George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 11 November 1778

To Henry Laurens

Head Qrs [Fredericksburg, N.Y.] Novr 11: 1778


On Wednesday afternoon I received a Letter from the Honble Mr Lee & Mr Lovell, of the Committee for foreign affairs, inclosing a plan and sundry Resolutions of Congress for attacking Canada the next Campaign, in conjunction with the forces of his most Christian Majesty; and requesting my observations upon the same, to be transmitted to Congress—and a Copy to be delivered to the Marquiss De la Fayette. Those dispatches, thro the indisposition of the Marquiss, who unfortunately was seised with a fever in his journey from Philadelphia, which still detains him at Fish Kill, were prevented coming to hand till that time—and the great importance and extent of the subject they comprehend, would not permit me the honor of an earlier communication of my sentiments.1

I hope Congress will excuse my not complying with that part of the Resolution, which requires me to deliver a Copy of my Observations to the Marquiss, as the manner in which I am obliged to treat this subject, opens such a prospect of our wants and our weaknesses—as in point of policy ought only to be known to ourselves.

I am always happy to concur in sentiment with Congress—and I view the emancipation of Canada, as an Object very interesting to the future prosperity and tranquility of these States; but I am sorry to say—the plan proposed for the purpose does not appear to me to be eligible, under our present circumstances. I consider it as my duty—and what Congress expects from me, to give my reasons for this opinion, with that frankness and candor, which the importance of the subject demands; and in doing this, I am persuaded, I shall not fail to meet with their approbation.

It seems to me impolitic to enter into engagements with the Court of France for carrying on a combined operation of any kind, without a moral certainty of being able to fulfil our part, particularly if the first proposal came from us. If we should not be able to perform them—it would argue either a want of consideration—a defective knowledge of our resources—or something worse than either; which could not fail to produce a degree of distrust and discontent, that might be very injurious to the union. In the present instance should the Scheme proposed be adopted, a failure on our part would certainly occasion in them, a misapplication of a considerable land and naval force, which might be usefully employed elsewhere; and probably their total loss. It is true, if we were at this time to enter into the engagement, we shall be every day better able to judge, whether it will be in our power to accomplish what would be expected from us, and if we should find hereafter, that our Resources will be unequal to the undertaking, we may give notice to the Court of France in season, to prevent the sailing of the Troops and the ill effects, which might attend it. But, besides that a project of this kind could not be embraced by France, without its having an influence on the whole system of operations for the next Campaign, which of course would receive some derangement from it’s being abandonned—a renunciation of this could not fail to give a very unfavourable impression of our foresight and providence—and would serve to weaken the confidence of that Court in our public councils.

So far from there being a moral certainty of our complying with our engagements—it may, in my opinion, be very safely pronounced, that if the Enemy keep possession of their present posts at New York and Rhode Island—it will be impracticable, either to furnish the men—or the other necessary supplies for prosecuting the plan. They will not attempt to keep those posts with less than ten Thousand men and a considerable Navy. If it should be thought best, for the advantage of carrying on the expeditions intended, to forego any offensive operations against these garrisons—and to leave them in quiet possession of such important places; we shall at least be obliged to provide for the security of the Country against their incursions and depredations, by keeping up a force sufficient to confine them within their own limits. It is natural too to suppose, that the people’s expectations of being protected will grow stronger, in proportion to the diminution of the Enemy’s force, and the greater facility with which it can be afforded. They will hardly be content to continue in a state of alarm and insecurity, from a force so inconsiderable, while the principal strength of the States is drawn out in the prosecution of remote Objects. If this reasoning is just, we shall be obliged to have a larger force than the Enemy, posted in different places, to prevent sudden inroads, which they would otherwise be able to make at different points; and the number required cannot be estimated at less than 12 or 15000 men. This will be two thirds as large a force, as we have been able to raise and maintain during the progress of the War—as these calculations, both of the Enemy’s strength and of our own, are meant to designate the number of effective rank and file.

If I rightly understand the plan in consideration, it requires for it’s execution 12,600 Men—rank & file. Besides these, to open passages through a Wilderness for the march of the several bodies of Troops—to provide the means of long and difficult transportations—by land and Water—to establish posts of communication for the security of our Convoys—to build and man Vessels of force—necessary for acquiring a superiority on the Lakes; these and many other purposes, peculiar to these Enterprises, which would be tedious in detail, will demand a much larger proportion of Artificers and persons to be employed in manual and laborious Offices, than are usual in the Ordinary course of military operations. When we add the whole together, the aggregate number of men requisite for the service of the ensuing Campaign, will be little less than double the number heretofore in the field; but to be more certain in the calculation, it may be placed at only one half more.

Experience is the only rule to judge by in the present case. Every expedient has been exhausted in the preceding Campaigns to raise men; and it was found impossible to get together a greater force than we had; though the safety and success of the cause seemed absolutely to require it. The natural and direct inference therefore is, that the resources of the Country were inadequate to a larger supply. I cannot then see that we can hope upon any principle, to be equal to so much greater exertions next year, when the people and the Army appear to grow dayly more tired of the War—and the depreciation of our money continually increasing—and of consequence proving a smaller temptation to induce Men to engage.

