George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Board of War, 3 August 1778

To the Board of War

Head Quarters White Plains Aug. 3d 1778


I had the honor of receiving your favour of the 27th Ulto on the 1st instant, inclosing sundry resolves of Congress and other papers respecting two expeditions meditated into the Indian Country one from the Southward and the other from the Northward. I have since the receipt of it1 been endeavouring to collect the necessary information concerning the means already provided, or to be provided towards prosecuting the latter; and I sincerely wish our prospects were more agreeable to the views of Congress than they are; but after exammining the matter [from]2 every point of light, I am sorry to say an entreprise of this nature at the present time under our present circumstances appears to me liable to obstacles not easily to be surmounted.

On receiving your letter I wrote to General Gates, copies of mine to him and of his answer to me are inclosed.3 I do not find that any preparations have been made for the intended expedition; If the project should be continued almost every thing is still to be done. The Board will perceive that General Gates imagined it was laid aside.

Govr Clinton happening to be in Camp, I took occasion to consult him and General Gates jointly on the affair. They both concurred fully in opinion, that a serious attempt to penetrate the seneca settlements at this advanced season & under present appearances4 was by no means adviseable—would be attended with many certain difficulties and inconveniences, and must be of precarious success. The reasons for this opinion are in my judgment conclusive.

Supposing enemys force is fifteen or sixteen hundred men according to the estimate made by the Board5 (Accts make it larger)6—to carry the war into the interior part of their country, with that probability of succeeding, which woud justify the undertaking would require not less than three thousand men. And if the attempt is made it ought to be made with Such a force as will in a manner insure the event; for a failure could not but have the most pernicious tendency. From inquiries I have made, not more than about twelve hundred militia from the frontier counties could be seasonably engaged for a sufficient length of time to answer the purpose of the expedition; little or no assistance can be looked for from the people of the Grants, who are said to be under great alarm for their own security, which they think is every moment in danger of being disturbed by way of Choas.7 The deficiency must be made u⟨p in⟩ Continental troops; and as there are only four or five hundred already in that quarter who might be made use of on the occasion, the residue must go immediately from this army. The making so considerable a detachment at this time, is I conceive a measure that could not be hazarded, without doing essential injury to our affairs here.

Of this the Board will be fully sensible, when they are informed, that the enemy’s strength at New York and its dependencies is at a moderate computation 14000 men [and our]8 strength on the present ground less than 13,0009 Besides this number only a bare sufficiency has been left in the Highlands to garrison the forts there. We have been lately reduced by a large detachment to Rhode Island, and it is possible a further detachmt may become necessary. Should we weaken ourselves still more by an entreprise against the Indians, we leave ourselves in some degree at the mercy of the enemy, and should either choice or necessity induce them to move against us, the consequences may be disagreeable. Though there is great reason to suppose the enemy may wish to withdraw their force from these states, if they can do it with safety; yet if they find their departure obstructed by a superior maritime force, it may become a matter of necessity to take the field, and endeavour at all hazards, to open a communication with the country in order to draw supplies from it and protract their ruin; this they will of course effect, if we have not an equal or superior army in the field to oppose them with—We should endeavour to keep ourselves so respectable as to be proof against contingencies.

The event of the Rhode Island expedition is still depending; if it should fail we shall probably lose a number of men in the attempt—To renew it, if practicable, we should be obliged to send reinforcements from this army, which could very ill be spared with its present strength; but would be impossible, if it were diminished by a detachment for the Indian expedition. And then should the enemy unite their force, they would possess so decisive a superiority as might involve us in very embarrasing circumstances. If on the contrary we succeed at Rhode Island a variety of probable cases may be supposed with reference to Europ: affairs which may make it extremely interesting to the common cause, that we should have it in our power to operate with vigor against the enemy in this quarter; to do which, if it can be done at all will at least require our whole force.

These considerations sufficient[l]y evince, that we cannot detach from this army the force requisite for the expedition proposed, without material detriment to our affairs here. And comparing the importance of the objects here with the importance of the objects of that expedition, it can hardly be thought eligible to persue the latter at the expence of the former. The depredations of the savages on our frontiers and the cruelties exercised on the defenceless inhabitants are certainly evils much to be deplored, and ought to be guarded against, as far as may be done consistent with proper attention to matters of higher moment; but they are evils of a partial nature which do not directly affect the general security, & consequently can only claim a secondary attention. It would be impolitic to weaken10 our operations here, or hazard the success of them to prevent temporary inconveniences elsewhere.

