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WASHINGTON DIRECTS A DESCENT ON RHODE ISLAND.
D REVIOUS to evacuating Philadelphia, Clinton had I received notice from his government that, in con
sequence of the alliance between France and the United States, a new plan of operations had been determined on. The French were to be attacked in their West Indian possessions by way of diversion from the main scene of action. Five thousand men were detached from his army to aid in the execution of this purpose, and 3,000 were sent to Florida. Clinton was also apprised that a French fleet would probably appear in the Delaware and thus prevent any possibility of his leaving Philadelphia by water. Hence his sudden departure from Philadelphia with the remainder of his forces. He was only just in time to save his army and Lord Howe's fleet.
On the 5th of July (1778), the day on which the British army arrived at New York, the Count D'Estaing, with a French fleet, appeared on the coast of Virginia.
In the month of March the French ambassador in London, by order of his government, notified to the British court the treaties entered into between France and America. In a few days afterward he quitted London without the ceremony of taking leave, and about the same time the British ambassador left Paris in a similar manner. This was considered equivalent to a declaration of war,
and although war was not actually declared, yet both parties diligently prepared for hostilities.
The French equipped at Toulon a fleet of twelve sail of the line and six frigates, and gave the command to Count D'Estaing, who, with a considerable number of troops on board, sailed on the 13th of April (1778); but meeting with contrary winds he did not reach the coast of America till the 5th of July. He expected to find the British army in Philadelphia and the fleet in the Delaware, and if this expectation had been realized the consequences to Britain must have been calamitous. But the British fleet and army were at Sandy Hook or New York before the French fleet arrived on the coast.
Count D'Estaing touched at the capes of the Delaware on the 5th of July, and on learning that the British had evacuated Philadelphia, he dispatched one of his frigates up the river with M. Gerard, the first minister from France to the United States, and then sailed for Sandy Hook.
Washington received intelligence of D'Estaing's arrival in a letter from the President of Congress while he was at Paramus. The next day he received a second letter on the same subject, inclosing two resolutions —one directing him to co-operate with the French admiral and the other authorizing him to call on the States from New Hampshire to New Jersey, inclusive, for such aids of militia as he might deem necessary for the operations of the allied arms. He determined to proceed immediately to White Plains, whence the army might co-operate with more facility in the execution of any attempt which might be made by the fleet, and dispatched Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens, one of his aides-de-camp, with all the information relative to the enemy, as well as to his own army, which might be useful to D'Estaing. Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens was authorized to consult on future conjoint opera
tions, and to establish conventional signals for the purpose of facilitating the communication of intelligence.
The French admiral, on arriving off the Hook, dispatched Major de Choisi, a gentleman of his family, to Washington for the purpose of communicating fully his views and his strength. His first object was to attack New York. If this should be found impracticable, he was desirous of turning his attention to Rhode Island. To assist in coming to a result on these enterprises, Washington dispatched Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, another of his aides-de-camp, with such further communications as had been suggested by inquiries made since the departure of Laurens.
Fearing that the water on the bar at the entrance of the harbor was not of sufficient depth to admit the passage of the largest ships of the French fleet without much difficulty and danger, Washington had turned his attention to other objects which might be eventually pursued. General Sullivan, who commanded the troops in Rhode Island,
against Newport, and Lafayette was detached with two brigades to join him at Providence. The next day Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton returned to camp with the final determination of the Count D'Estaing to relinquish the meditated attack on the fleet in the harbor of New York, in consequence of the impracticability of passing the bar.
General Greene was immediately ordered to Rhode Island, of which State he was a native, and LieutenantColonel Laurens was directed to attach himself to the French admiral and to facilitate all his views by procuring whatever might give them effect, after which he was to act with the army under Sullivan.
Writing to the President of Congress (August 3, 1778), Washington says: “As the army was encamped and there was no great prospect of a sudden removal, I judged it advisable to send General Greene to the eastward on Wednesday last, being fully persuaded his services, as well in the quartermaster line as in the field, would be of material importance in the expedition against the enemy in that quarter. He is intimately acquainted with the whole of that country, and, besides, he has an extensive interest and influence in it. And, in justice to General Greene, I take occasion to observe that the public is much indebted to him for his judicious management and active exertions in his present department. When he entered upon it, he found it in a most confused, distracted, and destitute state. This, by his conduct and industry, has undergone a very happy change and such as enabled us, with great facility, to make a sudden move, with the whole army and baggage, from Valley Forge, in pursuit of the enemy, and to perform a march to this place. In a word, he has given the most general satisfaction, and his affairs carry much the face of method and system. I also consider it as an act of justice to speak of the conduct of Colonel Wadsworth, commissary-general. He has been indefatigable in his exertions to provide for the army, and, since his appointment, our supplies of provision have been good and ample."
We copy this extract from Washington's correspondence because it does justice to Greene and gives us information of the favorable change which had taken place in the condition of the army since its dreary sojourn at Valley Forge.
The resolution being taken to proceed against Rhode Island, the fleet got under way and on the 25th of July (1778) appeared off Newport and cast anchor about five miles from that place; soon after which General Sullivan visited D’Estaing and concerted with him a plan of operations. The fleet was to enter the harbor and land the French troops on the west side of the island, a little to the north of Dyer's Island. The Americans were to land at the same time on the opposite coast under cover of the guns of a frigate.
A delay of several days now took place on account of the tardiness of the neighboring militia in joining Sullivan's army.
As the militia of New Hampshire and Massachusetts approached, Sullivan joined Greene at Tiverton and it was agreed with the admiral that the fleet should enter the main channel immediately (August 8th), and that the descent should be made the succeeding day. The French fleet passed the British batteries and entered the harbor without receiving or doing any considerable damage.
The militia not arriving precisely at the time they were expected, Sullivan could not hazard the movement which had been concerted, and stated to the Count the necessity of postponing it till the next day. Meanwhile the preparations for the descent being perceived, General Pigot drew the troops which had been stationed on the north end of the island into the lines at Newport..
On discovering this circumstance the next morning, Sullivan determined to avail himself of it and to take immediate possession of the works which had been abandoned. The whole army crossed the east passage and landed on the north end of Rhode Island. This movement gave great offense to D'Estaing who resented the indelicacy supposed to have been committed by Sullivan in landing before the French and without consulting him.
Unfortunately some difficulties on subjects of mere punctilio had previously arisen. D’Estaing was a land as well as sea officer, and held the high rank of lieutenant-general in the service of France. Sullivan being