George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 20 December 1776

To John Hancock

Camp above Trenton Falls Decr 20th 1776.


I have waited with much impatience to know the determinations of Congress on the propositions made sometime in October last, for augmenting our Corps of Artillery & establishing a Corps of Engineers.1 The time is now come, when the First cannot be delayed without the greatest injury to the safety of these States, and therefore, under the Resolution of Congress bearing date the 12th Instt,2 at the repeated instance of Colo. Knox, and by the pressing advice of all the General Officers, (now here) I have ventured to order three Batallions of Artillery to be immediately recruited. These are two less than Colo. Knox recommends, as you will see by his plan inclosed,3 but then, this Scheme comprehends all the United States, whereas some of the States have a Corps already establis⟨hed⟩ and these three Battallions are indispensibly necessary for the Operations in this Quarter, including the Northern department. The pay of our Artillerists bearing no proportion with that in the English or French service, the murmurings & dissatisfaction thereby occasioned, and the absolute impossibility as I am told of getting them upon the old terms, and the unavoidable necessity of obtaining them at all events, have induced me (also by advice) to promise Officers & men, that their pay should be augmented 25 per Ct or that their Engagements shall become null & void. This may appear to Congress premature and unwarrantable; but Sir, if they view our si⟨tua⟩tion in the light it strikes their Officers, they will be convinced of the Utility of the measure and that the execution, could not be delayed till after their meeting at Baltimore; In short, the present exigency of our Affairs will not admit of delay either in Council or the Feild, for well convinced I am, that if the Enemy go into Quarters at all, it will be for a short season; but I rather think, the design of Genl Howe, is to possess himself of Philadelphia this Winter, if possible, and in truth, I do not see what is to prevent him, as ten days more will put an end to the existence of our Army; that One great point, is to keep us as much harrassed as possible with a view to injure the recruiting service, and hinder a collection of Stores; and other necessaries for the next campaign, I am as clear in, as I am of my existence; If therefore we have to provide in this short interval and make these great & arduous preparations, every matter that in its nature is self evident, is to be referred to Congress, at the distance of 130 or 40 miles, so much time must necessarily elapse as to defeat the end in view.

It may be said, that this is an application for powers, that are too dangerous to be intrusted. I can only add, that desperate diseases, require desperate remedies, and with truth declare, that I have no lust after power but wish with as much fervency as any man upon this wide extended Continent for an Opportunity of turning the Sword into a ploughshare; But my feelings as an Officer and a man, have been such, as to force me to say, that no person ever had a greater choice of difficulties to contend with than I have. It is needless to add, that short inlistments, and a mistaken dependance upon Militia, have been the Origin of all our misfortunes, and the great accumulation of our Debt.4

We find Sir, that the Enemy are daily gathering strength from the disaffected; This strength, like a Snowball by rolling, will increase, unless some means can be devised to check effectually, the progress of the Enemy’s Arms: Militia may possibly do it for a little while; but in a little while also, the Militia of those States which have been frequently called upon, will not turn out at all, or if they do, it will be with so much reluctance and sloth as to amount to the same thing—Instance New Jersey! Witness Pensylvania! could any thing but the River Delaware have saved Philadelphia? can any thing (the exigency of the case indeed may justifye it), be more destructive to the recruiting service, than giving Ten dollars bounty for Six weeks service of the Militia, who come in, you can not tell how—go, you cannot tell when—and act, you cannot tell where—consume your provisions—exhaust your Stores, and leave you at last at a critical moment. These Sir, are the men, I am to depend upon, Ten days hence. This is the Basis on which your Cause will and must for ever depend, till you get a large standing Army, sufficient of itself to oppose the Enemy. I therefore beg leave to give it as my humble Opinion, that 88 Batallions are by no means equal to the opposition you are to make, and that a moments time is not to be lost in raising a greater number; not less in my Opinion, and the opinion of my Officers, than 110. it may be urged, that it will be found difficult enough, to compleat the first number. this may be true, and yet the Officers of 110 Batallions will recruit many more men, than those of 88. In my judgement this is not a time to stand upon expence —our funds are the only Objects of consideration—The State of New York have added one (I wish they had made it two) Battallion to their Quota. If any good Officers offer to raise men upon Continental pay and establishment in this Quarter, I shall encourage them to do so, & regiment them when they have done it. If Congress disapprove of this proceeding, they will please to signify it, as I mean it for the best.