But there are other objections to the measure of almost equal weigh—The season is too far advanced for the entreprise—To raise and collect the troops to lay up competent magazines, and to make the needful preparations and then to march to the Seneca settlements and back again would exhaust at least five months from this time; and the rivers would be impract⟨icable⟩ before it could be effected. This time will not be thought too long, if it is considered, that the preparations of every kind are yet to be begun; and that when completed an extent of more than three hundred miles, is to be traversed, through a country wild and unexplored, the greater part hostile and full of natural impediments—The rivers too at this time of the year are more shallow than at others, which would be an additional source of difficulty and delay. I shall say little on the subject of pr[o]visions, though it is a serious question, whether our resources are so far equal to our demands, that we can well spare so extensive supplies, as this expedition will consume—Besides feeding our own troops, we shall probably soon have to victual the French fleet which is said to have twelve thousand men on board.

Notwithstanding the opinion I entertain of this matter founded upon a knowlege of many circumstances which Congress could not be fully apprized of—in obedience to their orders, I shall without delay take measures for forming magazines at Albany & upon the Mohawk River11 and for preparing every thing else for the expedition, except calling out the Militia; and shall be glad of the further directions of Congress, as speedily as possible. If it is their pleasure that it should still go on, I shall apply for an aid of Militia and can soon march the detachment of troops which must be sent from this army.

I take the liberty however to offer it as my opinion, that the plan for subduing the unfriendly indians ought to be deferred till a moment of greater leisure. We have a prospect that the British army will ere long be necessity⟨ated⟩ either to abandon the possessions they now hold and quit these states, or perhaps to do something still more disgraceful—If either these should arrive, the most effectual way to chastise the Indians, and disarm them for future mischief, will be to make an expedition into Canada. By penetratring as far as Mo[nt]real, they fall of course, destitute of supplies for continuing their hostilities, and of support to stimulate their enmity.12 This would strike at once at the root, the other would only lop off a few branches, which would soon spead out anew nourished and sustained by the remaining trunk.

Instead of the expedition resolved upon, it might be adviseable to establish a well furnished Garrison of about three hundred continental troops some where near the head of the Susquehanna, at Unidilla, or in the vicinity of that place. And at the same time to establish a good post at Wyoming, with some small intermediate post. These posts would be a great security to the frontiers; and would not only serve as barriers against the irruptions of the savages, but with the occasional aid of the militia would be convenient for making little inroads upon their nearest settlements; and might facilitate a more serious entreprise, when it shall be judged expedient. I shall be glad of the sentiments of Congress on this proposition.

Df, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. This letter was laid before Congress on 10 Aug., at which time it was returned to the Board of War for a “report thereon” ( 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 , 11:768).

1On the draft, GW inserted the words “in the receipt of them,” and Hamilton changed “them” to “it.”

2This word was crossed out, apparently in error.

3See GW’s letter to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates of 2 Aug.; Gates’s reply has not been found.

4GW inserted “& under our present circumstances” on the draft, but Hamilton crossed out “our” and changed “circumstances” to “appearances.”

5This estimate appeared in the resolutions of 11 June, enclosed to GW with the board’s letter to him of 27 July (see 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 , 11:587).

6GW inserted “and much larger by their accts,” which Hamilton altered to make the parenthetical phrase.

7GW was referring to the New Hampshire Grants, as Vermont was called. The upper Connecticut River valley, especially the area around current Newbury, Vt., and Haverhill, N.H., was called the Coos (or Cohos) country.

8The bracketed words were crossed out on the draft; the Varick transcript reads, “Men. our strength,” at this point.

9Hamilton originally wrote “not more than 12 or 13,000,” which GW altered to read “under 13,000” and Hamilton revised to the present phrasing.

10The word “of,” which was inadvertently left in the text when the word “weaken” replaced the phrase “hazard the success of” at this point, is omitted here.

11The preceding five words were inserted on the draft by GW.

12At this point on the draft, GW wrote a sentence that was subsequently crossed out: “A measure of this sort would strike at the root, the other is only checking a few sprouts which will soon grow again.”

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