George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 6 November 1776

To John Hancock

White plains Novr the 6th 1776


I have the honor to inform you, that on yesterday morning the Enemy made a sudden and unexpected movement from the Several posts they had taken in our Front. they broke up their whole Encampments the preceding night, and have advanced towards King’s bridge and the North river.1 the design of this manuvre, is a matter of much conjecture and speculation, and cannot be accounted for with any degree of certainty. the Grounds we had taken possession of, were strong and advantageous and such, as they could not have gained without much loss of blood in case an attempt had been made. I had taken every possible precaution to prevent their outflanking us, which may have led to the present measure. they may still have in view their original plan; and by a sudden wheel try to accomplish it. detachments are constantly out to observe their motions, and to harrass them as much as possible.2

In consequence of this movement, I called a Council of Genl Officers to day to consult of such measures as should be adopted in case they pursued their retreat to New York. the result of which, is herewith transmitted.3 In respect to myself, I cannot indulge an Idea, that General Howe, supposing he is going to New York, means to close the Campaign and to sit down without attempting something more. I think it highly probable and almost certain, that he will make a descent with a part of his Troops into Jersey, and as soon as I am satisfied that the present manuvre is real and not a feint, I shall use every means in my power to forward a part of our force to counteract his designs. nor shall I be disappointed, if he sends a Detachment to the Southward for the purpose of making a Winter Campaign. from the information I have received, there is now a number of Transports at Red Hook with about three thousand Troops on board. their destination as given out, is, to Rhode Island, but this seems altogether improbable for various reasons, among others, the Season is much against it. in the Southern States they will find it milder and much more favourable for their purposes. I shall take the liberty of mentioning, that it may not be improper to suggest the probability of such a measure to the Assemblies and Conventions in those States, that they may be on their guard, and of the propriety of their establishing and laying up magazines of provisions & other necessaries in suitable places. this is a matter of exceeding importance, and what cannot be too much attended to.4

From the approaching dissolution of the Army, and the departure of the New Levies which is on the eve of taking place, and the little prospect of levying a New One in time, I have wrote to the Eastern States by the unanimous advice of the General Officers, to forward Supplies of Militia in the room of those, that are now here, and who it is feared, will not be prevailed on to stay any longer than the time they are engaged for.5 The propriety of this application, I trust will appear, when it is known, that not a Single Officer is yet commissioned to recruit, and when it is considered how essential it is to keep up some shew of force and shadow of an Army.

I expect the Enemy will bend their force against Fort Washington and invest It immediately. from some advices it is an Object that will attract their earliest attention.

I am happy to inform you that in the Engagement on Monday Sennight, I have reason to beleive our Loss was by no means so considerable as was conjectured at first. By some deserters & prisoners we are told that of the Enemy was tolerably great. some accounts make it about Four Hundred in killed & wounded—All agree that among the former there was a Colo. Carr of the 35th Regiment.6

The force that will be sent to Jersey after I am satisfied of Mr How’s retreat, in addition to those now there, according to my present opinion, will make it necessary for me to go with them, to put things in a proper channel, and such a way of defence, as shall seem most probable—to check the progress of the Enemy in case they should attempt a descent there or a move towards Philadelphia. I have the Honor to be with great respect Sir Yr Most Obedt Sert

Go: Washington

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 11 Nov. and referred it to the Board of War (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 6:939).

1Finding his efforts to outflank GW’s army effectively blocked, General Howe decided to leave White Plains, and on 4 Nov. he ordered his men “to strike their Tents, load their Waggons, and be in readiness to march . . . at daybreak” the next day (Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:402–3). Howe’s army was to march southwest to Dobbs Ferry in two columns, the right column under Gen. Henry Clinton and the left column under General Heister. The movement did not go well initially. At noon on 5 Nov., Maj. Stephen Kemble found that the British 1st Brigade and the Hessian grenadiers, which belonged to the left column, had “marched from their Post without Orders,” and they had to be “remanded back till the Reserve and right came off.” In addition, Kemble says, “some Confusion in the Arrangement and the Artillery going a wrong road made it so late in the day, that the Army only quit the Heights in front of White Plains and lay upon their Arms till the next Morning. The Rebels took possession of their Works on White Plains in our presence, but did not disturb us further than a few straggling Shot which did no Damage” (ibid., 97). Howe’s army arrived at Dobbs Ferry in stages between nine o’clock and noon on this date (see ibid., 97–98; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 107; and Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 67).

Col. William Malcom, whose regiment of New York militia levies was stationed on Merritt Hill “within musket shot of the enemy’s advanced post,” apparently was one of the first Americans to learn of Howe’s movement. “I find the enemy have left their camp,” Malcom wrote John McKesson early on 5 November. “The fog is fast clearing away, and I have sent out fifty men from my regiment to take possession of the Court-House, and the Rangers to reconnoitre to the eastward. . . . Our conjectures are various—a countryman just in says they are gone to [New] York; if so, we shall have a chase.