It may be thought, that, I am going a good deal out of the line of my duty, to adopt these measures, or to advise thus freely. A character to loose—an Estate to forfeit—the inestimable blessing of liberty at Stake, and a life devoted, must be my excuse.

I have heard nothing of the light Horse from Virginia, nor the Regiment from the Eastern shore. I wish to know what Troops are to act in the different departments, & to have those from the Southward, designed for this place, ordered on, as fast, as they shall be raised. The Route should be pointed out by which they are to march. Assistant Commissaries & Quarter masters upon the Communication, to supply their wants—The first or second Officer of each Batallion, to forward them, and the other to come on, receive & form them at their place of destination. Unless this is immediately set about, the Campaign, if it should be closed, will be opened in the Spring, before we have any men in the Feild. Every exertion should be used, to procure Tents—A Clothier General should be appointed without loss of time for supplying the Army with every article in that way. He should be a man of business and abilities. A Commissary of Prisoners must be appointed to attend the Army; For want of an Officer of this kind, the Exchange of Prisoners has been conducted in a most shamefull and injurious manner. We have had them from all Quarters pushed into our Camps at the most critical junctures, & without the least previous notice. We have had them travelling through the different States, in all directions, by certificates from Committees without any kind of Controul, and have had instances of some going into the Enemy’s Camp without my privity or knowledge after passing in the manner before mentioned. There may be other Officers necessary, which I dont recollect at this time & which when thought of, must be provided;8 for this Sir you may rely on, that the commanding Officer under the present establishment, is obliged to attend to the business of so many different departments, as to render it impossible, to conduct that of his own with the attention necessary, than which nothing can be more injurious.

In a former Letter, I intimated my opinion of the necessity of having a Brigadier for every three Regiments, and a Major Genl to every three Brigades at most.5 I think no time is to be lost in making the Appointments, that the arrangements may be consequent—this will not only aid the recruiting service, but will be the readiest means of forming & disciplining the Army afterwards, which in the short time we have to do it, is of amazing consequence. I have laboured ever since I have been in the service, to discourage all kinds of local attachments & distinctions of Country denominating the whole by the greater name of American; but I found it impossible to overcome prejudices, and under the New establishment I conceive it best, to stir up an emulation, in order to do which, would it not be better for each State to furnish (tho not to appoint) their own Brigadiers? This, if known, to be part of the establishment, might prevent a good deal of contention and jealousy & would I beleive, be the means of promotions going forward with more satisfaction, & quiet the higher Officers.

Whilst I am speaking of promotion, I cannot help giving it, as my opinion, that if Congress thinks proper to confirm what I have done with respect to the Corps of Artillery, that Colo. Knox (at present at the head of that department, but who without promotion will resign) ought to be appointed to the command of it, with the rank and pay of Brigadier. I have also to mention, that for want of some establishment in the department of Engineers agreable to the plan laid before Congress in October last, Colo. Putnam who was at the Head of it, has quitted and taken a Regiment in the State of Massachusets.6 I know of no other man tolerably well qualified for the conducting of that business. None of the French gentlemen whom I have seen with appointments in that way, appear to me, to know any thing of the matter. There is one in Philadelphia whom I am told is clever, but him I have never seen.7 I must also once more beg leave to mention to Congress, the expediency of letting promotions be in a Regimental line. The want of this, has already driven some of the best Officers that were in your Army out of the service. from repeated and strict enquiry, I am convinced, you can adopt no mode of promotion that will be better received, or that will give more general satisfaction, I wish therefore to have it announced.

