George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Mitchell Varnum, 20 August 1781

Philadelphia 20th August, 1781.


Perhaps my Residence in this Place for near a Year without writing to your Excellency, may be deemed Inattention. Two Considerations have hitherto disswaded me from seeking an epistolary Correspondence: The one, your Excellency’s necessary Application to an Infinity of important Objects; The other, General Sullivan, with whom, ’till of late, I have had the most unreserved Communications, has corresponded with your Excellency upon every military Subject, in wch he or I could best serve the public by carrying into Effect, with Propriety & Consistency the Views of our Commander in Chief. That Gentleman has returned to his own State; & this Event will form my Apology for this, & the subsequent Letters I may have Occasion to address to your Excellency. A Committee has lately been appointed in Congress for reforming the present military Establishment, of wch I am one. I must confess the Measure appeared somewhat disagreable; but many Circumstances rendered an Acquiescence preferable to an Opposition: But upon more mature Deliberation, I am induced to retract my first Sentiments, & shall pursue the Subject with unremitted Assiduity. Your Excellency’s general Views & ours are one, the Salvation of America: I shall therefore particularly, tho’ with the greatest Deferrence, communicate my Ideas & feel a peculiar Happiness in the Persuasion of receiving yours, so far as local Circumstances, mutual Confidence and Cabinet Policy will admit. In calculating upon a permanent Force, we cannot anticipate the Termination of the present Campaign, nor decide upon the Negotiations that will take Place in Europe during the approaching Winter. We must suppose the Enemy retiring to Winter Quarters in our own Country, after various Success, and preparing to enter upon Action as soon as possible. Our Country is the Object for which both Parties contend; Which ever of us shall be in firm Possession at the Time of a general Pacification, will carry the Prize. Nations admit of no Claims to sovereign Jurisdiction but what are founded in the Acquisition or Security of Force; & do not descend to Questions of Right, founded in municipal, civil or political Controversy. From Hence it is evident that the United States of America will never be acknowledged, by the Nations of Europe, as independent of Great Britain ’till the States exercise in fact civil Jurisdiction, supported by a permanent military Force, confining the Enemy to defensive Positions. The Possession of Posts, where military Law only can be exercised, is the weakest Situation of a Nation at War, & consequently, does not confer the Right of Sovereignty. Therefore our political Object will be obtained, if we support an Army of equal Strength with that of the Enemy’s—It must be confessed that a Situation capable of offensive Hostilities at all Times, would be far more eligible; but Experience teaches us that we must not be too sanguine upon this Head. We cannot suppose but the general Exertions, have been equal to the Convenience and Inclination, if not to the Abilities of the States: And altho’ the Country abound with Resources, it is a fact, that its Revenues are greatly in Anticipation. This is not the Result of Necessity, but of Mismanagement. Our political Measures are changed; but we cannot expect to feel immediately the beneficial Effects of the best Regulations. We may calculate, with some Degree of Precission, the Extent of our Finances for the coming Year. They must form the Basis of all our Arrangements; And if we attempt to exceed them in any Respect, it must be by temporary and partial Exertions, such as obtaining Detachments of Militia from particular Places, and for particular Objects. The bitterest Reflection wounds us with the Idea of having an Army, at this Moment, badly clothed, badly feed, and not paid. The Changes of Currency, & Instability of pecuniary Systems, will, in some Measure, account for these Evils; but we cannot suffer them to continue. We must fulfill punctiliously all our Ingagements; & then we may assure ourselves of an energetic Army. It is impossible to oppose the Enemy in every given Point of Attack, so as to prevent Depredations: Our Object is to prevent Conquest; but what they gain by their Shipping, we must supply by the Exertions of our Militia. The Enemy’s Troops in the United States, from Savannah to Penobscot inclusive, cannot be far from Eighteen or twenty Thousand Rank and File. I would therefore propose that our Army consist of Twenty Thousand Rank and File infantry, besides Cavalry and Artillery. It is an Observation by several military Writers that no Country can support, or rather afford, for permanent military Service, more than one Soldier to every one hundred Inhabitants. This Army will overrun the Calculation; but two Circumstances are favorable to us. The Troops are retained in our own Country, and the Army will be disbanded at the End of the War. The Nature of our political Association, founded in our Confederation, is such that we must proportion the Troops to each State, to be raised, officered, accoutred and equipped for the Field. They ought to be so proportioned as that no State will fail of producing its Quota. Unfortunately the Articles of Confederation provide that each State shall furnish Troops in Proportion to the Number of its white Inhabitants. A Rule so totally absurd, that we must endeavor, while we support it in Appearance, to get rid of it in Reality. For Instance, Virginia is rated higher than Massachusetts in white Inhabitants, while the Speck, Rhode-Island is a stronger military State than Virginia. Virginia is an extensive Territory thinly inhabited, made up of independent Gentlemen, uninformed Peasants, and numerous Slaves. Massachusetts, is well populated; Her Citizens are all equal, and Consequently infinitely advanced of Virginia in Civilization, interior Government & military Strength. It is undoubted therefore, that Massachusetts can raise an Army vastly superior to Virginia. North Carolina may be said to be in a State of Nature—Her Inhabitants were never, under the royal Government, rendered tame by the Restraints of Law, And Experience convinces us that they have made no great Progress in the Principles of Humanity since the War commenced. Few Men therefore can be expected from that State. South Carolina has been long in a Situation that renders it doubly feeble. Feeble