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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: Southern Phase, 1778-1781
Washington Foresees a British Offensive in the South, April 2, 1780

In the spring of 1780, Washington had intelligence that the British were about to make a big push in the South. In the first letter below, written to the Continental Congress, what is the choice of difficulties to which Washington refers? What does Washington propose to do? In the second letter, to General von Steuben, why does Washington place a condition on the recruitment of new regiments? What does this condition say about his concern for his officers?

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Washington to Continental Congress, April 2, 1780

Sir: Since I had the Honor of addressing Your Excellency on the 28th Ulto., I have received intelligence, which seems to place it beyond doubt, that the Enemy are about to make a further embarkation of Troops from New York, and the common opinion is, that they are going to reinforce Sir Henry Clinton. Lord Rawdon's brigade, said to consist of his own Regiment and of Brown's, Fanning's, and Another corps: Two Hessian Regiments and the 42d and Another British, estimated in the whole at about 2500 rank and file, are the Troops which will, according to report, make the embarkation. This intelligence, the probability there seems to be, that the Enemy will endeavour to push their operations with vigor at the Southward; the weak state of our force there and unhappily in this quarter also, have laid me under great embarrassments, with respect to the conduct that ought to be pursued. In considering the point a choice of difficulties occurs to our view. The Southern States it is to be apprehended may require much support, and while we attempt to afford it from hence, we run a serious risk in this quarter, from the facility with which the Enemy by the help of their fleet can unite their force at any point, where they find us weak. Congress will the better conceive in how delicate a situation we stand, when I inform them, that Our whole operating force present on this and on the other side of the North River, amounts to only Ten thousand four Hundred rank and file, of which about Two Thousand Eight Hundred will have completed their term of service by the last of May (Two thirds of it by the end of this Month) while the Enemy's regular force at New York and its dependencies must amount upon a moderate calculation to about Eleven Thousand rank and file. I inclose Congress a List of the Corps at New York, after the Detachment which sailed with Sir Henry Clinton, taken from Gaine's Register for the present Year. Our situation too is the more critical from the impossibility of concentring our force, as well for want of the means of taking the Field, as from the early period of the season. . . .

But notwithstanding these Objections perhaps something should be hazarded here, relying on the internal strength of the Country, for the purpose of giving further succour to the Southern States, where there is not the same dependence. I shall therefore put the Maryland line and the Delaware Regiment under marching Orders immediately, and have directed provision to be made for transporting them as far as Philadelphia, and propose their march, if practicable, should commence on the sailing of the Detachment from New York. But before the measure is carried into execution, I shall be happy to know the sense of Congress on its expediency. The consequences may be very important either way, and I wish to have their instructions for my government. . . .

If the Troops could embark without delay at the Head of Elk and arrive safe in James River, it would not only be a great ease to them; but it would expedite their arrival at the Southward, and prevent many Desertions which will probably happen, if they march thro' their State. But how far this mode of proceeding may be eligible, I will not pretend to determine; as the Enemy in case they should be advised of it, which every precaution of secrecy would be necessary to prevent, might, by sending Armed Vessels into the Bay, attempt to intercept them in their passage.

Washington to General von Steuben, April 2, 1780

My Dear Baron: I duly received your letter of the 15th. of March, which hurry of business has prevented my acknowledging sooner. Last Night brought me your favour of the 28th. The propositions made by you to Congress for the arrangement of the army this Campaign appears to me, upon the whole best adapted to our circumstances; and especially since so much of the season has elapsed without entering upon it I am glad the proposed incorporation has been suspended. I doubt however the practicability at this time of augmenting the cavalry or recruiting the additionals, from the circumstance you mentioned; the extreme distress of the treasury, which seems to be totally exhausted and without sufficient resources for the current demands of the service. The present crisis is indeed perplexing beyond description and it is infinitely difficult to devise a remedy.

When I approve your plan for the additional regiments, it is with one condition that Congress can find means to provide for the officers so as to put them upon an equal footing with the other parts of the army. If this cannot be done, they cannot continue in the service. I have incessant applications to this effect and have just written again to Congress on the subject. If the situation of the officers cannot be made more tolerable, it will be preferable to dissolve those corps, incorporate the men with the state lines and let the officers retire to be intitled to pay, subsistence and the emoluments decreed at the end of the war. This will be a very bad expedient if it can be avoided; but it is better than to leave the officers in such a state, that they must be miserable while they stay in the army; obliged in a little time the greatest part of them to quit, while the corps for want of care will rapidly decline and a number of good men be lost to the service.

Your anxiety on the score of Southern affairs cannot exceed mine. The measure of collecting the whole force for the defence of [Charles town] ought no doubt to have been well considered before it was determined. It is putting much to the hazard; but at this distance we can form a very imperfect judgment of its propriety or necessity. I have the greatest reliance on General Lincoln's prudence; but I cannot forbear dreading the event. Ill as we can afford a diminution of our force here and notwithstanding the danger we run from the facility with which the enemy can concentre their force at our weak points besides other inconveniences I have recommended it to Congress to detach the Maryland division to reinforce the Southern States. Though this detachment cannot in all probability arrive in season to be of any service to Charles Town, it may assist to check the progress of the enemy and save the Carolinas.

My sentiments concerning public affairs correspond too much with yours. The prospect my Dear Baron is gloomy and the storm thickens [sic]. Not to have the anxieties you express at the present juncture would be not to feel that zeal and interest in our cause, by which all your whole conduct shows you to be actuated. But I hope we shall extricate ourselves, and bring every thing to a prosperous issue. I have been so inured to difficulties in the course of this contest that I have learned to look upon them with more tranquility than formerly. Those which now present themselves no doubt require vigorous exertions to overcome them; [and I am far from dispairg. of doing it].
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View the original documents by clicking on the links above. Both documents are from the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.