George Washington’s Thoughts on the Battle of Rhode Island

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by Gloria Schmidt

Previously published by Portsmouth History Notes at www.portsmouthhistorynotes.com. Republished with permission.

General Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, a 1776 portrait by Charles Willson Peale

What was George Washington’s view of the Battle of Rhode Island?

Washington wrote many letters in the days after the Battle. Letters he wrote to Lafayette and French commander D’Estaing were to smooth over hard feelings about the French withdrawal from Newport. In writing to General John Sullivan, Washington stressed that he wanted a healing of the French/American relationship: “The disagreement between the army under your command and the fleet has given me very singular uneasiness.” 1)

Washington’s letter to brother John Augustine Washington (dated September 23) provides us with a summary written on a personal level to someone not involved in the conflict. I had seen this quotation before, but a director of the Battle of Rhode Island Association brought it to our attention because it is such a thoughtful description.

“The whole may be summed up in a few words, and amounts to this: that an unfortunate storm (so it appeared, and yet ultimately it may have happened for the best,) and some measures taken in consequence of it by the French Admiral, perhaps unavoidably, blasted in one moment the fairest hopes that ever were conceived; and, from a moral certainty of success, rendered it a matter of rejoicing to get our own troops safe off the Island. If the garrison of that place, consisting of nearly six thousand men, had been captured, as there was, in appearance at least, a hundred to one in favor of it, it would have given the finishing blow to British pretensions of sovereignty over this country; ..” 2)

Washington is writing a personal letter to a younger brother. John Augustine Washington is an officer in the Virigina Militia, but his role is more administrative.

Washington writes about:

  1. “An unfortunate storm”: but he suggests it may have happened for the best!!
  2. Measures taken by a French Admiral blasted our “fairest hopes.”
  3. American plans “had a moral certainty of success.“
  4. Americans were “rejoicing to get our own troops safe off the island.”
  5. Had the 6,000 strong British been captured, “it would have given the finishing blow to British pretentions of sovereighty over this country.”

 

 

In short, the American plan was certain to succeed in capturing the British forces and ending British control over the colonies, but a storm led the French fleet to withdraw from Newport and we had to rejoice that we got our troops out of harms way.

Sources

References:

  1. Letter September 1, 1778 – Washington to General Sullivan.
  2. Letter September 23, 1778 – Washington to John Augustine Washington.
    The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890). Vol. VII (1778-1779).

Washington Portrait: General Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, a 1776 portrait by Charles Willson Peale

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