From William Tudor
Plains of Haarlem 23d Sepr. 1776
Every Day more thoroughly convinces me that an absolute Tyranny is essential in the Government of an Army, and that every Man who carries Arms, from the General Officer to the private Centinel, must be content to be a temporary Slave, if he would serve his Country as a Soldier. The Legions of antient Rome and the modern Battalions of Britain have owed their Triumphs principally to this Cause. I not long since pointed out to you the Defects of the present military Code which governs the Army of the united American States. I have only to add that, almost every Villainy and Rascality that can disgrace the Man, the Soldier or the Citizen, is dayly practised without meeting the Punishment they merit. So many of our Officers want Honour, and so many of our Soldiers want Virtue civil, social and military, that Nothing but the severest Punishments will keep both from Practices which must ruin Us. The infamous and cruel Ravages which have been made on the wretched, distress’d Inhabitants of this unfortunate Island by many of our Soldiers, must disgrace, and expose our Army to Detestation. I have heard some Tales of Woe, occasioned by the Robberies of our Army, which would extort Sighs from the Hearts of Tygers.1 It is true some have been detected, but cashiering for an Officer and 39 Lashes for a Private is the extent of Punishment which our present Articles admit of. When Death itself would hardly atone for the Barbarity which in some Instances has been exhibited. Our Men are at present only Robbers, that they will soon be Murderers, unless some are hang’d, I have little Doubt. For God’s Sake then give Us a New Set of Articles, that if we cannot reform Men we may at least punish their Crimes.
I do not write you any News because I know every Movement of the Enemy and every Occurrence in our own Army worth sending, is constantly and immediately transmitted to Congress by the General. For this Reason I have not sent You any Account of the shamefull Conduct of some New England Regiments On Sunday the 15th. in their precipitate Retreat, to call it by the softest Name. But Nothing else was to have been expected from Regiments commanded by such Officers as those were.2 New England may continue to pour forth her Inhabitants by thousands, but as she sends Men without Commanders, she only sends them to meet Defeat. Our Men will fight if led on by good Officers, and as certainly run away if commanded by Scoundrels. Sunday was an Instance of the last, and the next Day a Confirmation of the first Assertion.3 New England has Men of Sense and Honour who might soon become good Officers, but the Gentlemen there are so totally absorb’d by the Auri sacra fames,4 and the Views of making Fortunes by Privateering, that no other Consideration seems to be attended to.
I had a very narrow Escape from the Enemy on Sunday the 15th. I continued in the City three Hours after they landed, intending if they got Possession of the Town to get over to the Jersey Shore in some Boat. After I found our Men were running before the Enemy I thought it necessary to take Care of Myself, but found it impracticable to cross the North River unless I swam across. I put on by the Side of N. River, and pass’d the Enemy about two Miles from Town within Musquet Shot, but taking into the Woods I got off with the Loss only of a little Baggage. I am with great Respect Dr Sir very truly Yours
We last Night lost a most intrepid Officer in Major Henley Aid de Camp to Genl. Heath, in a Skirmish at Montresor’s Island. He landed with Lt. Col. Jackson of Sargent’s Regiment with a small Party, but was not supported, and fell a Sacrifice to the Cowardice of some Poltroons.5 This young Officer is universally lamented he bid fair to have been a great military Character. Col. Jackson was wounded and most of the Party in the Boat kill’d. How many of our best Officers must we lose before we learn to beat the En[emy?][. . .] brave are Victims to the Baseness of the Poltroons.6
RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “The Honble. John Adams Esq Member of Congress Philadelphia Free”; docketed: “Tudor Sept 23. 1776 ans. Sept. 26.” Some mutilation.
1. One of the most shocking deeds was the plundering of the property of Lord Stirling, a captive of the British (Washington, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick description begins The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Washington, 1931–1944; 39 vols. description ends , 6:18, 42).
2. Before landing at Kip’s Bay (about the foot of what is now 34th St.) on 15 Sept., the British laid down a very heavy raking fire from their warships in the East River. When British soldiers debarked from transports, appearing out of the smoke of the naval guns, Connecticut militia under the command of Col. William Douglas fled without firing a shot. Their panic was communicated to Gen. John Fellows’ brigade of Massachusetts militia and from them to Gen. Parsons’ Connecticut Continental regiments. Gen. Washington, who had ordered Fellows and Parsons to move up to the support of the units stationed along the river, reported later that the two generals did their best to form their men into a holding line but that they could not stop the panic. In late October a court of inquiry examined charges of cowardice against Col. John Tyler of Parsons’ brigade, but he was exonerated. Henry P. Johnston, a careful scholar, felt that the fire from the ships could not have been withstood even by veteran troops (Johnston, Campaign around New York and Brooklyn description begins Henry P. Johnston, The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn (Long Island Historical Society, Memoirs, vol. 3), Brooklyn, 1878, repr. N.Y., 1971. description ends , p. 232–237; Washington, Writings description begins The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Washington, 1931–1944; 39 vols. description ends , 6:58; Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, New York, 1948–1952; 6 vols. Vol. 7, by John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, New York, 1957. description ends , 4:193; Force, Archives description begins [Peter Force, ed.,] American Archives: Consisting of a Collection of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs, Washington, 1837–1853; 9 vols. description ends , 5th ser., 2:1251–1254). See JA’s excoriation of officers in his reply (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:438).
3. The Battle of Harlem Heights, fought on 16 Sept. Some of the troops that had fled the day before now fought bravely, including Connecticut troops led by William Douglas (Johnston, Campaign around New York and Brooklyn description begins Henry P. Johnston, The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn (Long Island Historical Society, Memoirs, vol. 3), Brooklyn, 1878, repr. N.Y., 1971. description ends , p. 246–258).
4. The accursed thirst for gold.
5. Thomas Henly rode in a boat with Lt. Col. Michael Jackson of Paul Dudley Sargent’s 16th Continental Infantry. Although Jackson’s boat landed on Montressor’s (later Randall’s) Island, and his men fought, the other five boats fled in the face of fire (Heitman, Register Continental Army description begins Francis B. Heitman, comp., Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, new edn., Washington, 1914. description ends , p. 22, 285; Johnston, Campaign around New York and Brooklyn description begins Henry P. Johnston, The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn (Long Island Historical Society, Memoirs, vol. 3), Brooklyn, 1878, repr. N.Y., 1971. description ends , Part II, p. 99 [this contemporary account confuses Thomas with David Henly]).
6. JA copied his answer to this letter and to Tudor’s of 6 Sept. (above) from his Letterbook into his Autobiography (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:437–441). The RC has not been found, but a copy of it in Tudor’s hand is in MHi:Tudor Papers. The Tudor copy contains the following closing paragraph which is missing from JA’s Letterbook:
“Excuse my reminding You of this Peice of Greecian History. I wish all of Ye who are in the Army and are Scholars would frequently contemplate the great Spirits of former Ages, and while your generous Souls catch Fire at the recital of illustrious Actions, would assiduously imitate the great Examples.”