The state of our supplies for transporting and subsisting the troops will stand upon a footing equally bad. We have encountered extreme difficulties in these respects, and have found, that it was full as much as we were competent to, to feed the Army we have already had and enable it to keep the field—and perform the movements required by the contingencies of the service. It is not likely that these difficulties will diminish, but on the contrary they will rather multiply, as the value of our currency lessens; and the enormous prices to which provisions have risen and the artificial scarcity created by monopolies, with what we have to fear from the effect of the same spirit, give us no reason to flatter ourselves, that our future prospects can be much better. In this situation of things we are hardly warranted to expect, that we shall have it in our power to satisfy the demands of numbers so much greater, than we have yet had to supply; especially if we consider, that the scene of our operations has hitherto been in the Heart of the Country furnishing our resources—and which of course facilitated the drawing them out; and that we shall then be carrying on the War at an immense distance, in a Country wild and uncultivated—incapable of affording any aid—and great part of it hostile. We cannot in this case depend on temporary or occasional supplies, as we have been accustomed, but must have ample magazines laid up beforehand. The labour and expence in forming these—and transporting the necessary stores of every kind for the use of the Troops, will be increased to a degree that can be more easily conceived than described. The transportation must be a great part of the way through deserts—affording no other forage than herbage; and from this circumstance, our principal subsistence of the flesh kind must be salted, which would not only be an additional expence, in the additional consumption of so scarce and dear an Article as salt, but would greatly increase the difficulty both of providing and transporting. My Letter of the 29th Ulto transmitting a Copy of one from the Quarter-Master General, which I had the honor of addressing to Congress and to which I wish to refer, will point out the difficulties and daily expence attending our supplies of the Article of flour only, in our present circumstances, exclusive of it’s Cost—and lay the foundation for a sort of comparative estimate to be formed, of those that would attend the support of the Troops, when employed at so great a distance.

If in addition to all this, we should have the French fleet to supply during the winter, the likelihood of which I have no sufficient information to ground a judgement upon—it will appear still more impracticable, to furnish the supplies requisite for the extensive operations proposed. But independent of this, the improbability of doing it is, in my apprehension, infinitely too great to justify the undertaking.

This reasoning is founded on a supposition that the Enemy do not evacuate their present posts at New York and Rhode Island; nor can we presume upon any past appearances so far as to determine the contrary—and enter into a national contract, the fulfilment of which, at any rate in my Judgement, will depend on this event. Opinions on the subject are various and the arguments on both sides cogent— circumstances hitherto very indecisive. At Rhode Island, there is nothing that looks like an evacuation, that I have heard of; at New York, the length of time elapsed, since the event has been expected, which cannot be satisfactorily accounted for, makes it not a little doubtful and problematical.

But if it were even certain, that the Enemy would shortly leave these States, I should think our ability to carry on the expeditions meditated from the nature of the Country and the remoteness from the source of our supplies, joined to the discouraging state of our fi nances, too precarious to authorise a preconcerted agreement with a foreign power, binding ourselves to the attempt.

On the other hand, if we were certain of doing our part, a co-operation by the French would, in my opinion, be as delicate and precarious an enterprize, as can be imagined. All the reasons which induce France and the United States to wish to wrest Canada and Hallifax from the dominion of England, operate with her, perhaps more forcibly, to use every possible effort for their defence. The loss of them would be a deadly blow to her trade and empire. To hope to find them in a defenseless state, must be founded in a supposition of the total incapacity of Britain, both by land & sea, to afford them protection. I should apprehend, we may run into a dangerous error by estimating her power so low.

We have been informed, that a strong Garrison has been lately sent to Hallifax amounting by report to about 4000 men. A part of the detachments, which the Enemy are now making from New York are currently said to be, and in all probability are, destined for that place.2 If they evacuate entirely, a very considerable part of their force will no doubt go there; and, in any case, we may expect, that reinforcements will be thrown from thence into Canada, early in the Spring. The English are now greatly superior to the French by Sea in America; and will from every appearance continue so, unless Spain interpose—an event, which I do not know, we are authorised to count upon. However, as I am destitute of information with respect to the present state of European politics, this is a point upon which I can form but an imperfect judgement. But if it should not take place, I think it infinitely probable, from the maritime situation and advantages of Hallifax, which is represented as the finest port and best naval arsenal in America—from the security it is calculated to give to the general trade and possessions of Britain, both on the Continent and in the West Indies—that it will be a Station for a larger naval force, than the one intended to convoy the french Troops. It will naturally be the principal rendezvous of the British Ships of War in America. If this position be admitted, should the English have any knowledge or even suspicion of the designs of the French Court to send a Fleet up the river St Lawrence, nothing will be easier than to intercept this fleet on its way; or to take or destroy it, after it has gotten in.

Nor can we flatter ourselves with keeping this business a secret. Congress perhaps will be surprised to be told, that it is already in more hands than they suspect—and, in the progress of the negociation in France, it will get in many more. The preparations will announce the intention. It is indeed a part of the plan to avow the destination of the French Troops, though this is to be contradicted by the manner of their Cloathing &c. The stationing Troops this winter, as is proposed, particularly on the Mohawk & Connecticut river, would be unequivocal proofs of the design. It must at least excite the strongest suspicions; as to put the English nation upon their guard—and make them take precautions to counteract it.

But if the French troops should arrive before Quebec, I think their success against that strong place, fortified by every advantage of nature and of art, would be extremely doubtful. It is supposed this Capital post will be found in so weak a condition as to make it’s surrender a matter of course, owing to the Enemy’s having previously drained themselves for the defence of Detroit, Niagara—St Johns, Montreal &c. But we cannot depend that this will be the case. They may esteem it the part of prudence rather to sacrafice, or at least to hazard the extremities in order to collect their strength at the Heart. Montreal indeed and the posts essential to it must be defended, because the possession of them would throw too large a part of the Country into our hands. But if reinforcements are sent to Canada early in the spring, a circumstance extremely likely, these may be attended to, without too far weakening the garrison of Quebec; and, as before observed, we cannot build upon their conduct’s being regulated by an ignorance of our plans. The french troops instead of a coup de main would, in this case, be reduced to the necessity of carrying on a blockade.

