George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 5 May 1776

To John Hancock

New York May 5th 1776.


I have so often, and so fully communicated my want of Arms to Congress that I should not have given them the trouble of receiving another Letter upon this Subject, at this time, but for the particular application of Colo. Wain of Pensylvania who has pointed out a method by which he thinks they may be obtain’d.1

In the hands of the Committee of safety at Philadelphia, there are, According to Colo. Wain’s Acct, not less than two or three thousand stand of Arms for Provincial use; from hence, he thinks, a number might be borrowed by Congress; provided they are replaced with Continental Arms as they are brought into the Magazine in that City. At a crisis so important as this, such a loan might be attended with most signal advantages while the defenceless state of the Regimts, if no relief can be had, may be productive of fatal consequences.2

To give Congress some Idea of our Situation with respect to Arms, (and justice to my own Character requires that it should be known to them, altho^ the World at large will form their opinion of our strength from numbers, without attending to circumstances) it may not be amiss to Inclose a Copy of a Return which I received a few days ago from the Forts in the Highlands,3 and add, that by a Report from Colo. Ritzema’s Regiment of the 29th Ulto there appeard to be only 97 Firelocks & Seven Bayonets belonging thereto, and that all the Regiments from the Eastward are deficient from Twenty to Fifty of the former.

Four of those Companies at the Fortification’s in the Highlands belong to Colo. Clintons Regiment, but in what condition the residue are, on acct of Arms & how Colo. Wynkoops Men are provided I cannot undertake to say, but am told most miserably; as Colo. Daytons (of New Jersey) and Colo. Wains (of Pensylvania) also are. This Sir is a true, tho^ melancholy description of our Situation—the propriety therefore of keeping Arms in Store when men in actual pay are wanting of them and who it is to be presumed will, as they ought, bear the heat and burthen of the day, is submitted with all due deference to the superior judgement of others.

I cannot, by all the enquiries I have been able to make, learn, what number of Arms have been taken from the Tories—where they lay—or how they are to be got at. The Committee of Safety for this Colony have assured me that no exertion’s of theirs shall be wanting to procure Arms,4 but our suffering’s in the meanwhile may prove fatal, as Men without are in a manner useless—I have therefore thought of Imploying an Agent, whose sole business it shall be to ride through the middle and interior parts of these Governments for the purpose of buying up such Arms as the Inhabitants may Incline to sell, and are fit for use.5

The designs of the Enemy are too much behind the Curtain, for me to form any accurate opinion of their Plan of Operations for the Summers Campaign; we are left to wander therefore in the field of conjecture, and as no place—all its consequences considered—seemed of more Importance in the execution of their grand Plan than possessing themselves of Hudson’s River I thought it advisable to remove, with the Continental Army, to this City so soon as the Kings Troops evacuated Boston, but if the Congress from their knowledge, information, or belief, think it best for the general good of the Service that I should go to the Northward, or elsewhere, they are convinced I hope, that they have nothing more to do than signify by their Commands. With the greatest respect I have the honour to be Sir Yr Most Obedt & most Hble Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, DNA:PCC, item 152; LB, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; copy, DLC: Hancock Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 8 May (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 4:334).

1Anthony Wayne (1745–1796) of Chester County, Pa., served in the Pennsylvania general assembly and on the colony’s committee of safety before being commissioned colonel of the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment on 3 Jan. 1776. Wayne arrived at New York in mid-April and soon learned that his regiment was to be included in the reinforcements going to Canada under General Sullivan. “By order of his Excellency General Washington,” Wayne wrote to Hancock on 26 April, “I have sent Major [Nicholas] Haussegger . . . to Philadelphia to bring up the remainder of my battalion, which, with five others, are to march to Canada immediately. I must therefore request that you will use your influence to supply my regiment with arms. . . . The three companies that are here were obliged to march without a single waistcoat, and but one shirt per man, and most of them too small, although made of the worst of linen. I therefore beg you to give orders to the Commissaries to supply the remainder as soon as possible” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 4th ser., 5:1087). On 10 May Wayne sailed for Albany where he obtained the arms that his regiment needed (see Wayne to GW, 14 May 1776).

Although Wayne had no previous military experience, his iron discipline and aggressiveness earned him a reputation as one of the army’s best young officers. He performed well in the battle at Trois Rivières in June 1776, and during the winter of 1776–77 he held an independent command at Ticonderoga. On 21 Feb. 1777 Congress promoted Wayne to brigadier general. Joining the main army under GW’s command, Wayne played a prominent role in the ensuing campaigns in the north, and in July 1779 he brilliantly displayed his military talents by planning and executing a daring assault on Stony Point, N.Y., with troops of a newly formed light infantry corps. From 1781 to 1782 Wayne commanded the Pennsylvania line in the south, and in September 1783 he was brevetted a major general in recognition of his services. Wayne’s famous nickname “Mad Anthony” was pinned on him in 1781 by an eccentric soldier who implied that Wayne was insane. Other troops quickly adopted the term, however, as a tribute to Wayne’s impetuosity in battle.

2Hancock referred this proposal to the Pennsylvania committee of safety, which made no response. See Hancock to GW, 10, 13 May 1776.

3GW enclosed copies of the returns of 23 and 29 April that Isaac Nicoll sent with his letter to GW of 30 April. The originals are in DLC:GW, and the copies are in DNA:PCC, item 152. The letter-book copy reads “from the Troops in the Highlands.”

5Congress resolved on 14 May, “that as a number of arms, fit for use, may be bought of the owners, who may incline to sell them, General Washington be desired to employ such an agent as he hath proposed, to go into any of the colonies for that purpose” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 4:354).

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