety of an army, or of any portion of it, which may not be formed or calculated for the offensive. If I could make an axiom, with the certainty of not saying a foolish thing, I should venture to add that, whatever may be our force, we must content ourselves with a completely defensive plan, with the exception, however, of the moment when we may be forced to action, because I think I have perceived that the English troops are more astonished by a brisk attack than by a firm resistance.
This letter will be given you by the celebrated Adams, whose name must undoubtedly be known to you. As I have never allowed myself to quit the army, I have not been able to see him. He wished that I should give him letters of introduction to France, especially to yourself. May I hope that you will have the goodness of receiving him kindly, and even of giving him some information respecting the present state of affairs. I fancied you would not be sorry to converse with a man whose merit is so universally acknowledged. He desires ardently to succeed in obtaining the esteem of our nation. One of his friends himself told me so.
- General Lafayette