Washington Anticipates the Arrival of Count Rochambeau’s Expeditionary Force
General George Washington, preparing for a joint offensive with the French, awaits news of the arrival of Count Rochambeau’s expeditionary force and gives instructions to William Dobbs, a pilot who had agreed to act as a guide for the French Navy in navigating unfamiliar American waters.
GEORGE WASHINGTON. Letter Signed, to [Captain William Dobbs], July 11 [clerical error in text states June 11], 1780, Headquarters, Col. Theunis Dey’s House, [N.J.]. 1 p., 8 x 13¼ in. #21195 $37,500
Head Quarters 11th June [July] 1780
Its coming from New-York and from tolerable authority, that the french fleet have been seen and are hourly expected, you will be pleased to repair to this place, with all practicable dispach, bringing with you, such pilots, as may be acquainted with the navigation into the Harbour of New-York. If these are not at hand or in perfect readiness you will not delay on their account, but direct them to follow you.
I am Sir
Your obt & hble Servt.
William Dobbs was a pilot from Fishkill, New York. In 1779, Washington engaged Dobbs to act as a pilot for French Admiral Hector D’Estaing upon his arrival. This agreement was renewed, though the French Navy did not actually collaborate with the Continental Army until the famous Yorktown campaign of 1781. On May 2, 1780 Admiral de Ternay (d’Estaing having returned to France), in command of a division of seven ships, sailed from Brest, carrying a total of 6,000 men under the command of Lieutenant General de Rochambeau. Ternay’s orders specified Newport, Rhode Island, as his destination unless he found the island to be already occupied by the British. He arrived on July 12. For much of 1780 and early 1781, the French Navy and Rochambeau’s Expeditionary Army were bottled up in Newport, Rhode Island, by British blockade.
Washington, according to historian Joseph Ellis, envisioned collaboration between his army, Rochambeau, and the French Navy, but his real objective was New York City, the site of Washington’s most humiliating defeat to date. He could expunge his demons by delivering the decisive blow for American independence there. As Washington wrote to Nathanael Greene three days after this letter, he had “determined upon a plan of operations for the reduction of the City and Garrison of New York” with French assistance. He knew the French Navy would need skilled pilots, knowledgeable of the idiosyncrasies of the Hudson River and New York harbor, and Dobbs was ideal. As this letter shows, Washington wanted Dobbs to bring more pilots. On July 15, he dispatched the Marquis de Lafayette with a “Memorandum for Concerting a Plan of Operations” to Rochambeau, which detailed his plan to invest New York. Washington stated that it was “essential for us to be Masters of the Navigation of the No[rth, or Hudson]. River and of the [Long Island] Sound.”
Most of the consequential combat took place in the South in 1780. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton captured Charleston, South Carolina, on May 12, 1780, and left his chief subordinate, Lord Cornwallis, to subdue the Carolinas and protect Loyalists. Clinton returned to New York City on June 17 and received a message from the traitor Benedict Arnold, the American commandant of West Point, that Rochambeau’s troops were on their way to join the Patriot cause (they were not). Clinton therefore ordered an advance on Springfield, New Jersey, to occupy Washington and prevent any potential union. This advance, one of the last to take place in New Jersey, forced Washington to remain in New Jersey for most of July, making his headquarters at Colonel Dey’s home (located in present-day Wayne, New Jersey). Clinton also wanted to gain time for his troops to return from Charleston, after which he planned to launch an offensive in the Hudson Highlands, with Arnold’s treacherous assistance.
Joseph Ellis, His Excellency, George Washington. New York, 2004.
Washington to Greene, July 14, 1780, in Fitzpatrick, ed., Writings of Washington, 19:169.
Washington, “Memorandum for Concerting a Plan of Operations,” in Fitzpatrick, 19:174-76.
Research Note: This letter does not appear in Fitzpatrick’s Writings of Washington. The letterbook copy of this letter is in Washington’s papers in the Library of Congress. That copy is dated July 11 and addressed to Captain William Dobbs. Contextual evidence, such as the location of Washington’s headquarters for other letters written in June and July of 1780, makes it certain that the correct date of this letter is July 11, 1780, and that Washington’s aide-de-camp, who drafted this letter that was actually sent to Dobbs, misdated it.