George Washington Papers

I. Loose Thoughts upon an Attack of New York, c.3 October 1779

Loose Thoughts upon an Attack of New York

[c.3 Oct. 1779]1

An attack, upon the enemy at New York & its dependencies, must be regulated by the posts they occupy, and the nature of their defence.

at present they are much dispersed—Some being in the City, & some at Kings bridge—while long Island—Staten Island—Powles hook—&, (as some say) Sandy hook also have a part. a thousand remain at the points at Kings-ferry.

If they remain thus seperated and divided when the French-fleet arrives, it ought to be the first object of Count D’Estaing to keep them so. & this is no other wise to be done than by pushing a sufficient number of Vessells by the hook—destroying all the Boats on Staten Island & by laying his ships in the Bay between New York & Staten Island prevent others getting there. Unless the Boats on Stat⟨en⟩ Island are immediately destroyed, & suc⟨h⟩ a disposition of the Ships made as will pr⟨e⟩vent others from getting there, a retreat to long Island will, & can easily be affected by the enemy. a few Ships should also be run immediately up the No. River into Haverstraw-bay to prevent the retreat of the Garrison of Stony-point by Water & to secure the communication of the Rivr—These operations would render the reduction of those bodies of Men which occupy Staten Island & stony point certain;2 but the Troops on long Island—at Kings bridge—& at Powles hook may, in spite of any endeavours of the fleet, form a junction; & in defiance of a land force also; if it is undertaken in time.

But to pursue the idea, & supposition, that they will continue forces on long Island and at Powles-hook (which is very probable & not less desirable) a position should be taken & in force on the heights above Morrissena3—pointing equally to Haerlam River & a passage over the East River to long Island—while ⟨it is⟩ contiguous to the North River. Every demo⟨n⟩stration for crossing the East River should be thrown out at the same time that real preparations are making for throwing Troops over Harlem River & possessing the heights above Harlem Plains for the purpose of cutting off the communication & retrea⟨t⟩ of the Troops from Kings bridge to the City. The demonstration is to draw the attention of the enemy to long Island & leave that of York more unguarded. feints must be practiced to give countenance to a belief that the Army is going over to long Island: but for the execution of the real design—a number of Boats must be held in readiness on the North-river (at Stony point4 if we are ⟨in⟩ possession of it, if not, at some other place ⟨le⟩ast liable to betray the design) ready to move ⟨d⟩own at a certain time, & to a certain place for the purpose of receiving Troops to be landed at the heights below Harlem plains.5 To facilitate this operation & prevent the Troops in the City from moving out, Count D’Estaing (who previous to the hour of co-operation shd also hold out every appearance of landing on long Island to form a junction with our Troops at some given point) should have his Troops Imbarked on board boats ready to land in reality, or to make a shew of it as circumstances may point out and will justify. These Troops to be covered by their own Shipping in New York bay—while those6 in the No. River receive protection from the French ships above spiken devil. which are to move down to prevent the retreat of the garris⟨on⟩ at and about Kings bridge & cover the flan⟨ks⟩ of our Incampment at Harlem. The Armed Vessels in the Sound should move as near Morrissena as possible to cut off all communication between Rhode Isld & New York & prevent the Troops at Kings bridge getting on to long Island by moving on the East side of Harlem river towards it.7

If this plan should Succeed—& it appears at least probable under the effect of a consternation at possessing Harlem heig⟨hts⟩ & seperating the Troops on the Island a spirited exertion with the proper means which must be previously prepared may set fire to and destroy all the Shipping in the North River provided they should be at or above Turtle-bay.8

If it shall be thought advisable after obtaining some certain knowledge of the enemy’s strength on Staten Island to make an attempt upon them there, & a force in addition to that on board the fleet wanting ⟨to⟩ effect the purpose—Lord Stirlings divisio⟨n⟩ or the light infa⟨ntry⟩ & the Pensylvania Militia may be employ⟨ed⟩ on that Service with the Jersey Militia if necess⟨ary⟩.9

The foregoing operation is on the presumption that the enemy, upon the appearance of the French fleet will continue to occupy their present Posts in the manne⟨r⟩ they now hold them; but in case they should concenter themselves in, or near the City, & at Brooklyn the plan will vary.10

