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Correcting the Record: George Washington and the Hartford Conference, September 22, 1780

by Jeffrey Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
March 24, 2017

At a strategy conference in Hartford on September 22, 1780, with General Rochambeau and Admiral Ternay, George Washington replied to a question from the French commanders:

la Situation de l’amerique Rend absolument Necessaire que Ses allies lui pretent un Secours vigoureuse, et qu’a tant d’autres obligations, a tant d’autres preuves de Son genereux interest, Sa Majeste tres Chretienne ajoute celle s’aider les etats Unis en envoyant <encore> des vaisseaux, des hommes et de l’argennt.

Washington was requesting additional French reinforcements following Patriot defeats in the Southern states. He and the French commanders agreed to a strategy by which to win the war at Hartford.  Historians, however, have overlooked the Hartford conference because Benedict Arnold’s treason came to light a few days after it, and the few scholars who did study the conference misconstrued its principal document.

Quillimage

Image of the original manuscript courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Major General Lafayette penned the record of the conference in French. His document consists of two columns: in the left-hand column are ten queries from the French commanders, Rochambeau and Ternay, written in statement form and called “articles.” In the right-hand column are Washington’s corresponding responses (one of which opens this blog post), also in French. Rochambeau, Ternay, and Washington signed the document. Washington’s aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, produced a separate English translation of only the Rochambeau and Ternay articles, not Washington’s responses. However, until now, historians have identified this document as a contemporary translation of Washington’s responses to the articles, confusing the words of Rochambeau and Ternay with those of Washington.1

We will correct this mistake in volume 28 of the Revolutionary War Series. By publishing the original French document rather than Hamilton’s English translation, we will bring to light Washington’s actual responses to the articles. We will also attach a footnote to each response that will contain the corresponding article from Rochambeau and Ternay as translated by Hamilton, as well as an English summary of Wsshington’s responses. All that remains for us now is to determine which Rochambeau aide-de-camp penned a copy in the Rochambeau Papers at the Library of Congress, since we will be using it as a substitute for the obscured material in the original.

Washington strove to keep the Hartford conference secret and secure, concealing the true purpose of his trip to Connecticut from everyone but trusted officers like Benedict Arnold. On September 14, Washington wrote to Arnold:

I shall be at Peekskill on sunday evening on my way to Harford to meet the <F>rench Admiral and General. you will <be> pleased to send down a Guard of a <Ca>ptain and fifty at that time, and direct <th>e Qr Mr to endeavour to have a nights <f>orage for about 40 Horses. You will keep this to yourself, as I want <to> make my journey a secret.2

In response, Arnold assured Washington on September 16, “I have given Orders for the Guard request<ed> As also to the Quarter Master to furnish Forage at Mr Birdsall’s for the number of Horses mentioned in your Excellency’s Letter.”3

So, while preparing to betray West Point to the British, Arnold not only knew that the commander in chief would be separated from the principal Continental field army, but also that he had left in order to meet Rochambeau and Ternay. After his treason was revealed, Arnold claimed to have been motivated, in large part, by the conviction that Patriot leaders in both Congress and the Continental Army were turning America into a puppet of the French. And France, Arnold claimed, was even more despotic than Britain.

The chain of events Arnold set in motion after he absconded to the British culminated a year later in Yorktown, Virginia, far from New York City, the place Rochambeau, Ternay, and Washington had selected for the war’s decisive final battle.    Volume 28 of the Revolutionary War Series will deepen our understanding of Arnold’s treason, the alliance between France and the United States, and the subsequent course of the American Revolution by presenting, for the first time, an accurate, annotated transcription of the Hartford conference document.

 

Notes

1. See The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, 39 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-44), 20:76-78.

2. GW to Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold, 14 Sept., 1780, LS, NN: Harkness Collection; Df, DLC:GW. Obscured material is supplied from the draft manuscript in angle brackets.

3. Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold to GW, 16 Sept., 1780, ALS, DLC:GW.