George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Hancock, 13 June 1777

From John Hancock

Philada June 13th 1777.


You will percieve, from the enclosed Resolves,1 the fixed Determination of Congress to retaliate (as nearly as lies in their Power,) on our Enemies, should they think proper to send any of their Prisoners to Great Britain, or to any other Part of the British King’s Dominions beyond Sea. This Resolution you will please to convey to Genl Howe as soon as possible, as it is of the utmost Importance.2

If the sixteen additional Battalions are not all provided with Commanding Officers, the Congress, in Consequence of a Letter from Govr Caswell, (an Extract of which I enclose you) have recommended Colonel Abraham Shephard to the Command of one of the said Battalions, and doubt not you will honor him with the Appointment. I beg Leave to refer your Attention to the whole of the Resolves herewith transmitted.3

Enclosed you have the Observations of Monsr De Coudray on Billingsport and the other Fortifications in this River, which I forward for your Perusal. Every possible Measure is taking to render the Fortifications compleat.4 I have the Honor to be, with the utmost Esteem & Respect Sir your most obed. & very hble Servt

John Hancock Presidt

LS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA:PCC, item 12A. The copy in DNA:PCC contains several draft changes, including a final paragraph before the closing that has been struck out: “Your sevl Favours to the [ ] inst have been duly recd and immediately laid before Congress.”

1In addition to the resolutions that are discussed in the body of this letter, Hancock enclosed copies of several resolutions passed by the Continental Congress between 7 and 11 June 1777. Congress’s resolution of 7 June addresses complaints about regimental paymasters absenting themselves from the army by directing “the Commander in Chief, and the Commander in a separate Department to take the most effectual Means for compelling all Regimental Paymasters to attend punctually to the Duties of their Office, and that such as are negligent to be punished and displaced; and that they be respectively empowered to appoint either of Ability, Diligence, and Intergrity, in the Room of such as are displaced” (DLC:GW; see also 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 , 8:426–27). A resolution of 9 June directs Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold to put Maj. Apollos Morris “under immediate Arrest and Confinement until the further Order of this Congress” (DLC:GW; see also ibid., 428), and a resolution of 10 June orders Arnold to Trenton, N.J. (DLC:GW, ibid., 432). Another resolution of 10 June concerns the rank of French officers, which Congress passed for the purpose of informing GW that “Congress by that Clause of the resolution of 30th May last, ‘The Rank of each Class of the said Officers to be settled by the Date of their Commissions from the King of France,’ intended only their relative Rank, among one another, but that their Commissions in the American Army be dated by General Washington, on the day when they shall be filled up” (DLC:GW; see also ibid., 450–51). On 11 June Congress resolved to request New Jersey governor William Livingston to order 500 state militia to assist in the construction of the defensive fortifications for the Delaware River at Billingsport, N.J. (DLC:GW; see also ibid., 451–52).

2The enclosed copy of Congress’s resolution of 10 June directs GW to inform General Howe “that this Congress most sincerely laments the necessity to which they are driven by the cruel policy of their Enemies, of entering into any Resolutions which have any Appearance of Severity towards those prisoners of war, who have fallen, or may fall into our hands; but that there are no other means in our power of inducing our Enemies to respect the Rights of Humanity. That with this View only it is their determin’d resolution to carry into Execution the Law of Retaliation—That if any persons belonging to or employ’d in the service of the United States or any of them who now are, or hereafter may be, Prisoners to Lord or General Howe, or any other Commander of his Britannic Majesty’s Forces by Sea or Land, shall be Sent to the Realm of Great Brittain, or any part of the Dominions of the said King of Great Brittain, to be there confin’d in common Goals, or any other place or places of confinement, in pursuance of any Act or Acts of the Brittish Parliament, or any other pretence whatsoever, it is the resolution of this Congress to treat the Prisoners now in our power, & such as may hereafter fall into our hands, in a manner as nearly similar as our circumstances will admit” (DLC:GW; see also ibid., 449–50). For the Board of War’s initial report concerning this resolution, see ibid., 430–31).

