George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 31 August 1776

To John Hancock

New York Augt 31st 1776


Inclination as well as duty would have Induced me to give Congress the earliest Information of my removal and that of the Troops from Long Island & Its dependencies to this City the night before last, But the extreme fatigue whic⟨h⟩ myself and Family have undergone as much from the Weather since the Engagement on the 27th1 rendered me & them entirely unfit to take pen in hand—Since Monday2 scarce any of us have been out of the Lines till our passage across the East River was effected Yesterday morning & for Forty Eight Hours preceding that I had hardly been of[f] my Horse and never closed my Eyes so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate till this Morning.

Our Retreat was made without any Loss of Men or Ammunition and in better order than I expected from Troops in the situation ours were—We brought off all our Cannon & Stores, except a few heavy peices, which in the condition the earth was by a long continued rain, we found upon Trial impracticable—The Wheels of the Carriages sinking up to the Hobs, rendered it impossible for our whole force to drag them—We left but little provisions on the Island except some Cattle which had been driven within our Lines and which after many attempts to force across the Water we found Impossible to effect, circumstanced as we were—I have Inclosed a Copy of the Council of War held previous to the Retreat, to which I beg leave to refer Congress for the Reasons or many of them, that led to the adoption of that measure.3 Yesterday Evening and Last night a party of our Men were employed in bringing Our Stores, Cannon, Tents &ca from Governors Island, which they nearly compleated—Some of the Heavy Cannon remain there still, but I expect will be got away to day.

In the Engagement on the 27th Generals Sullivan & Stirling were made prisoners; The former has been permitted on his parole to return for a little time—From My Lord Stirling I had a Letter by Genl Sullivan a Copy of which I have the Honor to transmit—That contains his Information of the Engagement with his Brigade—It is not so full and certain as I could wish; he was hurried most probably as his Letter was unfinished4—Nor have I been yet able to obtain an exact account of Our Loss, we suppose It from 700 to a Thousand, killed & taken—Genl Sullivan says Lord Howe is extremely desirous of seeing some of the Members of Congress for which purpose he was allowed to come out & to communicate to them what was passed between him & his Lordship—I have consented to his going to Philadelphia, as I do not mean or conceive It right to withold or prevent him from giving such information as he possesses in this Instance.5

I am much hurried & Engaged in Arranging and making new Dispositions of our Forces, The Movements of the Enemy requiring them to be immediately had, and therefore have only time to add that I am with my best regards to Congress Their & Your Most Obedt He Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; LB, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 2 Sept. and referred it to the Board of War (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 , 5:723).

1The LB reads: “(as much from the weather as any thing else) since the incampment of the 27th.”

2The previous Monday was 26 August.

5Sullivan, who arrived in Philadelphia on 2 Sept., told Delegate Josiah Bartlett “that Lord Howe expressed himself very desirous of an accommodation with America, without any more bloodshed; [and] that he was very willing to meet, at almost any place, a number of the members of Congress (as private gentlemen, for he could not own any such body as Congress) to try if they could make any proposals for an accommodation.” That message was unwelcome because it put the delegates in a serious dilemma. “If the Congress,” Bartlett wrote William Whipple on 3 Sept., “should accept of the proposed conference, only on a verbal message, when at the same time Lord Howe declares he can consider them only as private gentlemen, especially when we are certain he can have no power to grant any terms we can possibly accept; this I fear will lessen the Congress in the eye of the public, and perhaps at this time intimidate people when they see us catching hold of so slender a thread to bring about a settlement. On the other hand, General Sullivan’s arrival from Lord Howe with proposals of an accommodation, with 30 falsehoods in addition, are now spread over this City, and will soon be over the Continent, and if we should refuse the conference, I fear the Tories, and moderate men, so called, will try to represent the Congress as obstinate, and so desirous of war and bloodshed that we would not so much as hear the proposals Lord Howe had to make, which they will represent (as they already do) to be highly advantageous for America, even that he would consent that we should be independent provided we would grant some advantages as to trade. Such an idea spread among the people, especially the soldiers at this time might be of the most fatal consequence” (Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 5:94–95). Congress on 6 Sept. appointed a committee to confer with Lord Howe (see 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 , 5:738; see also Hancock to GW, 8 Sept., and note 2). For its subsequent negotiations, see Franklin to GW, 8 Sept. and Edward Rutledge to GW, 11 September.

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