I will now take the liberty to turn my attention towards the operations of our own troops. The one against Detroit, I shall at present say nothing about—if well conducted, I should hope that place would fall without very great difficulty. The case is very different with respect to Niagara. This I am informed is one of the strongest fortresses in America; and can only be reduced by regular approaches or by famine. (In accomplishing this last war and a conquest as far as Montreal, I believe, General Amherst exhausted two campaigns, with all the advantages which he derived from the United efforts of Britain & America—with every convenience for water transportation, including plenty of Seamen—and with money that commanded every thing, which either Country could furnish.)3 The former mode would require great perseverance time & labour and an apparatus, which it would be almost impracticable to transport. The latter is practicable—but very difficult—To effect it we must gain a superiority on the lakes—the Enemy have already a respectable force there. If they suspect our design, which they cannot fail to do from the measures to be taken, they may improve the interval in adding to it—and, by providing materials and Artificers upon the spot, they may be able to encrease it—so as to keep pace with us. It is therefore easy to see, that we ought not to be too sanguine in the success of this expedition; and that, if a moderate force be employed in the defence of Niagara, without degarnishing Quebec and the intermediate post—it’s reduction will be a very arduous task.

The body of Troops to penetrate by way of the River St Francis, must meet with great obstacles.4 They will have a march of about 150 miles from the Co-os—which is about 160 beyond Hartford, a great part of which is through a hitherto uninhabited and tractless Country, with an immense train of Waggons. All the stores and provisions for the whole march—and the future supply of the troops, at least till they should get footing in Canada, must accompany them from the beginning. The impediments & delays in such a march, almost exceed conception. When arrived at the St Lawrence, fresh obstacles probably would present themselves. The presumption is, that if the Enemy could not make head there, they would desolate the Country—through which they were to pass—destroy all the provision and forage—remove every kind of Water craft—and demolish the materials for building Others. These precautions being taken on the Sorrel & St Lawrence, would pretty effectually obstruct our progress—both to Montreal and Cadosoqui, to say nothing of the rapidity of the current—and the numerous rifts between Montreal & Lagalette.5 When we deliberately consider all the obstacles in the execution; and the difficulties we shall find in preparing the vast magazines required, which have been already enumerated, if within the compass of our Resources—we shall be led to think it not very improbable, that this body may be unable to penetrate Canada, at least in time to co-operate with the French troops—if a cooperation should be necessary. The situation of these troops then would be delicate and dangerous. Exposed to a defeat from the United force of the Enemy; in great danger of having their retreat cut off by a superior naval force in the river—they would have every thing to fear.

On the other hand, if our operation should be as successful as we may flatter ourselves, a tempest or a British fleet may deprive us of the expected aid; and, at a critical moment, we may find ourselves in the bosom of an Enemy’s Country—obliged to combat their whole force, with one inferior—and reduced by a tedious and wasting march. The five thousand men, when they arrived in Canada, would probably little exceed four capable of service—and would be still less, if, out of them, we should establish posts as we advanced to ensure a retreat—and protect escorts of provisions, which must follow for future support. Thus an accident in either case, would involve the defeat of the whole project—and the catastrophe might be attended with the most unhappy consequences to America.

The plan proposed appears to me not only too extensive and beyond our abilities, but too complex. To succeed—it requires such a fortunate coincidence of circumstances, as could hardly be hoped—and cannot be relied on. The departure of the Enemy from these States, without which we cannot furnish the stipulated force or supplies to maintain them, Such a want of power or want of foresight in the Enemy, as will oblige them, to neglect the reinforcement of Hallifax and of Canada and prevent them, however conveniently situated, of disputing the passage of four Ships of the line and four frigates up the River St Lawrence—or attempting their destruction afterwards—Such a combination of favourable incidents, as will enable several bodies, acting separately and independently by Sea and land, and from different countries, to conform to times & periods, so as to ensure a co-operation; These and many other circumstances must conspire, to give success to the Enterprize.

Congress I am persuaded, had powerful reasons for fixing the convoy at the number they have—and their superior information respecting the affairs of Europe at this juncture, enables them to judge much better than I can pretend to do, of it’s sufficiency. But, from the imperfect view I have of the matter, I have been led in considering the subject, to look upon it as insufficient. From the general tenor of intelligence—the English outnumber the French in the Channel—In America, both on the Continent and in the Islands, they are greatly superior. If the last Toulon fleet is employed in the Mediterranean, the French may have the superiority there; but upon the whole the ballance of naval force seems hitherto to be on the side of the English. If we add to this, that the number of Ships of War in the french ports, built or building, bears no comparison to the number in the English ports; and that Britain, notwithstanding the diminution she has suffered, is still a Kingdom of great maritime resources—we shall be disposed to conclude, that the preponderance is too likely to continue where it is. The interposition of Spain indeed, would make a very interesting change; but her backwardness heretofore seems to be an argument that she is witheld from interfering, by some weighty political motives; and how long these may continue to restrain her, is a question I am unqualified to determine.

Besides these general objections to the plan, which have been stated—there appear to me to be some particular ones, which I shall take the liberty to point out.

In the first place, I observe there are to be 5000 Militia employed in the two expeditions against Detroit and Niagara. The drawing into service so large a number composed chiefly of Husbandmen, in addition to what may be found necessary for other exigencies on the Coast, at so interesting a season of the year, will certainly be very injurious to the culture of our Lands, and must tend to add to the deficiency of supplies. But this, though not to be overlooked, is not the principal objection. In the expedition against Detroit, Militia perhaps may answer, as it is not a post of very great strength—and may possibly be abandonned on, or in a little time after the approach of a force, that cannot be opposed in the field—and the garrison proceed to reinforce that of Niagara; but even here, troops of another kind would be far preferable. However the case will be very different with respect to this last. It is, as I have beforementioned, One of the strongest fortresses of America and demands for it’s reduction the very best of Troops. Militia have neither patience—nor perseverance for a siege. This has been demonstrated by all the experience we have had. An attempt to carry on One, which should materially depend on them, would be liable to be frustrated, by their inconstancy, in the most critical moments. Agreable to the plan under consideration 3,500 out of 5,600 are to be Militia.