3Both the enclosed extract from North Carolina governor Richard Caswell’s letter to Delegate Thomas Burke of 20 April 1777 and the copy of Congress’s resolution of 10 June recommending Sheppard’s appointment are in DLC:GW (see also ibid, 450).

4The enclosed copy of Du Coudray’s undated “Observations on the Forts intended for the Defense of the Two Passages of the River Delaware” reads:

“1 As to the Situation, it has been well chosen; it commands the River in the narrowest Part of any I have seen, and is the most susceptible of Defense.

“2 As to the Plan or Project, it appears to me absolutely bad; the Object in View ought to have been only to support the Chain of Chevaux-de Freize which bars the River; for that Purpose 30 or 40 Cannon well placed would have been sufficient; the Edge of the Scarp would have furnished Room sufficient; it then required to shut the Gorge of this Battery so that the Enemy should be obliged to land in Order to take Possession of it, and to open Trenches: but particularly in the Circumstances in which this Fort was begun, it was necessary, in the Space of Six Weeks or two Months, to have something finished to answer the actual Purpose: even in reducing it to the Circumference, and the Half-Moon necessary to occupy the Highth which commands on the opposite Side of the River; this Project I say would require at least four or five Months, supposing that it’s Construction was well performed, and a great Number of Men employed, inasmuch as the Soil is the most unfavourable that can be met with.

“Independently of the Excess of Time that the Plan of this Work would require in the present Circumstance, this Inconveniency still attends it, that it would require for it’s Defense a more numerous Garrison, than the Army could leave in it: for it would require at least two Thousand Men, as, on Account of the bad Quality of the Soil, the Enemy’s Cannon would make great Waste in a short Time, which ought to be repaired each Night to avoid being taken.

“3 As to the Manner in which those Works have been performed, I find it to be without any Judgment, the Planks and Piles to support the Sand, are not half thick enough, the Piles instead of being inclined to bear against the Bank, have been fixed straight up and are already overthrown. Instead of fixing the Batteries destined to fire on the River, on the Border of the Scarp, they have placed them seven or eight Fathom back, which is so much the more distant from their Object, and leaves an Apprehension of what may be performed by the Enemy at the Bottom of the Scarp, or supposing that the Work was finished only one Line of Cannon could discover.

“Instead of making use of the Ground which forms the Border of the Scarp, which is firm on the Superficies, and supported, at least to a certain Depth by the Roots of the Trees which grew there, they have raised this considerable Portion of Breast Work with loose Sand in the Manner before mentioned and have been at the Trouble to make a Ditch, which might have been avoided, as the Scarp served that Purpose: from whence it appears that, in the present Circumstances, no Dependence can be had on this Work, as it cannot be finished in Time, and that besides it would require too great a Number of Men and Artillery for it’s Defense.

“To support the Chain of Chevaux-de Frize, which bars the River opposite to this Fort, for the present, all Dependence must be on the floating Batteries and on the Gondolas which are, or which may soon be, put in a Condition to serve; however some Advantage may be made of some Parts of what exists of the Fort, of which we have been speaking, and for this Purpose there must be a Battery fixed in each of the two Demi-bastions on the Side of the River; and by cutting those two Demi-bastions by the Gorge, and the Angle of the Flank, traces may be made from each of them into a Redoubt with four Fronts, each of those Redoubts may be secured against a Coup de Main, by covering them with a double Ditch and Pallisadoes in the Bottom of the Ditch.

“Then it would be necessary to destroy all the Parts of the Fort which would serve to cover the Enemy.

“I think that those two Works with 1500 or 2000 Labourers well conducted might be executed in Twenty Days, and in my Opinion this is all that can be done in the present Circumstances. I would advise to hazard in those Redoubts only four or five Hundred Men with 25 or 30 Cannon; still observing that it is not chiefly on them that the Defense of the Chevaux-de Frize depends, but on the Floating-Batteries supported by those Redoubts.

“In Times less urgent than the present, a better Use may be made of this Place, but on Account of the Badness of the Soil, Nothing solid can be done but by extreme Expense. Unless shoal Water prevents the Enemy from going to the Opposite Side of the River, it will be necessay to construct on the opposite Island another Battery of 15 or 20 Guns, which must also be fortified; which indeed might be performed with little Expense, on Account of the Goodness of the Soil, and the Facility of making Use of the River to cover it by wide and deep Ditches.

