George Washington Papers
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To George Washington from Major General Robert Howe, 25 March 1780

From Major General Robert Howe

Highlands [N.Y.] 25th of March 1780

Dear Sir

I am anxious to know the Result of the Enemy’s Enterprize against Paramus—the Alarm reach’d me the Day it happened, & I sent out Persons to learn the Particulars who are not yet return’d. I was witheld from writing to your Excellency upon the Subject from the Certainty that you must have heard of it sooner than I did, & because no Opportunity offered, & I had no Express ready.1

Your Excellency’s Favour of the 21st reach’d me the Day before yesterday—I shall pursue it’s Instructions with all possible Punctuality. Our Party below have taken several of that infamous Banditti who have been infesting the Inhabitants. One or two of them are Liable to Court Martial for Capital Offences, & as the Articles sent me up, give me a Power to finish the Matter, your Excellency’s Humanity (should the Court determine against them) shall not be wounded by the painfull Task of signing their Death Warrant.

I inclose your Excellency an Affirmation against the Person mention’d in it, who is now in Irons & under Guard—if Credit is to be given to what he said, the Enemy have Views of operating here.2

I have had no Answer from Governor Clinton which gives me both Surprize & Anxiety—Col. Hay conjectures that my Letters miss’d him as they went to Albany, & he might have been set out for Poughkepsie.3 I have the Honor to be with the greatest Respect, & Regard Dear Sir your most obedient Humble Servant

Robert Howe

LS, DLC:GW. Although “ansd 25” appears on the docket of this letter, GW did not acknowledge receiving Howe’s letter until writing that officer on 30 March.

1Howe is referring to a recent enemy attack into Bergen County, N.J. (see Christopher Stuart to GW, 24 March).

2The enclosure has not been identified, but it is likely that at least some of the “infamous Banditti” arrived with a letter from Lt. Col. James Mellen to Howe written at Philipse Manor, N.Y., on 9 March. Mellen’s letter in part reads: “I send three prisoners whom I suppose are great Villians. The one by the name of Geo. Forrester, says he came from Livingston’s Mannor. I suppose he is one of those who Broke Jail at Poughkeepsie; another by the name of Isaac Gidden was taken at Marrineck [Mamaroneck]; he has the character of being one of the low Thievs. The other Wm. Cypher, has been with the Enemy for eight months, he Deserted the militia at Fishkill for Fear of punishment for not bearing arms in an alarm” (Hastings and Holden, Clinton Papers description begins Hugh Hastings and J. A. Holden, eds. Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777–1795, 1801–1804. 10 vols. 1899–1914. Reprint. New York, 1973. description ends , 5:552–53; see also Howe to George Clinton, 11 March, and Clinton to Howe, 24 March, in Hastings and Holden, Clinton Papers description begins Hugh Hastings and J. A. Holden, eds. Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777–1795, 1801–1804. 10 vols. 1899–1914. Reprint. New York, 1973. description ends , 5:552–54).

The lawlessness in the area southwest of West Point and north of the New Jersey border with New York was well known. Numerous petitioners who characterized themselves as “Inhabitants of Orange County [N.Y.] in Smith’s Clove” had written to New York governor George Clinton on 14 Nov. 1778. That letter in part reads: “That for a Considerable time past, a great part of that County hath been infested by a Banditti of Villains, who have Committ’d many Robberies, & Murder, and that at this time notwithstanding some exertion to suppress them, they continue in Numbers to the great terror of the peacable Inhabitants as well as danger to Travellers through the Country” (Hastings and Holden, Clinton Papers description begins Hugh Hastings and J. A. Holden, eds. Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777–1795, 1801–1804. 10 vols. 1899–1914. Reprint. New York, 1973. description ends , 4:274–75; see also GW to Thomas Clark, 21 Dec. 1778, and Clinton to GW, 18 May 1779).