The casting of Cannon, is a matter that ought not to be one moment delayed, and therefore, I shall send Colo. Knox to put this in a Train, as also to have travelling Carriages & shot provided—Elaboratories to be established, one in Hartford, & another in York. Magazines of Provisions should also be laid in; These I shall fix with the Commissary. As our great loss last year, proceeded from a want of Teams, I shall direct the Qr master General to furnish a certain number to each Regiment, to answer the common purposes thereof, that the Army may be enabled to remove from place to place differently from what we have done, or could do this Campaign. Ammunition Carts—& proper Carts for intrenching Tools, should also be provided, and I shall direct about them accordingly. Above all a Store of small Arms should be provided, or men will be of little use—the consumption and waste of these this year, have been great—Militia—Flying Camp men &c., coming in without, were obliged to be furnished, or become useless—Many of these threw their Arms away—some lost them—whilst Others deserted & took them away. In a word, although I used every precaution to preserve them, the loss has been great & this will for ever be the case in such a mixed and irregular Army as our’s has been.

If no part of the Troops already embarked at New York, has appeared in Virginia, their destination doubtless must be to some other Quarter, and that State must, I should think, be freed from any invasion, if Genl Howe can be effectually opposed in this. I therefore inclose a memorandum given me by Brigadr Stephen of Virginia, which Congress will please to adopt in the whole—in part or reject, as may be consistent with their plans and intelligence.8

That division of the Army, late under the command of Genl Lee, now Genl Sullivan, is just upon the point of Joining us—a Strange kind of fatality has attended it! they had orders on the 17th of Novr to join, now more than a month!9 Genl Gates with four Eastern Regiments, are also near at hand—three from those States were coming on by his order by the way of Pecks Kills and had joined Genl Heath whom I had ordered on with Parson’s Brigade to join me, leaving Clintons Brigade and some militia, [(]that were at Forts Montgomery & Constitution) to guard those important passes of the Highlands—but the Convention of the State of New York seeming to be much alarmed at Heath’s coming away—a Fleet appearing off New London and some part of the Enemy’s Troops retiring towards Brunswick, induced me to countermand the order for the march of Parson’s Brigade10 & to direct the three Regiments from Ticonderoga to halt at Morris Town in Jersey, where I understa⟨nd⟩ about Eight hundred Militia had collected, in order to inspirit the Inhabitants, and as far as possible cover that part of the Country. I shall send Genl Maxwell this day to take the command of them, and if to be done to harrass & annoy the Enemy in their Quarters & cut off their Convoys.11

The care & vigilance which were used in securing the Boats on this River, has hitherto baffled every attempt of the Enemy to cross, but from concurring reports and appearances, they are waiting for Ice to afford them a passage.

Since writing the foregoing, I have received a Letter from Govr Cooke of Rhode Island, of which the inclosed is a copy.12 Previous to this and immediately upon the first intelligence obtained of a Fleet’s going through the Sound, I dispatched Orders to Genls Spencer & Arnold to proceed without the least delay to the Eastward. The first I presume is gone—the latter, not getting my Letter till he came to a place called Easton, was by advice of Genl Gates, who also met my Letter at the same place, induced to come on hither before he proceeded to the Eastward.13 Most of our Brigadiers are laid up, not one has come on with the division under Genl Sullivan, but are left sick at different places on the Road. By accounts from the Eastward, a large body of Men had assembled in Rhode Island from the States of Massachusetts and Connecticut; I presume (but I have no advice of it) that the Militia ordered from the first, to rendezvous at Danbury, (6000 in number) under the command of Major Genl Lincoln for supplying the place of the disbanded men of that State in the Continental Army, will now be ordered to Rhode Island. In speaking of Genl Lincoln, I should not do him justice, were I not to add, that he is a Gentleman well worthy of notice in the Military line. he commanded the Militia from Massachusetts last Summer or Fall rather, and much to my satisfaction, having proved himself on all occasions, an active, spirited, sensible man. I do not know whether it is his wish, to remain in the military line, or whether if he should, any thing under the rank he now holds in the State he comes from, would satisfy him—how far an appointment of this kind might offend the Continental Brigadiers, I cannot undertake to say—Many there are, over whom he ought not to be placed, but I know of no way to descriminate.14 Brigadier Read of New Hampshire does not I presume mean to continue in service—he ought not, as I am told by the severity of the Small pox, he is become both blind & deaf. I have the Honor to be with great respect Sir Your Most Obedt Servt

Go: Washington

P.S: Genls Gates and Sullivan have this Instant come in,15 by them I learn, that few or no men are recruited out of the Regiments coming on wi⟨t⟩h them⟨.⟩ there is very little reason to expect that these Regiments will be prevailed upon to continue after their Term of service expires. If Militia then do not come in, the consequences are but too evident.

