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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: Southern Phase, 1778-1781
Washington to John Laurens, April 9, 1781

In the spring of 1781, Washington wrote to his friend John Laurens about a number of matters. According to the following letter, what is Washington's assessment of the current military situation? Why do you suppose Washington wrote part of the letter in cipher (secret code)?

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My dear Laurens: Colo. Armand, who was charged with the delivery of many letters to you from the Marquis de la Fayette, imparting to his friends and the Ministry of France your mission, unfortunately arrived at Boston after you had Sailed from that place. By him I gave you an acct. of the revolt of part of the Jersey Troops; Arnolds Expedition to Virginia, Leslies arrival at Charles Town, and such other matters as occurred after your departure.

Since that period, several interesting events have happened; some favourable, others adverse. Among the first may be reckoned Morgans brilliant action with Tarleton; among the latter the advantages gained by Lord Cornwallis over General Greene. The official accts. of these I inclose you. Cornwallis, after the defeat of Tarleton destroyed his Waggons and made a violent effort to recover his prisoners; but failing therein moved equally light and rapidly against General Greene; who (though he had formed a junction with Morgan) was obliged to retreat before him into Virginia; whether from despair of recovering his prisoners, of bringing Greene to a general Action, or because he conceived his own situation critical, I do not take upon me to determine; but the fact is, that here commenced Cornwallis's retrograde movements; and Greenes advance; from the Roanoke to the place of Action.

On the first notice of the storm which happened on the 22d. of Jany. and its effects, I intimated to the French Genl. the possibility and importance of improving the oppertunity in an attempt upon Arnold. When I received a more certn. acct. of the total loss of the Culloden and the dismasting of the Bedford two 74 Gun ships belonging to the British Fleet at Gardners bay, I immediately put in motion, under the comd. of the Marqs. de la Fayette,as large a part of my small force here, as I could with prudence detach to proceed to the head of Elk, and made with all expedition a proposal to the Count de Rochambeau and the Chevalir. Destouches for a co-operation in Virginia, with the whole of the fleet of our Allies, and a part of their land force. Before my proposition arrived, in consequence of an application to him from Philadelphia, the Chevr. Destouches had sent a Ship of the line and two or three frigates to Chesapeak bay which not only retarded the plan I had proposed (by awaiting their return) but ultimately, defeated the project, as the enemy in the mean time remasted the Bedford with those taken out of the Culloden, and following the French fleet, arrived off the Capes of Virginia before it; where a Naval combat glorious for the French (who were inferior in Ships and Guns) but unprofitable for us who were disappointed of our object was the issue.

[The italicized part of the letter was written in cipher.] The failure of this Expedition, (which was most flattering in the commencement of it) is much to be regretted; because a successful blow in that quarter, would, in all probability, have given a decisive turn to our Affairs in all the Southern States. Because it has been attended with considerable expence on our part, and much inconvenience to the State of Virginia, by assembling its Militia; and because the World are disappointed at not seeing Arnold in Gibbets. above all, because we stood in need of something to keep us a float, till the result of your mission is known for be assured my dear Laurens, that day does not follow night more certainly, than it brings with it some additional proof of the impracticability of carrying on the War without the aids you were directed to sollicit. As an honest and candid man; as a man whose all depends on the final and happy termination of the present contest, I assert this. While I give it decisively as my opinion, that without a foreign loan our present force (which is but the remnant of an Army) cannot be kept together this Campaign; much less will it be encreased, and in readiness for another. The observations contained in my letter to you of the 15th. of Jany. last, are verified every moment; And if France delays, a timely, and powerful aid in the critical posture of our affairs it will avail us nothing should she attempt it hereafter; for we are at this hour, suspended in the Balle; not from choice, but from hard and absolute necessity; for you may rely on it as a fact, that we cannot transport the provisions from the States in which they are Assessed to the Army, because we cannot pay the Teamsters, who will no longer work for Certificates. It is equally certain, that our Troops are approaching fast to nakedness and that we have nothing to cloath them with. That our Hospitals are without medicines, and our Sick without Nutriment, except such as well men eat. That all our public works are at a stand, and the Artificers disbanding; but why need 1 run into the detail, when it may be declared in a word, that we are at the end of our tether, and that now or never our deliverance must come. While Alas! how easy would it be to retort the enemys own game upon them if it could be made to comport with the genl. plan of the War to keep a superior Fleet always in these Seas and France would put us in a conditn. to be active, by advancing us money. the ruin of the enemys schemes would then be certain; the bold game they are now playing would be the mean to effect it for they would be reduced to the necessity of concentering their force at capital points, thereby giving up all the advantages they have gained in the Southern States, or be vulnerable every where.

Such of the Pensylvania line as had reassembled, and were recruited say about 1000 were ordered the middle of Feby to join the Southern Army and since the disappointment of our enterprize on Arnold I have directed the detachment under the Cored. of the Marqs. de la Fayette to proceed thither but how either can march without money or credit, is more than I can tell.

With every wish for your success, and a safe and speedy return, and with every sentiment of esteem and Affection. I am etc.

P S. I have this instt. recd. a Pensyla. Paper of the 7th Instt. containing later accts. than any I have had from Genl. Greene, published by Order of Congress; this I also inclose to you. Be so good as to make my best respects to Doctr. Franklin.
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