It is a part of the plan, that the Troops sent against Detroit, whether successful or not, are to form a junction with those at Niagara. It appears to me on the contrary, that the expedition against Detroit under the present arrangement, must stand on it’s own bottom—and have no other object than the reducing that place—and destroying the adjacent indian settlements. Lake Erie is certainly occupied by Two armed Vessels of Sixteen and Eighteen guns—and it is said by five or six Others of smaller size, having two—three or four guns each, which, while the Enemy hold Niagara, will prevent the communication of our Troops by way of the lake, to say nothing of the want of batteaus for transportation. A communication by land, must be performed through an extent of more than 400 miles, and a great part of this at least, under many disadvantages of route—and through tribes of hostile Indians.

My knowledge of the Country is not sufficiently accurate, to enable me to discover the reasons, which determined Congress to divide the force destined against Niagara—and to appoint the march of one body from Ononguaga to that place. It seems to me however, that this disposition might be subject to one great inconvenience—which is, that if each column be not superior to the whole collective force of the Enemy, they risk being beaten separately and successively; besides the trouble and expence of preparing, as it were for two expeditions instead of one—of opening two roads instead of one—and the uncertainty of a co-operation if no disaster should happen to either, at the moment when it might be necessary. The inquiries, I have as yet had it in my power to make, are opposed to the practicability of conveying Cannon in the route from Ononguaga to Niagara—or at least place it as a point infinitely doubtful; and without Cannon—nothing can be effected against that post. Upon the whole, the great matter essential to success against Niagara, is to subdue the Enemy’s force on Lake Erie and Ontario—particularly the latter. This once done and the Garrison by that means cut off from it’s supplies, the fort will be likely to fall an easy prey. Here our efforts should be directed; nor do I at present perceive the purposes to be answered by the body going from Ononguaga, unless the devastation of the intermediate Indian villages be the object—which perhaps might not be equal to the risk—labour and expence; and the more so—as they would fall of course, if we should succeed in the general operation.

The cantonning five Thousand troops this winter on Connecticut river, under our present prospects, will, in my opinion, be impracticable, and, in any case, unadviseable. When I had the honor of writing Congress in september last, on the subject of a winter campaign into Canada,6 I had been led by General Bayley and other Gentlemen acquainted with the Country, to expect that very considerable magazines of provisions might be laid up, on the upper parts of that river; but it appears on experiment, that their zeal for the expedition had made them much too sanguine in the matter. The purchases fall far, very far, short of what was expected. The difficulties of transportation as represented by the Quarter Masters & Commissaries, supported by facts that speak for themselves, are so great and complicated—that I should have no hope of our being able from remote parts of the Continent, to throw in the quantity requisite for subsisting these troops during the Winter—and, at the same time—of forming the Magazines, which would be necessary to prosecute the expedition in the Spring. We may be endeavouring to form the Magazines; but the Troops cannot be on the spot this Winter; otherwise they will exhaust the provisions, as fast as it can be collected. The same objection applies to the stationing troops on the Mohawk river.

In estimating our force for the next Campaign—it is to be considered, that upwards of Four thousand of the present army will have compleated their term of service, by the last of May next, and, that a great proportion of the remainder will have done the same about the close of the ensuing fall; unless they can be induced to reengage—of which the ill success of our present exertions to inlist those, whose engagements are about to expire, affords but an unfavourable prospect. This and the general temper of the Officers, dissatisfied much with their situation—will suggest a strong argument against the extensive projects in contemplation.

In whatever point of light the subject is placed—our ability to perform our part of the contract—appears to me infinitely too doubtful and precarious—to justify the undertaking. A failure, as I have already observed, would involve consequences too delicate and disagreable to be hazarded. But, at the same time that my Judgement is against this, I am clearly of opinion, that we should attempt every thing that our circumstances will permit; but as the extent of our power must be regulated by many possible events, I would wish to hold ourselves free, to act according to either possibility, and as a clearer view of our future resources shall authorise. If the Enemy entirely leave these States, it will produce a vast change in our affairs and new prospects may open, of which we can at present have but a very imperfect idea. It would be a great step towards raising the value of our money, which would give a new spring to our military operations. We may be able to undertake much more than we can now foresee.

If the Enemy attempt to keep posts in these States—a primary object will be to expel them, if in our power; if not, we must make proper provision to bar their depredations; and must turn our attention to the security of our frontiers, by pursuing such measures, as shall be within the reach of our abilities.

Though we may not be able to launch into so wide a field as we could wish—something upon a more partial scale may be enterprised. Detroit and Niagara may perhaps be reduced—though Canada may not be an accession to the confederacy. With a view to what is possible, preparations may be going on—and we can make such an application of them, as we shall find practicable. As there is no time to be lost in doing this—I shall give the necessary orders, so far as relate to the article of provision, which indeed has been already done in part. Magazines of forage—materials for boat and ship building—and other articles must also be provided; which will depend on the final arrangements, and more definitive instructions of Congress. These measures will be necessary to be taken, whether the present plan is carried on, or whether something less extensive, depending wholly on ourselves, is substituted in its place. I shall wait the further orders of Congress for the government of my conduct, in delivering the plan to the Marquis, as their resolution seems to require; or in transmitting it immediately to Doctor Franklin, as the Letter from the Committee seems to direct. At present I am under some doubt concerning the intention of Congress in this particular. I have the honor to be with the highest respect Yr Excellency’s Most Obedt servt

Go: Washington

P.S. I shall use every means in my power to obtain intelligence, in the points mentioned in the Resolution of the 26th Ulto, and had taken measures for the purpose, with respect to Canada before.7 Mr Livingston, an Officer in the Corps of guards will have the honor of presenting these dispatches to your Excellency. Their importance requiring more than a common Messenger, he very obligingly undertook upon application, to give them a safe conveyance.

