George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Brigadier General Henry Knox, 20 August 1779

To Brigadier General Henry Knox

West Point 20th Augst 1779


I have received the reports from Major General McDougal Brigadier Du Portail and yourself of this date on the subject of the batteries cannon and ammunition necessary, for the defence of West Point.1

The motive there suggested concurs with others to make me desire there should be a speedy and ample supply of powder at this post and in the vicinity—We cannot now undertake any operations however necessary, which may require a considerable expenditure of this article—from the present absolute scarcity of it—I am informed the arrival of a large quantity is momently expected.2 You will therefore please to write to the Board representing our situation and requesting in pressing terms, that in case of such arrival, no time may be lost in forwarding3 what you deem a competent supply, as well for offensive operations against the enemy’s posts should they become adviseable as for the defence of this.4

You will at the same time have a sufficient number of cannon ball of proper sizes prepared for the same purposes that we may be at no loss on this account. I am with great esteem Sir Your most Obet servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, NjP: deCoppet Collection; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1On this date, Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall, Brigadier General Duportail, and Knox wrote to GW from West Point: “We the under written, having viewed the works, fortifications and adjacent grounds on both sides the river and on Constitution Island, and taken into consideration the objects intended by them, agreeable to Your Excellency’s directions to us, beg leave to report as our opinion the enclosed paper.

“The number and nature of cannon required with very few alterations are now here or are shortly expected. And although the ammunition is far short of the proper quantity, yet as the Post is of the utmost importance to America, we think it will be proper to have the cannon mounted and to endeavor by every means to obtain a proportionable quantity of ammunition.

“It is our opinion the two water batteries east of Fort Arnold, commonly called the lanthorn batteries, are of little importance in the defence of the place. But in lieu of them, and the south battery on the same range, it is proposed to have two batteries of heavy cannon—one on the south east and the other on the north east of Fort Arnold. The S.E. battery will range well down the river, scour Neilson’s point, and flank any ships that might lay near the chain. The N.E. battery will well defend the chain from any attempts that may be made against it by boats or ships” (DLC:GW).

The enclosed report, dated 20 Aug. at West Point and signed by McDougall, Knox, and Duportail, was headed: “Number and nature of cannon necessary for the forts and redoubts on West Point and its dependencies.” For the fortifications on the west side of the Hudson River, it listed for Fort Arnold: three 18-pounders, four 12-pounders, and three 3- or 4-pounders; for the two proposed water batteries: seven 18-pounders and two 12-pounders; for the chain battery: three 12-pounders; for Sherburne’s redoubt: two 3- or 4-pounders; for Fort Putnam: six 18-pounders, four 12-pounders, and four 3- or 4-pounders; for Webb’s redoubt (later, Fort Webb) “and the ridge east of it”: two 6-pounders and four 3- or 4-pounders; for “Wyllis’s advanced lines and batteries to the left” (later, Fort Wyllys): two 18-pounders and three 3- or 4-pounders; and for the four numbered redoubts on Rocky Hill: two 12-pounders (for no. 4), five 6-pounders (for no. 3), five 9-pounders and one 6-pounder (for no. 2), and eight 9-pounders (for no. 1).

For the fortifications on the east side of the Hudson River, it listed, for the “North redoubt,” three 18-pounders and three 12-pounders. For the “South redoubt,” it listed one 12-pounder and four 6-pounders.

For the fortifications on Constitution Island, it listed, for “Redoubt No. 5,” two 12-pounders, two 6-pounders, and four 3- or 4-pounders; for “No. 6,” four 6-pounders; for “No. 7,” four 3- or 4-pounders; for the “Water battery proposed instead of the present one,” four 18-pounders and two 12-pounders; and, for the “Chain battery,” three 12-pounders.

The report listed a total of twenty-five 18-pounders, twenty-six 12-pounders, thirteen 9-pounders, eighteen 6-pounders, and twenty-four 3- or 4-pounders. At the end of the report, the generals added a note reading: “The mortars and howitzers to be disposed as occasion may require” (DLC:GW).

On this date, Duportail also completed his “Mémoire sur la défense de Wespoint,” which he may have submitted to GW in conjunction with the other reports of this date. In the study, Duportail set out various ways the British might attack the fortress and assessed the adequacy of the fort’s existing defenses in each scenario. He concluded, “It seems to me that we have assured the defense of this mountain, as much as it is necessary to do it, in view of the number of troops the enemy can sacrifice to the attack of West Point” (photocopy and translation, NWM).

2GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman had received this information from James Searle of the Continental Congress Committee of Commerce (see GW to the Board of War, 27 Aug.).

3GW’s aide Alexander Hamilton, who penned the draft, first wrote the words “to this post and such other places as you judge proper” on that document, then crossed them out and continued the letter as written in the LS.

4GW soon decided to write to the Board of War himself about the army’s dire need for supplies of powder (see GW to the Board of War, 27 August).

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