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Colonial and State Records of North Carolina
Letter from Thomas Burke to Horatio Gates
Burke, Thomas, ca. 1747-1783
September 13, 1780
Volume 15, Pages 776-779


Tyaquin, Sept. 13th, 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 desire my presence. I am very apprehensive of incurring the censure of annoyance 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 opinion which I shall now give in writing, for you will know the difference

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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 Cape Fear 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, of the most eligible disposition to be made of the forces under your Command.

Without animadverting on the mode and channel by which this Information 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 supersede the presumptions which, from probabilities, may arise against it. The Credit it merits, in my opinion, depends on the probability of the Enemy's adopting such measures, and that probability, again, or 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 for flats; the distance is above one hundred miles; the country to the Southward of this River is composed of a ridge of Land running between the River and an extensive lake and marsh; to the Northward lies a large Sound, which divides the seacoast from the rest of the country and extending nearly to the confines of Virginia. Into this Sound several large Rivers running parallel to Cape Fear River discharge 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 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 Enemy's present position is more eligible than 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 & James River in Virginia, except 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

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lying to the Westward than that through the lower Country intersected as it is by many deep Rivers, I conclude that by adopting the measures mentioned in your Information they would give up advantages for difficulties. If by co-operation be meant making diversions and engaging our force upon distant and separate object, this end would not be so well answered in their taking a position on Cape Fear as by carrying on operations in the Western Country—fewer troops would limit their progress, or straiten their Quarters in a country full of Swamps and Rivers than in an open Country. Nor is the object at Cape Fear 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 abandoning Cambden 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, or the sound and its inlets, and by a post at Portsmouth, the navigation of Chesapeak, 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 could 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 greater force could appear amongst them, which must be by difficult marches; all to the Eastward of them 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 dare to 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; to conclude, as the object is of more apparent advantage to them, and injury to us, they will not forego it for anything they could gain by adopting the measures contained in your information

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—and I will only repeat that opinion which I have so often declared in conversation with you: that the most useful disposition that can be made of the Forces under your Command is to occupy a strong Camp somewhere on the Yadkin River, or, its continuation, the Pee Dee, 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 prostrate the Country, and to keep several strong compact detachments of light Troops well advanced to cover the Country and overawe 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 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.

Yours, &c.,