“The Fort. The Fort is badly situated, the Battery which forms its principal Object is badly directed, which renders Half the Guns useless. The Embrasures are badly constructed, too open inside, and not sufficiently without, some are made only by without any Motive, the interiour Slopings are too streight, and on this very Account they begin to tumble down.

“The Fort cannot stop the Passage of the Enemy, And they once past, it can be of no Use, therefore it is entirely useless.

“Fort of Red-Bank. This Fort is better conceived, directed and executed, than the two Forts above-mentioned. In the Whole this Work does the more Honour to Coll Bull, as he has had no other Assistance than natural Sense, unenlightened by Theory, which is perceivable; there are faults in the Plan and in the Execution but these faults do not render it useless as the two first; if one judges by the work which is finished one may hope that within a fortnight it will be in a state of defense.

“But what unfortunately renders this Fort useless is, that its object is and can be no other than to prevent the Enemy from taking possession of the height on which it is situated, in order to establish Batteries, and thereby oblige the Gallies and floating-Batteries employed in supporting the Chain of Chevaux-de Frize to retreat; but this could not be unless they were exposed to a Fire from the Floating-Batteries and Gallies which they could not silence by that of their Ships. This would oblige them to land Men and Artillery, to occupy by Force the Highth in Question, and then fire on the Floating Batteries and Gallies occupied in supporting the Chain. But the Situation of the Place will not permit us to admit such an Idea, for the River is here so wide that if the States had four Times as many Gallies, Ships and Batteries as they have gathered together at this Place and above it, one must think that the Enemy would still have a superiour Fire, as the Width of the River would permit them to employ a greater Number of Ships: therefore if by these Means they be able to drive away the Gallies and Floating Batteries, they will certainly avoid the Trouble of landing Men and Artillery to attack Coll Bull’s Fort.

“Therefore I regard this Fort as useless, at least as to the Object for which it was made, scil[ice]t to contribute in obstructing the Passage of the River, and preventing the Enemy taking Possession of the Highth which it commands.

“This Passage is much too wide to be defended by the present Means. I would advise to carry all the Means of Defense to the Passage at the Fort at Billings’ port, this Place is incomparably easier to support, and it is better to make a good Defense in one Place; than to defend two in a weak Manner.

“The Gallies and the Floating-Batteries transported there, will supply the Insufficiency of the intrenched Batteries which I propose to substitute instead of the present Fort, and that which I think still ought to be placed at the Point of the Island, the River being much narrower in this Place, than in that we have spoken of: those Gallies and Batteries may now easily make Head against the Enemy who not only will not be able to make so great a Fire, but will be obliged to bear a nearer one, and much better supported, than could be opposed to them at Red-Bank. The Cannon of the Fort of this Passage might partly serve for the Batteries which I propose at the Passage of Billingsport. I would however advise not to demolish the Battery at Red-Bank, and even to leave there two or three bad Cannon. I would also advise to take away from this Line no more Chevaux-de Frize, but what would be judged necessary to secure on three Rows, the Passage of Billingsport.

“I also advise to preserve Coll Bulls Fort, thereby you would make the Enemy believe that they would have a second Line of Obstacles to meet with in Case they should overcome the first; and further, which seems to me very important in the present Circumstances the Government would avoid reproaches of Inconsideration and Misapprehension, which the evil-minded are always ready to form, and the People apt to adopt, when they see Works which have been erected pulled down. For this very Reason I propose also to preserve in Coll Jones’s Fort all that will not evidently be favourable to the Enemy, in Case they should attack the Redoubts, which I think ought to be substituted instead of this Fort.

“My Thoughts as above expressed on those different Points, seem to me so much the better grounded as they appeared to me conformable to those of General Arnold to whom I had the Honour to communicate them, as much as the Difference of the Languages would permit me: and particularly to Mr Duer and Mr Shee by whom I had the advantage of being understood” (DLC:GW).

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