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; ADfS, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The draft contains only minor variations in wording. Congress read this letter on 26 Dec. and referred it to the committee of the whole (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 , 6:1040–41). For the resolutions that Congress passed in response to this letter, see Hancock to GW, 27 Dec., and note 1.

1For proposal regarding the artillery corps, see GW to Hancock, 14 November. For the proposal regarding the engineering corps, see GW to Hancock, 5 October.

2GW is referring to Congress’s resolution of 12 Dec. giving him “full power to order and direct all things relative to the department, and to the operations of war” until otherwise ordered by Congress (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 , 6:1027).

3The enclosed document, which is entitled “A Plan for the establishment of a Continental Artillery, Magazines[,] Laboratories &c.,” is neither dated nor signed, but the copy of it in DLC:GW is docketed: “Plan for Artillery Decr 18 1776.” The enclosed plan, which is in William Grayson’s writing, reads: “In the modern mode of carrying on a war, there is nothing which contributes more to make an Army victorious than a well regulated & well disciplined Artillery, provided with a sufficiency of Cannon & Stores. The battles which have lately been fought in Europe, have generally been with cannon, and that army, which has had the most numerous & best appointed artillery, has commonly been victorious.

“The experience of this campaign, shews, how much the Enemy depend upon the superiority of their artillery; They scarcely or ever detach a single Regiment without two or three field pieces; the regulations of their artillery are founded upon the most convincing experience of their utility, & we shall have no reason to blush by imitating them in those particulars.

“Considering the exigencies of an active and extensive Campaign, & the common accidents of War, the establishment here proposed, will not be superior if equal to the service. The genius, industry, & Care requisite in the preparation of all kinds of military stores, and the management of cannon render it necessary, that the best men should be employ’d in this service, & as the generally detach’d state of the artillery subjects them to much greater expence, then if they were together, their pay ought to be twenty five perCt more than the marching Regiments; In the Brittish & French services it is double.

“It will be necessary to have five battalions, each battalion to consist of one Colo. 1 Lieutt Col. one Major & 12 Companies; each Company one Capt., one Capt. Lieut., four lieutenants, six serjeants, six Corporals, six gunners, six Bombardiers, & twenty eight Matrosses.

“That after the appointment of the Officers, they be permitted to recruit in any of the united States of America.

“One Commissary of military stores & as many deputy Commissaries & Conductors, as the nature of the service may require & the Commander in chief thinks necessary.

“That a Company of Artificers be with the artillery in the field for various contingent services.

“It will be necessary to have Magazines & laboratories, for the reception & preparation of military stores of every species form’d at Hartford in Connecticut, and York in Pensylvania, & that to each laboratory besides the persons that are to prepare the stores, there be a sufficient number of able artificers to make ammunition, Waggons, Tumbrills[,] Spare cariages for Canon &c. &c.

“That each laboratory have a director whose rank & pay be equal to that of a Lieut. Col. & a sub director with the rank & pay of a Captn.

“That two persons be employ’d to get cas’t, or otherwise procure, 150 brass pieces of Cannon of such sizes as the Commanding officer of artillery shall direct, & the Commander in chief approve.

“That the persons appointed for this purpose, be instructed to spare neither pains or expence, in getting the Canon cas’t & mounted as soon as possible.

“That the Commanding Officer of Artillery be empowered to form, the Magazines[,] laboratories & Artificers immediately” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

4Nathanael Greene in his letter to Hancock of 21 Dec. urges Congress to put even greater powers in GW’s hands, and he assures Hancock “that the General will not exceed his Powers altho’ he may sacrifice the Cause. There never was a man that might be more safely trusted nor a Time when there was a louder Call” (Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:370–74).

