General George Washington Writes Major General McDougall, Stationed at West Point, Announcing the Foundering of the Hated HMS Somerset and His Hopes for the Destruction of a Large Element the British Fleet

With the Somerset in mind, he has hopes the British fleet may be seriously damaged in storms

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He reports to McDougall on the movements of the Count d’Estaing and the the French Fleet, on which he had pinned his hopes; He also issues orders sending two generals and part of the Continental Army into winter quarters

An alliance between France and the fledgling United States was negotiated by Benjamin...

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General George Washington Writes Major General McDougall, Stationed at West Point, Announcing the Foundering of the Hated HMS Somerset and His Hopes for the Destruction of a Large Element the British Fleet

With the Somerset in mind, he has hopes the British fleet may be seriously damaged in storms

He reports to McDougall on the movements of the Count d’Estaing and the the French Fleet, on which he had pinned his hopes; He also issues orders sending two generals and part of the Continental Army into winter quarters

An alliance between France and the fledgling United States was negotiated by Benjamin Franklin, but it progressed slowly until after news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga arrived in France. French hesitancy dissipated, and on February 6, 1778, two treaties were signed. The first recognized the independence of the United States and established commercial relations between the two nations; the second was a military alliance. This alliance meant open support from the French Army, Navy and Treasury to the American cause, and would ultimately prove decisive.

George Washington was elated by the news, and he eagerly awaited the arrival of the French to commence a campaign against the British in New York in the summer of 1778. But for months he was disappointed. The French fleet under the Count d’Estaing finally appeared off Newport, R.I. in late July, and on August 5, 1778, the British burned six frigates in order to prevent their falling into the hands of the French. Events seemed favorable for the capture of the British force occupying Newport, which would be a blow to Britain and an encouragement to American hopes; but delays and lack of coordination between the two commanders prevented united action.The appearance of the British fleet, and a subsequent storm in which several of the French vessels were seriously damaged, led to their withdrawal to Boston for repairs, and the campaign Washington had planned for terminated without success.

As October turned to November, with winter weather already upon them, both the French and British fleets felt the need to follow the common practice of abandoning the stormy North Atlantic for warmer and calmer waters. On the third day of November, British General Sir Henry Clinton dispatched transports carrying 5,000 men from New York City; their destination, and the significance of their movements, were at first unknown. On November 4, French Admiral D’Estaing eased his fleet from the harbor at Boston heading along a southerly course. Their common objective, as it turned out, was St. Lucia in the Caribbean. The alliance with France was essential, but the debacle at Newport and failure to launch a campaign against New York City convinced Washington from a military standpoint that French military intervention would be only, “as convenient to the purpose of France.” But Washington and others nevertheless remained hopeful that French intervention would ultimately bear fruit, either by forcing the British to evacuate New York City or by creating an opportunity for the conquest of Canada. In the meantime, in October and November, Washington and the Continental Army made their headquarters at Fredericksburg, N.Y.

So in early November, Washington attentively followed reports of British fleet and troop movements. At first these pointed to an impending evacuation of New York City, but by mid-November it become apparent that General Clinton had no intention of abandoning the city. Instead, he had dispatched amphibious expeditions not only to St. Lucia in the West Indies, but to Pensacola, Florida and Savannah, Georgia. The Savannah expedition, which resulted in the capture of that city on December 29, marked the beginning of a British campaign to conquer the southern states, which would last until the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781.

Also on Washington’s mind was the army’s imminent dispersal from its camp at Fredericksburg to winter cantonments elsewhere in New York, Connecticut, and in New Jersey. Washington himself would end up in Philadelphia, where he spent six weeks as the guest of the President of Congress, Henry Laurens.

The HMS Somerset was a flagship of the British Navy. In the autumn of 1777, HMS Somerset took part in the Siege of Fort Mifflin in which the British successfully captured the river forts on the Delaware River. HMS Somerset’s luck ran out at the end of 1778. She was battered by gales in August. While pursuing a French squadron, she ran aground in a 2 November 1778 gale on Peaked Hill Bars off Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Letter signed, “Head Quarters Fredericksburg”, N.Y., November 14, 1778, to General Alexander McDougall, telling him the French fleet is gone, discussing the wreck of the HMS Somerset, and issuing orders to put a portion of the Continental Army into winter quarters. McDougall was stationed in the Highlands of the Hudson as the commander of American forces there, and would take over as commander at West Point after Benedict Arnold’s treason. The body of the letter in the hand of Washington’s Aide-de-Camp, Caleb Gibbs.

“Dear Sir, I have your favor of the 9th and 13th. I think it will be on every account better for the officers of the Connecticut line, to take their places as they were posted by the new arrangement, and I desire that Generals [Jedediah] Huntington and [Samuel] Parsons may do it. I have received advices from Boston that the Somerset of 64 guns, one of [British] Admiral Byron’s Fleet, went on shore on Cape Cod in a gale of wind the 31st last month. The officers & crew (except 40 or 50 drowned) are prisoners. It is said that three or four more ships were seen in extreme distress. If the Fleet had not made a port before the Storm of the 11th and that of last night we may conclude that they cannot be in a very agreeable situation. They had not got into Newport on the 10th. Count d’Estaing put to sea with his whole Fleet on the 4th of this month.”

Washington’s hopes that storms had harmed the British fleet did not pan out. As for Parsons, he had just finished fortifying West Point, and would winter with Connecticut troops in their home state. Huntington was in command of the four regiments in the 2nd Brigade of the Connecticut Division and did the same.

Admiral Byron would soon unsuccessfully attack the French fleet in the Indies. He was the grandfather of the poet, Lord Byron. The Somerset was one of Britain’s star fighting ships, with 64 guns and a well-trained and experienced crew, and was on hand at the outset of hostilities between the British and the colonists at Lexington and Concord. No doubt, the Somerset is best known through its mention in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famed poem,“Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”: “And I on the opposite shore will be, Ready to ride and spread the alarm, Through every Middlesex village and farm, For the country folks be up and arm. Then he said, Good-night with a muffled oar, silently rowed to the Charlestown shore, Just as the Moon rose over the bay, Where swinging wide at her moorings lay, The Somerset, British man-of-war: A phantom ship with each mast and spar, Across the moon like a prison bar, And the Huge black hulk, that was magnified, By its own reflection in the tide…”

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