Friday, May 11, 2012

Letters from the Front: Ebbing British Fortunes

"...while the French assist the Rebels with Arms, clothing & amunition they will not submit"

In January 1778, British General Robert Pigot, commanding the King's forces in Rhode Island, penned a letter to a friend in England that sheds a great deal of light on the British Army's attitude towards the war at that time. The previous campaign season had been a hard one: the defeat at Princeton on January 3, 1777, had set the year off on a mournful note, followed by frustrating defeats throughout the Jerseys as British and Hessian troops sought to gather forage and to force various mountain passes in order to close with Washington at Morristown. By June, General John Burgoyne's Army was on its way south to a rendezvous with unfortunate fate that would climax with the battles around Saratoga in the Fall. Likewise, General Sir William Howe's Army was preparing to sail for the Chesapeake, where it would eventually capture the rebel capital at Philadelphia, only to learn that their victory meant very little, particularly when set against Burgoyne's capture. Thus in January of 1778, British fortunes were at a low ebb. The remaining crown forces in America were spread throughout small enclaves ranging from Halifax, Nova Scota, to the North, down to Philadelphia in the South, barely able to control any territory in their hinterlands. American successes had brought further pressure to bear on the British Empire, as the French became more active in aiding the rebels, preparing to actively intervene with troops as well as boosting shipments of supplies. While the war would continue to rage for five more years, Pigot's letter (presented in full below) provides a poignant indication of how some officers saw the writing on the wall long before Yorktown. Our thanks to Library Research Assistant David Swain for this transcript.


Sol Feinstone Collection No. 2041
[Sir] Robert Pigot to Mrs. [____] Wagner, Newport, Rhode Island, 17 Jan. 1778
Transcribed by David Swain October 2011

Newport Rhode Island 17th Jany. 1778
Dear Madam
            I am very much obliged to you for your letter, and glad to hear that you and family are well. I congratulate you on Mr. Wagner’s being chosen one of the Sherifs of the City of London, but hope he won’t have so much plague trouble as they have had for some years past. The Hats I received, two of them are too big, and will not stay on my head, the other does tolerably well and I hope will last me till I have the pleasure of seeing you in England; but we have been so often disappointed as to the time, already, that it is difficult to say when it will happen. Appearances are not very much in its favour at present, & while the French assist the Rebels with Arms, clothing & amunition they will not submit We must have more Men, for most of our Army is

[pg 1]

Employed in guarding the different Towns we are in Possession of, & since Genl. Burgoyne’s Misfortune we have only one Army can take the field. The Ships have not yet been able to go to Boston, the Season of the year is against them, and the Congress has refused to let them march to this place and embark. They do every thing to Distress them and impose upon them shamefully. I wish they were once on board & out of their Clutches.  I beg my Compts. To Mr. Wagner & all the Family, believe me
Dear Madam
Yr. very Affectt. Cousen
& Humbl. Servt.
Rt. Pigot

[pg 2]

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