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; ADf, DLC:GW; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

GW’s preliminary observations on the proposed Canadian expedition appear in an undated, thirteen-page ADf, docketed “Canada Genls Remarks” by Robert Hanson Harrison. The content differs significantly from the LS, and provides insight into GW’s evolving thoughts on this complex subject: “An appology for so often twarting the views of Congress by exposing the difficulties attending the execution of plans proposed by them. duty requires a candid representation of facts from me the weight of which Congress will judge of. Reason of the Delay.

“Under the present uncertainty respecting the Enemys operations & views—the exhausted state of our Magazines & finances—the immense difficulty of getting Provisions, even from hand to Mouth—infinitely more so to lay up a store of it, especially of Salted meat which would be absolutely necessary. in the execution of the Plan concerted by Congress—the expiration of Service in a number of Men before next June—the distressed Situation of our Officers & the consequent resignations which I much fear will take place at the end of this Campaign—The impracticability of Wintering Troops upon the Mohawk & upper parts of Connecticut River without exhausting every necessary supply of Provision for the ensuing Campaign [(a knowledge of this circumstance but lately come at)] renders the Plan proposed by Congress too extensive—too complexed—& too arduous to be entered upon with a probabl<ity> of success; much less to warrant a compact for them [do it in concert] with a foreign power tenacious perhaps of Their own views in entering into such an engagement & jealous of her own honour undr any disgrace or disappoinmt arising from us—Suspecting ours—or our want of Military knowledge & Ability to concert [impracticable] schemes - or want of means & power to execute them from either of which causes disgust & fatal consequences may follow. Congress no doubt are better acquainted with the State of European politics than I am for unhappily I have no means of information and have good ground to fix the number of French Ships for this Service at [ ] of the Line & [ ] frigates but from my uninformed view of the matter I shd look upon them as sent to inevitable destruction if the Expedition into Canada does not succeed [in all its parts] or, to grace the Port of Quebec only if it should as they cannot get entd again.

“* The Plan proposed by Congress takes 12600 Rank & file [besides Indians & Carpenters for ship & Boat Building] great part of whom are to be at the posts designated this Winter; & to insure the remainder early in the Spr<ing> you are to call for a much greater number of Militia than are intended to be imployed in the height of their Spring Seeding & Corn Planting [This, probability, will give an inundation of useless Mouths in the supernumerary Officers & Privates who will desert you perhaps when they come to be separated from their own Officers wch must happen in many Instances]—this may add considerably to the consumption of Provision [in the number of supernumerary] but supposing you only get the number wanted—when to these are added Comd & Non comd Officers the Staff of the different Departments & their attendants Sutlers—Carpenters for ship & boat building—Indians—Batteaumen Waggoners Bat-men & Servants & women it will be found that your Number of Eaters will be little, if any, under 20,000 & that this Provision except what goes by the way of Fort Schuyler is to be transported in waggon or by Packhorses some hundreds of Miles the greater part of which thro an uninhabited Country affording no other Forage but herbage. the difficulties & the expence attending which in the exhausted condition of the states—present depreciation of Money—& high prices of every Article is easier to conceive than describe & is well worthy the most serious attention especially when we recur to (at least) the possibility of keeping up a respectable force on the Sea board. in addition to the above all of whom must be fed & cloathed.

“These difficulties, as far as I am capable of reasoning upon the Subject, are of such a nature & magnitude as to render an enterprize upon the large scale proposed by Congress extremely precarious—of course an Offer to the Court of France under such Circumstances impolitic & dangerous for nothing less than a moral certainty of fulfilling to a tittle every part of our Contract should induce us to call forth the strength of another People for Conquests.

“But conclusive as these reasons are to my judgement, I have one other wch to me is unanswerable. But on this I shall beg to be silent—it is an important & delicate subject and shall be left to conjecture—but may not the French subserve the purpose as well in the West Indies as Canada?

“When I argue upon the difficulties attending the extensive Plan of Congress, I am clear nevertheless for undertaking every thing that can in our present circumstances, [& under our present difficulties] be attempted with a moral certainty of success with our own strength & would prepare accordingly as no bad consequences will follow if we do not involve others—the Winter may unfold new Scenes. the Spring may present New prospects—& if we should be left without an Enemy upon the Sea board, or small Garrisons only at New York & Rhode Island, or either; & the French can keep the Enemys Troops employed in the West Indies & to defend their dominion elsewhere, I have no doubt (if we can get over the difficulties on Acct of Provision, & can obtain a better currency to our Money) but that something may be done next Campaign that will give permanent Peace to our Frontiers & circumscribe the Enemy within such bounds in Canada as to leave us little to apprehend from them till something more decisive can be achieved - The success of which, in a great measure, would depend upon the little knowledge the Enemy could obtain of the real projects in contemplation.

