George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 8 September 1776

To John Hancock

New York Head Qrs Septr 8th 1776


Since I had the honour of addressing you on the 6th Instt I have called a Council of the General Officers in order to take a full & comprehensive view of our situation & thereupon form such a plan of future defence as may be immediately pursued & subject to no other alteration than a change of Operations on the Enemy’s side may occasion. Before the Landing of the Enemy on Long Island, the point of Attack could not be known or any satisfactory Judgemt formed of their Intentions—It might be on Long Island—on Bergen, or directly on the City, this made It necessary to be prepared for each and has occasiond an expence of labour which now seems useless & is regretted by those who form a Judgement from after knowledge: But I trust men of discernment will think differently, and see that by such works & preparations we have not only delayed the Operations of the Campaign till It is too late to effect any capital Incursion into the Country, but have drawn the Enemy’s forces to one point and obliged them to decline their plan, so as to enable us to form our defence on some certainty. It is now extremely obvious from all Intelligence—from their movements, & every other circumstance that having landed their whole Army on Long Island, (except about 4,000 on Staten Island) they mean to inclose us on the Island of New York by taking post in our Rear, while the Shipping effectually secure the Front; and thus either by cutting off our Communication with the Country oblige us to fight them on their own Terms or Surrender at discretion, or by a Brilliant stroke endeavour to cut this Army in peices & secure the collection of Arms & Stores which they will know we shall not be able soon to replace. Having therefore their System unfolded to us, It became an important consideration how It could be most successfully opposed—On every side there is a choice of difficulties, & every measure on our part, (however painfull the reflection is from experience) to be formed with some apprehension that all our Troops will not do their duty. In deliberating on this great Question, it was impossible to forget that History—our own experience—the advice of our ablest Friends in Europe—The fears of the Enemy, and even the Declarations of Congress demonstrate that on our side the War should be defensive, It has been even called a War of posts, that we should on all occasions avoid a general Action or put anything to the risque unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn. The Arguments on which such a System was founded were deemed unanswerable & experience has given her sanction—With these views & being fully persuaded that It would be presumption to draw out our young Troops into open Ground against their superiors both in number and discipline, I have never spared the Spade & Pickax: I confess I have not found that readiness to defend even strong posts at all hazards which is necessary to derive the greatest benefit from them. The honour of making a brave defence does not seem to be a sufficient stimulus when the success is very doubtfull and the falling into the Enemy’s hands probable: But I doubt not this will be gradually attained. We are now in a strong post but not an Impregnable one, nay acknowledged by every man of Judgement to be untenable unless the Enemy will make the Attack upon Lines when they can avoid It and their Movements Indicate that they mean to do so—To draw the whole Army together in order to arrange the defence proportionate to the extent of Lines & works would leave the Country open for an approach and put the fate of this Army and Its stores on the Hazard of making a successfull defence in the City or the issue of an Engagement out of It—On the other hand to abandon a City which has been by some deemed defensible and on whose Works much Labor has been bestowed has a tendency to dispirit the Troops and enfeeble our Cause: It has also been considered as the Key to the Northern Country, But as to that I am fully of opinion that the establishing of Strong posts at Mount Washington on the upper part of this Island and on the Jersey side opposite to It with the assistance of the Obstructions already made, & which may be improved in the Water, that not only the Navigation of Hudsons River but an easier & better communication may be more effectually secured between the Northern & Southern States. This I believe every one acquainted with the situation of the Country will readily agree to, and will appear evident to those who have an Opportunity of recurring to good Maps. These and the many other consequences which will be involved in the determination of our next measure have given our minds full employ & led every One to form a Judgement as the various Objects presented themselves to his view. The post at Kingsbridge is naturally strong & is pretty well fortified, the Heights about It are commanding and might soon be made more so. These are Important Objects, and I have attended to them accordingly—I have also removed from the City All the Stores & Ammunition except what was absolutely necessary for Its defence and made every Other disposition that did not essentially interfere with that Object, carefully keeping in view untill It should be absolutely determined on full consideration, how far the City was to be defended at all events. In resolving points of such Importance many circumstances peculiar to our own Army also occur, being only provided for a Summers Campaign, their Cloaths, Shoes and Blankets will soon be unfit for the change of weather which we every day feel—At present we have not Tents for more than ⅔d, many of them old & worn out, but if we had a plentiful supply the season will not admit of continuing in them long—The Case of our Sick is also worthy of much consideration—their number by the returns forms at least ¼ of the Army. policy and Humanity require they should be made as comfortable as possible—With these and many other circumstances before them, the whole Council of Genl Officers met yesterday in order to adopt some Genl line of conduct to be pursued at this Important crisis.1 I intended to have procured their separate Opinions on each point, but time would not admit, I was therefore Obliged to collect their sense more generally than I could have wished. All agreed the Town would not be tenable If the Enemy resolved to bombard & cannonade It—But the difficulty attending a removal operated so strongly, that a course was taken between abandoning It totally & concentring our whole strength for Its defence—Nor were some a little Influenced in their opinion to whom the determn of Congress was known, against an evacuation totally, as they were led to suspect Congress wished It to be maintained at every hazard—It was concluded to Arrange the Army under Three Divisions, 5000 to remain for the defence of the City, 9000 to Kingsbridge & Its dependancies as well to possess & secure those posts as to be ready to attack the Enemy who are moving Eastward on Long Island, If they should attempt to land on this side—The remainder to occupy the intermediate space & support either—That the Sick should be immediately removed to Orange Town, and Barracks prepared at Kingsbridge with all expedition to cover the Troops.2

