George Washington Papers

Council of War, 16 February 1776

Council of War

[Cambridge, 16 February 1776]

At a Council of General Officers held at Head Quarters in Cambridge 16th Febry 1776.


  • His Excellency General Washington
  • Major Generals Ward Putnam
  • Brigadier Generals Thomas Heath Spencer Sullivan Gates1

His Excellency the Commander in Chief Informed the Council that in consequence of the Resolutions of Two Councils of War, held at this place on the 16th & 18th Ulto he had applied to this Government, Connecticut & New Hampshire for the Regiments then Voted. That those Regiments were come & coming in, and If compleat, would amount (Officers Included) to 7,280 Men. That the Regiments of the United Colonies at these Incampments, by Saturdays return amounted to 8,797 men fit for duty, besides Officers and 1450 men on Command, which might be Ordered to Join their respective Regiments Immediately.2 That our Stock of powder was so small, as to Afford but little aid from Cannon & mortars, and therefore that Small Arms must be our principal reliance in any event, till a Supply cou’d be Obtained. That in the state Boston Harbour has been all this Year, & now is, a Bombardment might probably destroy the Town without doing much damage to the Ministerial Troops within It, as there were Transports Wooded & Watered, with a view more than probable, to take them in upon any sudden emergency; consequently, That, might not produce the desired effect, If those Transports were sufficient for the embarkation of the Army. That from the best Intelligence which had been procured, the Strength of the Army in Boston did not much exceed 5,000 men fit for duty. That considerable reinforcements were expected, and when arrived, they would undoubtedly endeavour to penetrate into the Country, If their strength should be sufficient, or remove to some other part of the Continent If not, and thereby greatly harrass and fatigue our Troops by constant Marching & Countermarching, for which in the present situation of Affairs, they neither were, nor could be provided: Therefore that a Stroke well aim’d at this critical juncture, might put a final end to the War, and restore peace & tranquility, so much to be wished for: For these reasons and under these circumstances, & as part of Cambridge & Roxbury Bays were so frozen as to Admit an easier entry into the Town of Boston, than could be Obtained either by Water, or through the Lines on the Neck, the General desired to know the Sentiments of the General Officers respecting a general Assault upon the Town.

The Question being put and their Opinion demanded.

Resolved that an Assault on the Town of Boston in the present circumstances of the Continental Army is for the following reasons Judged Improper.

Because It is the Opinion of this Council that the King’s forces in the Town of Boston Comprehending New raised Corps & Armed Tories amount to a much larger Number than 5,0003—furnished with Artillery, Assisted by a Fleet and possessed of every advantage the situation of the place affords—The Officers in proportion to the Number of men are so many, that the Troops there may be said with propriety to be doubly Officered.

Because Our Army is at present very defective in the Numbers this Council declared to be sufficient for the purpose of Offensive War, and also deficient in Arms to the amount of 2,000 Stand—The Militia Ordered & expected to be here by the first of the Month are not more than half arrived, so that to Assault the Town of Boston, guard the Works & Stores, there remain only 12,600 Men, militia, Commissioned & Non Commissioned Officers Included—a force not more than sufficient to defend the Lines & maintain the Blockade.4

Because It appears to the Council by the Report of a m[aj]ority of the Generals commanding Brigades, that upon discoursing with the Field Officers of their respective Regiments upon the subject of an Assault, they in General declared a disapprobation of the measure as exceedingly doubtful.

Because If an Assault should be found practicable & expedient at any Time, It was declared highly necessary, that It should for some days be preceded by a Cannonade & Bombardment.5

His Excellency the Commander in Cheif then required the Opinion of the Council whether It would be advisable to begin a Cannonade & Bombardment with the present stock of powder.

Resolved that a Cannonade & Bombardment will be expedient and advisable as soon as there shall be a proper Supply of powder & not before, & that in the mean Time, preparations should be made to take possession of Dorchester Hill, with a view of drawing out the Enemy, and of Nodles Island also, If the Situation of the Water & other circumstances will admit of It.6

Df, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in GW to Hancock, 18–21 Feb. 1776, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

On 15 Feb. 1776 Horatio Gates wrote to Artemas Ward: “His Excellency General Washington directs me to acquaint you, that as the Militia are now daily arriving in Camp, & that the chief Strength of Our Force will in a few days be assembled at Cambridge, & Roxbury; he wishes to confer with you, & the rest of The General Officers, upon the Subject you, & His Excellency, conversed upon so lately. you will therefore Sir be at Head Qrs tomorrow morning by Ten O Clock, & bring with you The Brigadiers General Thomas, & Spencer” (MHi: Ward Papers).