6Rufus Putnam says in his memoirs: “December 8th 1776 I wrote to Genl Washington informing that I had accepted of a Regiment in the Massachusetts Line of the continantal army with my reasons for so doing, assureing him at the Same time of my attachment to him, & rediness to execute any Service I Should be ordored on, an extract of his answer I Shall Subjoin—‘Buck County neer Coryells Ferry December 17th 1776. Dear Sir—your Letter of the 8th Instent from Peakskill came duely to hand. your acceptence of A Regiment to be raised on continantal establishment by the State of Massachusetts bay, is quite agreable to me, and I Sincearly wish you success in recruiting & much honor in Commanding it; your professions of attachment are extreamly pleasing to Dear Sir your most obedient Servent Go. Washington” (“Memoirs of the Putnam Family,” 94–95, OMC). Putnam was appointed colonel of the 5th Massachusetts Regiment. He served in that capacity until the end of the war.

7GW probably is referring to Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko.

8The enclosed memorandum, which is in Gen. Adam Stephen’s writing but is not dated or signed, reads: “The Second & Seventh Virginia Regiment[s] with all the Convalescents from the Other Corps left in Virginia & Now fit for duty, to be immediatly ordered to Join the Army under His Exy Genl Washington.

“All Recruits inlisted on the New Establishment, to the Eastward of the Blue Ridge to Join them at places most Convenient, & march along with them to the Army—The Whole to march by Companies for the better Accomodation on the Road.

“The Quarter Masters, Commissaries, & an Officer of Address to March before, to provide Quarters & provisions.

“The New inlisted Troops, in Fincastle, Bottetourt, Augusta, Hampshire, Dunmore, Frederick, & Berkeley To march immediatly by Bottetout Court House, Staunton, Woodsburg [Woodstock], Strasburg, Winchester, & Martinsburg, the Nearest way to Lancaster having provisions, laid in for them at the different places above mentiond.

“The Troops under Command of Lt. Col. Nevil [James Neville], except the Company posted at the Mouth of the Kanaway, and the [8th] Pennesylvania Regnt, Commanded by Col. Mckay [Aeneas Mackay] in Westmoreland to march immediatly by Ligonier, Bedford & Carlyle having provisions laid in for them at these places.

“The New Recruits of the Seven Companies to be Raisd in Youghyougania, Monongaleia, & Ohio, to be marchd by Fort Cumberland The nearest way to Lancaster—The Commissaries & men best Acquainted with the Country to lay in provision for them; at Speirs [Noah Speers]; Redstone, the Great Meadows, Great Crossing, & Fort Cumberland.

“An Officer with two Light horse to be forwarded Over the Mountains, with Cash to purchase Blan⟨kets,⟩ Arms, & other Necussaries, to facilitate the March, and with peremptory Orders to make Dispatch.

“In order to prevent neglect of duty in the Recruiting Service—Every Recruiting Officer is to make a Weekly Report to the Commander of the Militia of his County in Virginia; & if the Officer is found indolent, The Militia Officer by a late Regulation can Appoint anotther who will be more Active” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

14Congress commissioned Benjamin Lincoln a major general in the Continental army on 19 Feb. 1777 (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 , 7:133).

15Sullivan’s force, consisting of the troops that Charles Lee had commanded before his recent capture, crossed the Delaware River at Easton, Pa., on 16 and 17 December. It marched to Bethlehem, Pa., on 18 Dec., and after passing through Springfield Township in northern Bucks County on 19 Dec., it arrived late on this date in Buckingham Township, a few miles west of Coryell’s Ferry (see Rau, “Smith’s Diary,” description begins Louise Rau, ed. “Sergeant John Smith’s Diary of 1776.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 20 (1933-34): 247–70. description ends 265–66). Lt. Joseph Hodgkins of the 12th Continental Regiment wrote his wife on this date from Buckingham Township: “we have Ben on the march ever since ye 29 of Last month and we are now within 10 or 12 miles of general Washingtons Army[.] we Expect to Be there to night” (Wade and Lively, This Glorious Cause description begins Herbert T. Wade and Robert A. Lively. This Glorious Cause: The Adventures of Two Company Officers in Washington’s Army. Princeton, N.J., 1958. description ends , 227–28). Gates’s smaller force of troops from the northern army apparently joined GW’s army on 22 December. For the strength of Sullivan’s and Gates’s forces, see GW to Robert Morris, 22 December.

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