3Howe is alluding to his letter to Clinton of 15 March relaying intelligence of possible British military maneuvers and asking that the militia be placed on alert (see Howe to GW, 16–17 March, and n.2 to that document). Clinton responded to Howe from Poughkeepsie, N.Y, on 24 March: “I was honored with your Letters … the Moment before I set out from Albany for this Place. A very tedious Passage has prevented my acknowledging the Receipt of them sooner.

“The Information communicated respecting the Enemy appears to me to be too well founded to admit of a Doubt that they are preparing for some capital Enterprize. The Militia of that Part of the State which from its contiguity to the Posts in the Highlands can afford immediate Succor are under Orders to hold themselves in Constant readiness to take the Field on the Shortest Notice & shoud their Aid be wanted you rest assured that every Possible Exertion will be made to bring them to your Assistance with that Dispatch which the Emergency may require” (Hastings and Holden, Clinton Papers description begins Hugh Hastings and J. A. Holden, eds. Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777–1795, 1801–1804. 10 vols. 1899–1914. Reprint. New York, 1973. description ends , 5:553–54).

Howe’s subordinate stationed at West Point, Brig. Gen. John Paterson, gave a disconcerting portrayal of the Continental army’s situation in the Highlands when he wrote Maj. Gen. William Heath, then at Roxbury, Mass., on 31 March: “Our supplies are yet very scanty, the Forage has been gone these fourteen days and but a little Flour the River has been open three weeks, the chain will be down tomorrow. we have been making every exertion in our power to put the works in a state of defence against an attack which the enemy are loudly threatning, but we are now like a man who has arrived to the age of three score years and ten his eyes dim, his hearing gone, his Limbs paralytic, depending on a broken cane which wounds his hand instead of supporting the feeble body—This in fact is the case with the shattered remains of the once respectable line from the State of the Massachusetts Bay, we once had a respectable Soldiery, the men in high spirits, they then had confidence in the Justice and generosity of their Country, in which confidence they fought, they conquered, they endured hardships, cold, hunger, and every other inconvenience with pleasure—But alas the reverse in every particular is the case with us at present Our officers resigning by dozens, our men for during the War at home waiting (but in vain) for Justice, what remains are mostly composed of nine Months abortions, sent here with bounties which ten times exceed those given for the war, naked, lifeless, and dead, who never saw action, are now counting days, hours, and minutes, they have to tarry in service.

“Recruiting is now entirely at an end the parsimony (I will not say dishonesty) of the Court has entirely prevented it . …

“You may perhaps think this picture is too high coulered, but be assured my Dear Genl that there is now an intention making head very fast in the line of all resigning and leaving the service, should this take place (as I assure you I have reason to believe will) the consequence I am certain will be fatal. You must conjecture what spirits I can have from this. … It realy gives me pain to think of our public affairs, where is the public spirit of the Year 1775? where are those flaming patriots who were ready to sacrifise their lives, their fortunes, their all, for the public” (MHi: Heath Papers; see also “Heath Papers,” description begins “The Heath Papers.” Parts 1–3. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th ser., 4:1–285; 7th ser., vols. 4–5. Boston, 1878–1905. description ends 3:44–46).

Howe presented a less gloomy picture when he wrote Heath from the Highlands on the same date: “The Embarrassments, and disapointments, which have attended us at this Post, have been Various, and manifold, and called for our every exertion to prevent the very Annihilation of the Army, they are now however in some degree (but no wholly) surmounted . …

“The decreasing state of our Battalions, indeed, the rapid decay of them Teems with Horrid Images, our best Men are leaving us every moment, and we shall soon be left with little more to act with than the Nine Months miscarriages, for God sake my Dr Sir exert yourself to the utmost, to send up to us the Men whose Furloughs are out, and press on the Recruiting Service with all possible Zeal, in which you will most essentially serve your Country” (MHi: Heath Papers; see also “Heath Papers,” description begins “The Heath Papers.” Parts 1–3. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th ser., 4:1–285; 7th ser., vols. 4–5. Boston, 1878–1905. description ends 3:46–50).

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