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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Letter from Thomas Burke to Horatio Gates
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
September 15, 1780
Volume 14, Pages 618-621


Tyaquin Sepr. 15th, 1780.

I have, in Consequence of your Earnest request, ventured to commit to writing my sentiments on the subject proposed by you to your Council of Officers, at which you desired my presence. I am very apprehensive of incurring the Censure of Arrogance and presumption for this compliance, because I am not of the Military profession, and my Ideas of the affairs of War are drawn only from reflection unassisted by Experience. You will I doubt not, Acquit me, altho I have Often, in Conversation, pressed the Opinions which I shall now give in writing; for you well know the difference between Conversing and writing on Subjects of which we do not profess ourselves Masters.

The purport of your Intelligence is

“that the Enemy intend to remove their Troops, except a small garrison, from Cambden and embarque them for Capefear River; that Lord Cornwallis has applied for reinforcements, to be landed at Portsmouth in Virginia, in order to Co-operate with the force Supposed to be destined for Cape Fear.”

You request my Sentiments, first, on the Credit to be given to this Intelligence, and next on the most eligible disposition to be made of the forces under your Command.

Without animadverting on the mode and Channel by which this Intelligence has reached you, give me leave to Observe that it only speaks of intended Measures, not of any Movements actually made: and that it is not so conclusive, in any Circumstance, as to supercede the presumptions, which, from probabilities, may arise against it. The Credit it merits, in my Opinion,

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depends on the probability, of the Enemy's Adopting such measures, and that probability, again, on the advantage they could derive from them. This, then, must be examined.

Cape fear river will admit no larger vessel than a twenty gun Ship. Its Navigation from Wilmington to Cross Creek is only 8 flats; the distance is above One hundred miles. The Country to the Southward of this River is Composed of a ridge of Sand running between the river and an extensive Lake and Marsh; to the Northward lies a large Sound which divides the Sea Coast from the rest of the Country, and extends nearly to the Confines of Virginia. Into this Sound, several large Rivers, running parallel to Cape fear river, empty themselves; and some small inlets give admittance to small vessels from the Sea. The march across this Country must be extremely difficult and hazardous, and it seems to me to be more easy to go round the heads of the Rivers with an Army than to march across them. If I am right in this, the present position of the Enemy is more eligible than one on Cape fear River, because they are already advanced beyond the heads of the rivers that might obstruct them, and the Country lies open between them and James' River in Virginia___excepting only the opposition that might be given them in passing the Yadkin and Roanoke; and they are advanced beyond the first fords of these. If, by Co-operation, they mean marching in order to form a Junction, their difficulties being much fewer in the march that might be made through the open Country lying to the Westward than that through the low marshy Country, intersected as it is by many deep rivers, I conclude that by adopting the measures mentioned in your information it would give up advantages for difficulties. If, by Cooperation be meant making diversions, and engaging our force on distant and separate objects, this End would not be so well answered by their taking a post on Cape fear river as by Carrying on Operations in the Western Country; fewer troops would limit their progress and straiten their Quarters in a Country full of Swamps and rivers than in an Open Country; nor is the object at Capefear so important as the Command of South Carolina, and the back part of North Carolina, the former of which they possess by their present position and the latter they may hope for; but both must be abandoned by their

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abandoning Campden, or leaving it so weakly garrisoned that it must fall into our hands. If their object be the possession of the Navigation of Cape fear river, of the South and its inlets, and by a post at Portsmouth the Navigation of Chesapeake, this they may at any time possess themselves of, by means of their fleet, without giving up their acquisition of South Carolina. If superior at Sea, they can hold them; if not, the possession would be fruitless. In my Opinion it is an object of greater Consequence to the Enemy to Cut off the Communication between the Western and Eastern parts of North Carolina. By this means they will not only detach from the forces of the United States a large tract of fine, populous Country, but avail themselves of its resources against them, by advancing a post to the strong grounds on the Yadkin. In my Opinion they would compel all to the westward of them to lay down their Arms, and each individual to take care of his family, at least until an Army of great force could appear amongst them, which must be by difficult marches. All to the Eastward of the Yadkin, as far as Haw river, is for far the greater part inhabited by the disaffected, who would not fail, when supported by the Enemy's post on the Yadkin, to spread Devastation as far as they durst venture, which would probably be as low down as Granville and Wake Counties. Thus the two most populous districts of this State would be lost to the Common Cause. I will not pursue the Consequences farther; but conclude, as the object is of more apparent advantage to them and Injury to us, the Enemy will not forego it for any thing they could gain by adopting the measures contained in your Information. And I will only repeat that Opinion which I have so often declared in Conversation with you, that the most useful disposition to be made of the forces under your Command is to Occupy a strong Camp some where on the Yadkin, or its Continuation, the Pee Dee River, in such a manner as to be Able to command the flank of the Enemy, and to fall in their rear should they attempt to penetrate the Country; and to keep several Strong, Compact detachments of light Troops well advanced to Cover the Country and over awe and gall the detachments of the Enemy.

These Opinions, such as they are, are at your Service, and if I was in Capacity, by avowing them, to keep from you all the censures that might follow their Consequences, I would cheerfully

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undertake it, on Condition of their being the foundation of your Measures: for, I am but too Strongly persuaded that on them will depend the defence or abandonment of this unhappy State.

I am, Sir, with Esteem and regard,
Your very obt. humble
Honble. Maj. General Gates.