“The expedition to Detroit from Pittsburg I highly approve of being fully convinced from experience & observation that there is no way of opposing Indians effectually but by carrying the war into their own Country and in the present Instance stopping the source from whence these disorders, & bloodshed flow with their supplies which will be found to originate at the Enemys Posts near the Indian Settlements; but I cannot say that I see into the policy of avowing the intention, because the more covert we act the more distracted are the Enemy which is the great advantage that offensive measure have over defensive ones & where we have sev. blows to Aim, & all very desirable, it is best to let them grope, for in that case, by paying attention to every place they are weak at all points whereas by reducing one or two operations to a certainty you give a clue to the whole & enable them to make their defences accordingly. Nor can I see how the Troops designd for Detroit are to form a junction with those at Niagara unless they subdue the Naval force on Lake Erie as well as the Garrison of Detroit which cannot be so long as Niagara remains theirs the former being on the west & the latter on the East end of the lake distant [ ] miles wch is as far as it is from Pittsburg to Detroit and a much more difficult Rout by Land. The distance by Water is less but where are the Vessels? Detroit is upon the edge of the lake & if the Post cannot be defended, the Garrison will immediately ship themselves for Niagara, & with their Armed Vessels (two of which one of 16 & another of 18 Guns they have) scour the lake of Batteaus if you even had them to transport yr Troops in.

“The same reasons which lead me to approve the Expedition to Detroit operate equally forceably for one to Niagara but I have too little knowledge of the Rout proposed from Ochnaquaga and the object of that Rout to give an opinion upon the propriety of dividing the force that is to operate against Niagara & without there was some cogent reason for it I should be against it & for this Reason principally, that you may be beaten in detachment by the collective force of the Enemy against either of these bodies. As I have before said I have too little knowledge of the rout from Onaquaga to Niagara to give a decided opinion upon the practicability of a March with the necessary apparatus for the reduction of that Post—from the Idea I entertain of the Country & a general description I have nevr understood that Artillery could be transported & without this the Garrison could be reduced no otherwise than by famine. If the destruction of the Indian Settlements is the only end to be answered by the March of this body of Troops the conquest of them will be as effectual by the possession of this Post as by any means whatsoever as it is in the heart of or rather covers their Country.

“Under my present view of the matter I see no other way of reducing Niagara and making the Iroquois or Six Nations dependant upon us but by obtaining the Mastery of Lake Ontario.

“Laying it down as a Position that Militia are totally unfit for the enterprize agt Niagara (which is one of the strongest fortresses upon the Continent)—& that, if the Enemy should not abandon their present Posts, & thereby require an army below to watch their motions or dislodge them if possible, it will be impossible that Provisions & other necessaries for so extensive a Plan as Congress have sketched out can be provided & very precarious under any circumstances therefore I would substitute in its place the following plan & proceed to the execution of it in the following manner.

“Without a moments loss of time (& this I have already given the necessary Orders for) Magazines of Flour & Salt Provisions should be laid up at Albany; & on Connecticut River from No 4 als. fort Charles to Newbury in the Co’os Country—and at the former, that is Albany every Material for Ship & Boat Building rigging Guns, &c. &c. should be provided. I would also form large Magazines of Flour & an adequate quantity of Salt Provisions at Pittsburg. The Troops in the meanwhile, except such as may be necessary for safe Guards to the Provisions & Stores at the above places to be cantooned (if Circumstances will admit) in such places as they can be easiest supplied, & with the least interruption to the forming of the Magazines, here mentioned. By the time the Troops could safely take the field in the Spring, we shall know how far the full views of Congress so far as depends upon our own operations (for I am totally against connecting them with any other for the reasons already mentioned, & the consequences that might follow) can be carried into Execution; & thus far we proceed upon sure Grounds - If our resources and circumstances then combine we are thus far advanced into the Enterprize upon Canada on the large Scale. but If these should not warrant any capitol movement to the Northward we may nevertheless extend ourselves from Pittsburg and the north western Parts of the Frontier of this State into the Indian Settlements as I am fully perswaded that measures of this kind will be found most effectual indeed the only means of putting an end to Indian Ravages. lastly if in the possible event of the Enemy’s finding us full imployment in the interior parts of the Country it should be found that our supplies must be drawn to that Quarter the Magazines will be very properly situated for a removal being on the Rivers & to be water borne.

“Thus far in general. I will now take the matter up more in detail & begin with the Expedition from Fort Pitt, which I conceive to be indispensably necessary for the peace & safety of the Frontiers of Pensylva & Virginia; being thoroughly convinced as I have before observd that there is no way of putting an entire stop to Indian depredations but by the destruction of their Towns removing them to a greater distance & cutting of their supplies. The most effectual way then of doing this remains to be considered.

“If the Expedition is conducted by the most direct rout to Detroit, it must stand solely on its own bottom—for it can neither give aid to, or receive it from, the Troops which may be employed at Niagara, as Congress seem to expect; but will be convinced of the impracticability of, by adverting to the distance between the two places (upwards of 400 Miles thro an almost tractless rout more than double the distance it is from Pittsburg to Detroit) and, that the Enemy have the entire command of Lake Erie by means of Armed Vessels which they have there containing 16, or 18 Guns each with which they can stop all Transportation by water. It appears then that the object of this expedition must be confined to Detroit & to the Indian Settlements in the surrounding Country if Detroit is the primary object.

“But as it appears to me that the Possession of the Lake is of infinite more importance than the reduction of the Fort (the abandoning of the last being the inevitable consequence of the first) it is an object highly worthy of consideration whether some plan cannot be devised to effect this. for till Lakes Erie & Ontario are in our absolute Possession, or the strait between them at Niagara, which could not well be obtained, or supported, unless we become Masters of the lower lake, it is of little avail to proceed to Detroit; because that place of itself can give no opposition to Cannon unless it is considerably strengthned since last winter; being only a stockade & deriving its importance from its situation & contiguity to Lake Huron & upper Lakes and inasmuch as it forms the Chain with the Mississippi & its security from the Indians, & the reinforcements to be received from Canada; the common Garrison being under two hundd Men. If the Enemy cannot oppose our Troops destined for this Expedition in the Field & on their March I have no doubt of their abandoning the Post (after destroying the works) & shipping themselves for Niagara upon their approach.