1Brig. Gen. Nathanael Greene did not attend this council of war because of illness. For Greene’s pessimistic views of the chances of making a successful attack on Boston at this time, see his letter to Jacob Greene of 15 Feb. 1776 in Showman, Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:194–95.

2The previous Saturday was 10 February. This return has not been identified. The general return for 18 Feb. 1776 reports a total of 12,249 rank and file in the Continental regiments, of whom 8,963 were present and fit for duty and 1,459 were on command. The militia reinforcements, including officers, totaled 5,532 on that date. Of that number 4,433 were rank and file who were present and fit for duty and 110 were rank and file on command (DNA: RG 93, Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775–83).

3Harrison’s first wording of this portion of the draft reads: “that the Kings forces in the Town of Boston consists of 6500 Men New raised Corps & Armed Tories Included.” On 17 Mar. 1776 the British regiments at Boston totaled 8,906 men, including officers (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 10:246).

4The council of war that sat on 8 Oct. 1775 agreed that the army ought to consist of not less than 20,372 men, a number that it “deemed sufficient both for offensive & defensive Measures.”

5In the Gates Papers at the New York Historical Society there is a document in Gates’s writing which he endorsed “Minutes of a Speech Made at a Council of War held at Boston, the Middle of Decem. 1775.” No council of war is known to have met at that time, however. The close parallels between parts of Gates’s document and some of the answers given at the council of war held on this date indicate that it is a draft of his opinion presented at this council. The document reads: “Perhaps a greater Question was never Agitated in a Council of War, than the present; in Countrys where the Seat of War is Frequent, and the War upon Some Subject perhaps uninteresting to those Countrys, the Question would be of no more consequence than whether one of the contending Partys is, or is not to indeavour to Defeat the Other: Our Defeat, may risque the entire loss of the Liberties of America forever, therefore this Council should be as wise in their Determination as they design to be Vigourous in the Execution of whatever measures they Adopt.

“The Kings Forces in the Town of Boston, it is The Opinion of this Council may consist of 6500 Men, Tories &c. included amply Furnish’d with Artillery assisted by a Fleet; & possess’d of every Advantage the Situation can Afford. The Officers in proportion to the Number of Men are so many that the Troops there may be said with propriety to be double officer’d. Their Artillerists, it is no Flattery to them to say, are as good as any in Europe.

“Our Army is at present very defective in the Numbers this Council declared to be sufficient for the purposes of Offencive War, and this Army also defficient in Arms to the Ammount of Two Thousand Stand. The Militia ordered, and expected to have been here by the 1st of The Month, are not yet more than half arrived. The Sick Present & Absent ammount to 1912 Men, so that to Assault the Enemy & Guard the Works & Stores &c. there remains only [ ] Men a Force not more than adequate to defend the Lines & maintain the Blockade—if upon the Trial, we find The Garrison of Boston, & the Shipping in the Harbour, can be so distress’d by our Artillery as to make the place intolerable to The Troops there, I see no great Objection to the exerting our whole power that way—if possible, to Oblige the Enemy to take to their Ships with precipitation: leaving Us their Sick & Wounded & many Stores it will be next to impracticable for them in such a confusion to remove. Whether it is prudent, by Forcing the Enemy to Abandon Boston, to remove the Seat of War into a Province more proper for their Summer opperations, is a Question I am not Able to d[e]cide, I can only say, I think there is no part of America where the Kings Troops can do so little injury to the United Colonies as the very Spot they are now confin’d in but I would not be thought to infer from thence, that we should not if possible see how the Force of Artillery may effect them there.

“If the Ministry are able to continue the War, there is no doubt but The Kings Generals will be commanded to risque Battle at all Events as a defens⟨ive⟩ War must Uterly ruin their Aff⟨airs,⟩ therefore the Choice is offered Us either to attack them in their Fortifications, or leave it to them to give us the Advantage, by attacking Ours.

“My Opinion therefor⟨e⟩ is that Our present Army ha⟨s⟩ neither the Numbers, the Arm⟨s⟩ nor the Discipline, necessary to Secure Success in the Assa⟨ult⟩ of Boston” (Gregory and Dunnings, “Gates Papers” description begins James Gregory and Thomas Dunnings, eds. “Horatio Gates Papers, 1726–1828.” Sanford, N.C., 1979. Microfilm. description ends ).

6For the preliminary preparations to occupy Dorchester Heights, see Rufus Putnam to GW, 11 Feb. 1776. See also the Plan for Attacking Boston, 18–25 Feb. 1776, prepared by generals Putnam, Sullivan, Greene, and Gates. For GW’s views of the decisions reached by this council of war, see GW to Hancock, 18–21 Feb., and GW to Joseph Reed, 26 Feb.—9 Mar. 1776.

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