Item of the Day: Letters to a Nobleman (1779)

Full Title: Letters to a Nobleman, on the Conduct of the War in the Middle Colonies. The Second Edition. London: Printed for J. Wilkie, No. 71, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, MDCCLXXIX. [1779]

LETTER I.

MY LORD,

THE pleasure I take in complying with your wishes, will not suffer me to postpone the performance of a promise I made, when I last had the honour of conversing with your Lordship.  If I remember right, it was to communicate my sentiments of the strength and practicability of the Middle Colonies where the late military operations have been carried on, — of the disposition of the people, in general, in the revolted Colonies, — and of the conduct of the late war in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. These are matters which intimately concern the public welfare, and with which your Lordship, as a senator, and the whole nation, who have expended many millions in that war, ought to be perfectly acquainted. Of these I shall therefore treat, in the order pointed out by your Lordship, without any other restraint than that which is imposed by condor and truth.

That part of the Middle Colonies which has been the scene of the late military operations, cannot, with the least propriety, in the military sense of the words, be called uncommonly strong, and much less impracticable. These operations have been chiefly confined between the mountains and the sea-coast southward of New York. In that part of America, the hills, when compared with those in this country, are by no means high or difficult of access. And there are few of them which do not afford an easy ascent either on one side or the other. Very unlike this country, where numerous hedges and high dykes form many bulwarks, for a time, proof even against cannon; there, neither hedges nor dykes are to be found. The fences are made of posts fixed in the ground, at ten feet distance, and in general with four or five cross rails, from nine to fifteen inches asunder. The country, which is thick settled and populous, every farmer living on his own plantation, not in villages, is interspersed with intermediate woods, and large plantations, or open fields. The wood consists of large tall trees, growing at different and considerable distances, without any underwood, and are easily scoured with cannon or musquetry [sic]. This is a true and exact state of that part of the country of New Jersey and Pennsylvania where the war has been carried on; and from this description, it may be easily determined how far it can be deemed strong or impracticable in respect to military operations.

But, my Lord, experience is the best instructor; and if we attend to it, we shall certainly obtain every necessary information. In this country, we have lately seen two armies, one meditating its conquest, the other its defence. We have seen the British army penetrating into its heart, in a circuit of near two hundred miles, from Long Island, by the White Plains, to Trenton, and from the Elk Ferry to Philadelphia, in defiance of the utmost efforts of an enemy perfectly acquainted with every advantageous spot of ground; and we have seen that army taking, with ease and little loss, every strong post possessed by the enemy, who have always fled at its approach. Surely a country where such operations have been performed with so little difficulty, cannot be deemed very strong or impracticable.

But the strength or impracticability of this country is lost in idea, when we compare it with the  sense of action in the last American war. That was in a country of thick woods, — full of vast mountains, high precipices, and strong defiles; yet an Amherst and a Wolfe led the British troops through it to conquest and to glory, against the utmost efforts of the French veterans. Though in strength it was equal to any of the countries in Europe, yet was it not so impracticable as to baffle the zeal of British Generals, who, unconnected with party, prized their own honour, and devoted their lives to the interest of their country and the glory of their Sovereign.

For my own part, I have no idea of any country being impracticable in respect to military operations. Nor, I believe, has any other person, who is acquainted with the history of war, or the conduct of great commanders. Did not an Hannibal and a Caesar cross the high mountains and strong defiles of the Alps? Have not Britons more than once victoriously traversed the strongest fortified countries of Germany, France, and Flanders? Is there a country in Europe which has not been pervaded by military skill and valour? No, my Lord, there is not. And I am confident I may adopt this proposition as true,  that every country, however strong, will afford mutual and alternate advantages to contending armies, while superior skill, force, and exertion alone, can ensure victory and success. Should an inferior enemy in his retreat take possession of a strong post, which it would be too great a risque to attack, military policy and experience will tell us, that his provsions my be cut off, — his army besieged or starved into a surrender, — or the other parts of the country be reduced, while he remains inactive in his post; and after that, he can no longer subsist. How then can a country in any military sense be deemed impracticable? To the Ancients, or to Britons till lately, such a sentiment was unknown. It is not to be found in the annals of military history. A British soldier should blush at finding a room for the thought in his heart, and much more at pronouncing it with his tongue. As the sentiment is as dangerous to military gallantry as it is novel, I trust that it has not made a deep impression on the minds of Britons. If it has, their honour will surely teach them to eradicate it. And were I to be arbitrary on the occasion, I would, for the sake of my country, erase the words strong and impracticable from every dictionary, lest it should be renewed to apologize for the military indolence and misconduct of men, who have sacrificed to party and faction their own honour, the glory of their Sovereign, and the dignity of the nation.

I have the honour to be,

My Lord,

Your Lordship’s most faithful

and obedient servant.

 

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Filed under 1770's, American Revolution, Great Britain, History, Letters, Military, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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