“To remedy this, & strike a more deadly blow, the lake should be our first object—& the Rout, as far as my present knowledge of the Country extends should be up the Ohio in Batteaus or Canoes (which my be built at Fort Pitt in the course of the Winter) to Wenango—thence up French Creek to where the French formerly had a Fort (all the way by water) thence by a good carrying place 15 Miles & good Road to the Lake at Prisquisle another old french fort & about [ ] Miles from Niagara from whence, if a superiority could be obtained on the Lake the Expedition to Detroit is rendered more easy—much safer—or could be directed in the first, or Second Instance against Niagara as circumstances may require; for I lay it down as an incontestable fact that if we once obtain the mastery of Lake Ontario & the Fort at Niagara that all the Indians in the upper Country cease to be hostile as they must from that moment become dependant upon us. the Communication with the upper Lakes by the way of the River Outawais, being (undr my Conception of the matter) too intricate & roundabout, for us to apprehend much danger from it till by a little breathing spell, we shall recover enough to exte<nd> our own views for further security, or contra<vene> those of the Enemy, which may be directed to our injury.

“But to obtain this superiority is the difficulty as we are straitned for want of Guns & perhaps for <want of> every other article for the equipment for Vessells and are two Ships behind the enemy in the outsett may presume that they can build as fast as we—There is no way of effecting this end, but by hanging out false appearances to mislead the Enemy’s attention & judgment; & this I think may in some measure be accomplished under these Ideas that to save the expence of Land Carriage from Fort Pitt the Expedition will be conducted by water down the Ohio to the River Scioto—up that to the small carrying place only 4 Miles & very good to Sandusky—this rout, so far from being chimerical, or even improbable, that I am not clear whether it is not the cheapest, safest, & most expeditious rout they can take to go immediately to Detroit—this therefore will acct very satisfactorily for the building of Batteaus or Canoes at Pittsburg and as the opinion [& it is the desire I know] of Some of the Settlers on the East side the Ohio is that nothing wd contribute more to deter the hostile Indians from crossing that River than Armed Vessels to be Sailing up & down to cut of the Retreat of those that did (tho I myself do not think that there is sufficient depth of Water for the purpose or that the end would be answered if there was) yet this, or a hint that they were intended for some operation upon the Mississipi might with the unexpectedness of the real design sufficiently conceal it from the Enemy if none but the commanding officer of the Expedition is intrusted with the secret; & he under the strictest ties of honor enjoined not to reveal it. The kind of vessels proper for the purpose of encountering such as the Enemy have upon the Lakes & the manner of building them, so as to be taken to pieces & transferred in bits must be determined by those who are more competent Judges of that kind of Service than I am.

“I am equally strongly impressed with the necessity of an Expedition to Ontario and Niagara, & for the identical reasons which have been assigned in the case last mentioned but do not see the force or Propriety of dividing the Troops intended for this Service on the contrary can see many capitol evils and a fatal consequence which may result from the measure, for if each of these columns is not equal to the whole Assembled force of the Enemy they beat you in Detachment; by opposing their whole force to first one, & then the other, of them—besides, you are at the trouble & expence of preparing for two expeditions instead of one. Opening two Roads instead of one & risquing the junction of these columns at a critical moment perhaps even if no disaster should happen to either—If the only object, is the destruction of the Indian Villages which lye in the Rout between Ouchnaquaga & Niagara I do not think the object is equal to the risque—the expence—& the difficulties which will attend the Seperation of the Troops designed for this general Service especially when it is considered that if we succeed in the objects of these two Expeditions that all the Indian South of the Lakes lay wholly at our Mercy.

“As the door into Canada, by the way of lake Champlain, is barred by the Naval force which the Enemy have there, every advantage gained by the way of lake Ontario is a step into that Country, by the most practicable rout through which a large body of Troops can be conducted for I consider the movement by the way of Co’os at an end, & the design of it accomplished when the Troops arrive at the St Laurence as the presumption is that the Enemy if they cannot oppose them in the Field that they will remove or destroy all Provisions within their reach—all Vessels—& every material for building Vessels thereby endeavouring to prevent their crossing either the St Lawrence or River Sorrel which if accomplished would be an effectual bar to their progress to Montreal and up the River to Caderacki if the rapidity of the Currant & the many rifts which lays between Montreal & la galette were not alone sufficient. The March of Troops however into Canada by this Rout <will> create a very powerful diversion—distract the attention of the Enemy exceedingly and answer many valuable purposes—for which reason they should secure themselves as they go as well for the purpose of retreat as advance and for the benefit of Convoys as it may be a Channel thro<ugh> which great supplies of live meat may be drove for the purpose of feeding the Army wch may have penetrated by the River St Lawrence.”

A crossed-out sheet in GW’s writing contains a list of numbered phrases, possibly intended to be inserted in the text, but it is unclear where:

“1. But even here there is such a chain of connexion in any general System that more than probable the whole may be deranged by the alteration of a part.

“2. To establish Posts of communication for the security of our Convoys [without which the most] fatal consequences might follow.

“3. and only to be come at by means of a long land Carriage thro a country only inhabited by Scattering Indian Settlements—or by obtaining a superiority on Lake Ontario & then going by the way of Oswego.

“4. and which took Genl Amherst two Campaigns to accomplish under all the advantages which he derived from the United efforts of Great Britain & America. the benefits of Water transportation & Briti<sh> Seamen—& Money which readily commanded every thing that either the one or the other Country could furnish.

“5. And secure Convoys of Provisions which must follow after.

“6. and from different Countries.

“7. as planned by Congress.

“8. And if possible obtain the mastery of Lake Erie.

“9. And will fall of course if we succeed in these operations.

“10. And this as there is not a moments time to be lost I shall give the necessary orders about so far as relates to the article of Provision. Much also is necessary in the Quarter Masters line, equally important—such as forage. Materials for Boat & Shipbuilding—Rigging—Sails—Guns &ca” (DLC:GW; significant text that GW struck out is in square brackets).