“It is now past three o’clock. The enemy are moved off to our right, i.e. to the heights northwest of the Court-House. I can make no farther discoveries in this quarter, but that I am delivered from troublesome neighbours, and have a prospect of sleep to-night” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:522–23; see also John Morin Scott to the New York Committee of Arrangement, 5 Nov., ibid., 522, and Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 93–94).

2“A new cause of alarm has arisen,” Joseph Reed wrote his wife on this date from the American camp. “The enemy, as we suppose, finding our Army too advantageously posted to venture an attack, the night before last began to move with all their baggage. Their course was towards the North River, which they still continue. Opinions here are various: some think they are falling down upon Mount Washington, and after carrying that post are going into winter quarters; others, that they mean to take shipping up the North River, proceed up, and fall upon our rear; others and a great majority think, that finding this Army too strongly posted, they have changed their whole plan, and are bending southward, intending to penetrate the Jerseys, and so to move on to Philadelphia. A few hours must determine it. If the latter is the case, a part of this Army I suppose will pass over into Jersey. My heart melts within me at the thought of having that fine country desolated, for it is of little consequence which Army passes. It is equally destructive to friend and foe. . . . My own opinion is, that the season is too far advanced for any movements of consequence, but that it is probable some excursions may be made to distress and alarm the inhabitants of New-Jersey, and revive the drooping spirits of their friends, which begin to sink at the prospect of the campaign closing without the entire conquest of the Rebels, as they term us. However, I may be mistaken, as I am almost singular in my opinion” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:547–48).

Howe’s movement, Tench Tilghman writes Robert R. Livingston on this date from GW’s headquarters, is “the most extraordinary and unexpected of any that has been made by the enemy this campaign.” Whether Howe’s design is “to make a retreat in order to go into Winter Quarters, or to march up the country by the North river road, or to frame some new expedition is uncertain. The second does not seem probable because the van of their army has already got a considerable distance down. I think it too early for the first supposition and too late for the last. However we must guard against every event, and steps are taking accordingly. Several large parties are sent out to harass them in flank and in rear” (transcript, NN: Bancroft Collection, Robert R. Livingston Papers; see also Robert Hanson Harrison to Nicholas Cooke and Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., this date, DLC:GW).

4This intelligence was conveyed in Nathanael Greene’s letter to GW of 31 October. An expedition under Gen. Henry Clinton sailed from New York to Rhode Island on 1 December. Its destination was a well-guarded secret for several weeks beforehand, and Capt. Frederick Mackenzie, who participated in the expedition, had no hint of where he was going until 21 Nov. (see Mackenzie, Dairy description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:101, 113, 117). In his dairy entry for 5 Nov., Mackenzie says: “Transports sufficient for the reception of near 15,000 men on the shortest notice are now almost ready in the harbour of New York; and are victualled, watered, and nearly ready to proceed to Sea. Their destination is not known, but it is generally imagined an Expedition against some place of consequence is intended. The preparation of these vessels may be with a view to deceive and alarm the Enemy, and by putting them under apprehensions for places at a distance, prevent them from sending reinforcements to Washington’s Army” (ibid., 97).

“It is not supposed we are going to Rhode Island,” Mackenzie writes in his 10 Nov. entry, “as the passage there at this season is rather dangerous and tedious, occasioned by the prevalence of the Northerly winds, particularly off the end of Long Island, which makes it difficult to beat up so far. . . . In the opinion of many the chief expedition is intended for the Delaware, and the other up The North River to attack Fort Constitution, or to proceed farther up to hasten the retreat of the Army opposed to General Carleton” (ibid., 101). For Henry Clinton’s effort to change the destination of the expedition to the Chesapeake Bay, see Clinton, American Rebellion description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends , 54–55).

In spite of GW’s doubts about the likelihood of a British expedition to Rhode Island, he had Robert Hanson Harrison write Nicholas Cooke and Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., on this date, conveying the intelligence about it and advising each governor to be on his guard and “have such precautions taken as may appear most likely to counteract their [British] designs in case they should attempt a descent” on the southern New England coast (DLC:GW).

5See GW to the Massachusetts General Court, this date, and Robert Hanson Harrison to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 7 Nov., which is quoted in Trumbull to GW, 13 Nov., n.2. No letters to Rhode Island or New Hampshire on this subject have been identified for this period.

6For a discussion of the casualties at the Battle of White Plains on 28 Oct., see Robert Hanson Harrison to Hancock, 29 Oct., n. 3. Robert Carr, lieutenant colonel of the 35th Regiment of Foot, died of his wounds the day after the battle (see William Howe to George Germain, 30 Nov., in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:258–64). Before his promotion to lieutenant colonel of the 35th Regiment on 5 Mar. 1775, Carr had served in the 24th Regiment, becoming a captain in that regiment in 1759 and its major in 1769.

Index Entries