It may be necessary in that cas⟨e⟩ for Count D’Estaing to Possess Staten Islan⟨d⟩ with his Troops, while his Ships lay in Ne⟨w⟩ York bay—Lord Stirling’s division or light Infany and Pensa Militia may also join them. these to be held in readiness to make a descen⟨t⟩ at long Island at such a time & at such place as may be agreed on, in order with other Troops which may be thrown across the East River to form an Army for long Is⟨land⟩11—The residue of the Troops to advance to Harlem & proceed on to York Island by w⟨ay⟩ of Kings bridge if the Garrisons are with drawn—or Harlem river if a few Troops are left in them merely to hold the Works and take possession of the heights where the enemy had their first lines. & then Murrys Hill.12 The French shipping guarding the rig⟨ht⟩ Flank. good & strong pickets to secure our left & Front. a breast work of Waggons—Abbatis & Pits—or something else to guard against the effect of a sudden attack, or Night surprize.

The rest being the work of regular approaches it must speak as circumstances direct.

AD, DLC:GW. GW docketed this document “Loose thoughts upon an Attack of N. York.” The document is misdated June 1778 in DLC:GW, and it originally appeared in this series as part of GW to d’Estaing, 14 July 1778, n.3.

1GW seems to have written this document after he drafted his 13 Sept. letter to d’Estaing with “hints” for combined operations and probably before he drafted Document IV. The scope of the operations presented in “Loose thoughts” matches the scope of GW’s October proposals to d’Estaing. In his 13 Sept. letter to d’Estaing, GW proposed only limited operations against Staten Island and the forts at King’s Ferry, New York. His October plan envisioned a much more complex operation not only against Staten Island and King’s Ferry but also against New York itself: taking Long Island and landing troops on Manhattan Island—a siege of New York. Also GW held discussions with Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair on the evening of 3 Oct., elements of which GW appears to have incorporated into “Loose thoughts” (see Document VI). It therefore seems that this document should most appropriately be dated about 3 or 4 October.

2These operations to cut off the British garrisons on Staten Island and at King’s Ferry had been a part of GW’s planning for combined operations since mid-September; see his letter to d’Estaing of 13 September. In his proposals to d’Estaing at this time, GW again included these operations to “intercept” these garrisons as an essential part of the attack on New York (see Document IV). On 4 Oct., GW issued orders to the commanders of the army’s forward divisions east and west of the Hudson to prepare for these operations (see Documents V and VIII). GW had also directed a reconnaissance of the fort at Stony Point to prepare for a siege (see GW to Anthony Wayne, 3 Oct.). On 10 Oct., GW relayed to d’Estaing the plans he discusses here for destroying the boats at Staten Island (see GW to Duportail and Alexander Hamilton, 10 Oct.).

3GW planned for the division of the army stationed in Rhode Island under the command of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, composed of six Continental and two Rhode Island regiments, to compose part of this force (see Document II).

4GW first wrote “Peekskill,” then lined that out, and wrote “Stony point” above the line.

5GW here seems to be proposing a double landing on Manhattan Island: one from the vicinity of Morrisania, N.Y., across Harlem Creek to seize the high ground above Harlem plains and one from the Hudson River to take the heights below Harlem, New York. For St. Clair’s discussion of potential landings on Manhattan Island, see Document VI.

6GW inadvertantly wrote “these.”

7For more on GW’s plans for the allied warships to be sent into Long Island Sound, see Documents II and IV.

8GW may have meant the East River; Turtle Bay was located on the East River shore of Manhattan Island.

9GW had first proposed an operation to cut off the British garrison on Staten Island in his letter to d’Estaing of 13 September. For more on GW’s plans for this attack, see Document IV. For Major General Stirling’s proposals to GW regarding an attack on Staten Island, see Document IX; see also GW to Stirling, 7 October. For GW’s plans to call on the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania (along with three other states) for large bodies of militia to support his planned operations, see Document III and GW to Samuel Huntington, 4 October.

10GW believed that, on Long Island, the British would hold only Brooklyn (see GW to Benjamin Tallmadge, 17 Oct.).

11For St. Clair’s recommendations to GW on a plan for placing an army on Long Island, see Document VI.

12Murray Hill was the first large elevation north of the city’s outer defenses, located just above milepost three. It derived its name from New York merchant Robert Murray (1721–1786), who had built his house on the hill. One road north from the city to King’s Bridge crossed the hill, and the other passed just to its west. GW appears to have planned to make this hill the center of his siege lines north of the city.

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