Plans for a possible invasion of Canada occupied much of GW’s time in the autumn and winter of 1778–79. The idea apparently originated in Congress in the summer of 1778, when the French alliance with America and the British evacuation of Philadelphia had created a heady atmosphere fertile to dreams of continental conquest. GW was skeptical of the idea from its inception. In early September 1778, however, he appointed a board of officers consisting of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, Brig. Gen. Jacob Bayley, and Col. Moses Hazen to confer “upon the best ways, and means, for the Invasion, & possession of Canada”; they reported that such an expedition might succeed, provided the British did not send substantial reinforcements to the region (Board of Officers to GW, 10 Sept.). GW submitted the report to Congress and promptly began gathering intelligence on potential invasion routes and the best means of laying up supplies (GW to Jacob Bayley, 11 Sept., and to Henry Laurens [second letter], 12 Sept.). Congress replied by encouraging GW to make logistical preparations in case the invasion should prove “expedient” (Henry Laurens to GW, 16 Sept.).

GW’s continuing reservations on the subject are apparent in a letter that he wrote on 25 Sept. to Major General Lafayette, who was in doubt whether he should defer his long-planned return to France against the possibility that he might be asked to lead an expedition against Canada. “I do not,” GW told his friend, “conceive that the prospect of such an operation is so favourable at this time as to cause you to change your views.” Lafayette nevertheless became deeply embroiled in planning for the expedition, as Congress summoned him in early October to discuss the possibility of coordinating the invasion with French land and sea forces. His response, and that of the other French military and diplomatic representatives in America, was circumspect; but that did not prevent many people from assuming that the idea of an invasion had been his all along (see Lafayette to GW, 24 Oct., n.4). GW, meanwhile, continued intensive intelligence-gathering and logistical preparations, relying on the expertise of men like Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler and Brig. Gen. Jacob Bayley to keep him informed (see especially Schuyler to GW, 7 and 9 Oct., 30 Nov.; and Bayley to GW, 21 Oct.).

After several weeks of deliberations, Congress finally resolved “upon the Expediency of attacking Canada the next Campaign, in Conjunction with the Forces of his most Christian Majesty” (Continental Congress Committee for Foreign Affairs to GW, 27 Oct.). GW, who had no doubt been privately hoping that Congress would see the light and drop the proposed expedition without his intervention, could withhold his reservations no longer. This letter of 11 Nov., compiled after days of extensive study and consultation, presented his official and largely military reasons for opposing the expedition. He sent it under cover, however, of a letter to Laurens of 14 Nov. that was much more frank and addressed the possibility that the French might exploit the invasion for their own, potentially nefarious purposes (see also Laurens to GW, 20 Nov., and GW to Philip Schuyler, 20–21 Nov.).

Congress read GW’s official letter of 11 Nov. on 19 Nov. and referred it to “the committee on the letters from the Marquis de la fayette.” That committee reported back to Congress on 5 Dec. “that the Reasons assigned by the General against an Expedition to Canada, appear to the Committee to be well founded and to merit the Approbation of Congress.” Congress endorsed the report, but the proposal to invade Canada refused to die, and GW had no choice but to continue his preparations in case the delegates eventually decided to proceed with the invasion after all. GW’s trip to confer with a committee from Congress in Philadelphia in late December 1778 was at least partly predicated on the need to arrive at a final decision on the subject, and from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day he made clear to the delegates that his opposition to the expedition remained firm. On 1 Jan. 1779 Congress finally shelved the invasion proposal by resolving that no further preparations should be made and that France should not again be approached on the subject “till circumstances shall render the cooperation of these states more certain, practicable, and effectual” (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 , 12:1147, 1190–92, 1250, 13:11–14; see also GW to Lafayette, 29 Dec., and Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 11:130–31, 408–9).

1See Continental Congress Committee for Foreign Affairs to GW, 27 Oct.; Wednesday was 4 November. The plan for the invasion of Canada is printed in 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 , 12:1042–48.

2For reports of British intentions to reinforce Halifax, see Horatio Gates to GW, 2 Nov., n.1; Stirling to GW, 29 and 31 Oct., 6 Nov.; and Charles Scott to GW, 29 Oct., n.2, and 7 Nov., n.1.

3Jeffrey Amherst, first Baron Amherst, commanded British forces at the capture of the French fortress of Louisbourg on 26 July 1758, and as commander in chief of British forces in North America he assisted in Brig. Gen. James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on 13 Sept. 1759. Amherst’s conquest of French Canada ended with the capture of Montreal on 8 Sept. 1760, effectively concluding the French and Indian War.

4The St. François River flows northwest across southern Quebec, entering the St. Lawrence River on the southern shore of Lake St.-Pierre, about fifty miles northeast of Montreal.

5“Cadosoqui,” spelled “Caderaecki” on GW’s draft, is Cataraqui, near Kingston, Ontario, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River on northeastern Lake Ontario. La Gallette was located on the St. Lawrence River about 110 miles southwest of Montreal at Ogdensburg, N.Y., opposite what is now Prescott, Ontario. It was the site of the old French fort La Présentation, which was captured by the British in 1760 and renamed Fort Oswegatchie.

7GW is referring to a resolution of 22, not 26, Oct.; see Continental Congress Committee for Foreign Affairs to GW, 27 Oct., n.1. Among GW’s sources for information from Canada at this time were Brig. Gen. Jacob Bayley, New York governor George Clinton, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, and Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler; see Bayley to GW, 5 and 23 Nov.; Gates to GW, 13 and 16 Nov.; and Schuyler to GW, 9 Oct., 24 and 30 Nov., 27 December.

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