in the first Instance from the aristocratic Ideas of its leading Men and from the Number of its Slaves; In the second, by the Ravages of the Enemy, and the Desolations of our own People. Georgia, exhibits a striking Scene of human Wretchedness. Her few remaining Inhabitants contend with each other, without a Sentiment of Benevolence; and their common Object is Plunder. Pennsylvania is without Exception the most Respectable State in the Union, if we Regard its Situation, its Soil, its Numbers, & the manner of its Settlement: But when we contemplate its Government, "Fate drops the Curtain," and we can Say no more. New Jersey and New York, are in particular Circumstances, & therefore cannot appear to Advantage—For the other States, Observations are unnecessary. The Quota’s Rank and File, I propose, are, New Hampshire, one Thousand; Massachusetts, four Thousand; Rhode Island, six hundred; Connecticutt, two Thousand; Vermont, five hundred; New York, eleven hundred; New Jersey, eleven hundred; Pennsylvania, three Thousand; Delaware, five hundred; Maryland, two Thousand; Virginia Twenty five hundred; North Carolina one Thousand; & South Carolina, one Thousand—To compensate for this Disproportion of Numbers, the States most effective, must either be Satisfied with the Equity of the Case; or receive Subsidies. Infinite have been our Disadvantages in having Officers beyond Bounds. Policy as well as Frugality urge the Necessity of curtailing their Numbers. The Attention to military Duty generally decreases in proportion to the Number of Officers, whenever Idleness becomes habitual: The Objects of a laudable Ambition increase upon the contrary Principle, and give to personal Abilities a Dignity which otherwise would never appear. Let each Battalion be commanded by a Lieutenat Colonel, & two Majors: Let it be composed of five Companies, commanded each by one Captain, two Lieutenants and one Ensign. The Noncommissioned Officers may be four Serjeants, four Corporils & two Drums and Fifes to a Company. Two Battalions may form a Regiment to be commanded by a Colonel. I am sensible of the Objections to that Grade; but Compositions will ever enter into the Idea of Exchanges. We have a Number of full Colonels; This Arrangement will make a proper Distinction in their Command, from that of a Lt Colonel: Besides, it may be an humiliating Circumstance to subject all our Regimental Officers to the Orders of the French Regimental Officers. I have made an exact Calculation of the Savings upon this Plan; it will exceed fifteen hundred Thousand Dollars, annually in the Pay only, while we shall probably obtain a more effective Army than upon the present System. Much depends upon a good Corps of Artillery. While they are assigned to particular States, they will appoint the Officers: Consequently, we shall be chagrined. I would reduce that Establishment to three Regiments, joining the Virginia & Pennsylvania Corps. The Officers and Men should remain, without counting them upon the Quota of any State, trusting to General Inlistments, or finally Drafts to compleat them. It is extremely difficult to speak of Cavalry with any degree of Certainty. They are very essential; but enormously expensive: However, let these Corps remain at present, after joining the two Virginia Regiments; They must also be recruited at large, & not credited to any State. We must alter our System with Regard to Waiters. Officers can readily obtain Servants, if we furnish them with Money for the Purpose; and at a much cheaper Rate than Soldiers are obtained. The prodigious Number of our Brigades becomes an Object of Magnitude, upon the Principles of Finance. A Brigadier General requires much Provision, & much Forage; Suppose three Regiments should constitute a Brigade; the whole Infantry will then compose Seven Brigades, allowing Hazens Regiment to remain as it is. We need not, upon this Arrangement, retain more than fourteen Brigadiers in Service. The Idea of Divisions will vanish, & indeed they enter not into the Principles of grand Tacticks: Major Generals will then command Wings, Lines, & seperate Departments. We may dispense with several Gentlemen in that Grade, And with a great Deal of Expence. But in these Reductions the greatest Delicacy must Be observed. They should therefore retire upon half Pay, liable to be recalled into Service whenever the Commander in Chief shall deem it expedient. A total Reform is necessary in the civil Departments of the Army; But as these Lines will come under the immediate Attention of the Financier, I shall not trouble your Excellency with any Observations upon that head. My Observation respecting Georgia may be taken in too great a Latitude. There are virtuous Citizens of that distressed State, dispersed in different parts of the Continent, & I am well informed that they have rasied three hundred State Troops at the Request of General Greene, who behave extremely well. The Plunderers are made up of Tories, & some independent Parties, in Nature of Marauders. Perhaps this new raised Corps may be adopted upon the general Plan.

We have been so fortunate at last to elect a Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Time draws near for appointing a Secretary at War. There will be a great Difficulty respecting the Candidates. I recollect a Question in one of your Excellency’s former Letters to General Sullivan. Be pleased to receive from me the real Answer. That Gentleman was in Nomination; And to get rid of the Embarrassment, Congress postponed the Election. General Greene is most talked of, but he cant be taken from the Line. Will General Heath fill the Place with Propriety? I know he sometimes hesitates; but he has many excellent Qualities. How will General Glover answer for Commissary General of Prisoners? Will it be political to promote Generals Greene & Lincoln to the Rank of Lt Generals? The detaching Mr Peters to Camp was a political Manoeuvre of your Friends. He has been a long Time in the Process of Reformations & it is believed, will soon come out intirely purified. General Cornel is an excellent hand—& has been of infinite Service in the War Office. In the Course of Octr or November next, I shall return to Rhode- Island; Previous to which I hope the Arrangements for next Campaign will be compleated. I have the Honor of being, with the most perfect Respect, your Excellency’s most obedient, & very humble Servt

J.M. Varnum

DLC: Papers of George Washington.

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