There were some Genl Officers in whose Judgemt and opinion much confidence is to be reposed, that were for a total and immediate removal from the City, urging the great danger of One part of the Army being cut off before the other can support It, the Extremities being at least Sixteen miles apart—that our Army when collected is inferior to the Enemy’s—that they can move with their whole force to any point of attack & consequently must succeed by weight of Numbers if they have only a part to oppose them—That by removing from hence we deprive the Enemy of the Advantage of their Ships which will make at least one half of the force to attack the Town—That we should keep the Enemy at Bay—put nothing to the hazard but at all events keep the Army together which may be recruited another Year, that the unspent Stores will also be preserved & in this case the heavy Artillery can also be secured3—But they were overruled by a Majority who thought for the present a part of our force might be kept here and attempt to maintain the City a while longer.

I am sensible a retreating Army is encircled with difficulties, that the declining an Engagement subjects a General to reproach and that the Common cause may be affected by the discouragement It may throw over the minds of many. Nor am I insensible of the contrary Effects if a brilliant stroke could be made with any probability of Success, especially after our Loss upon Long Island—But when the Fate of America may be at Stake on the Issue, when the wisdom of Cooler moments & experienced men have decided that we should protract the War, if possible, I cannot think it safe or wise to adopt a different System when the Season for Action draws so near a Close—That the Enemy mean to winter in New York there can be no doubt—that with such an Armament they can drive us out is equally clear. The Congress having resolved that It should not be destroyed nothing seems to remain but to determine the time of their taking possession—It is our Interest & wish to prolong It as much as possible provided the delay does not affect our future measures.

The Militia of Connecticut is reduced from 8000 to less than 2,000 and in a few days will be merely nominal—The arrival of some Maryland troops &c. from the flying Camp has in a great degree supplied the loss of men, but the Ammunition they have carried away will be a loss sensibly felt—The impulse for going Home was so irresistable it answered no purpose to oppose It—tho I would not discharge, I have been obliged to acquiesce & It affords one more melancholy proof how delusive such dependencies are.

Inclosed I have the honor to transmit a Genl Return, the first I have been able to procure for some time—Also a report of Captn Newell from Our Works at Horn’s Hook or Hell Gate4—their situation is extremely low and the Sound so very narrow that the Enemy have ’em much within their Command. I have the Honor to be with great respect Sir Yr Most Obed. Servt

Go: Washington

P.S. The Inclosed Informatn this minute came to Hand, I am in hopes we shall henceforth get regular Intelligence of the Enemies Movements.5

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 10 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 , 5:748–49).

1No record of the proceedings of this council of war has been found. The council did not include Gen. Hugh Mercer (see Mercer to GW, 7 Sept.).

2Tench Tilghman wrote Q.M. Gen. Stephen Moylan on 9 Sept.: “His Excellency [GW] commands me to desire that you would without loss of time set about preparing a sufficient Quantity of Boards, Scantlin and every Material necessary for the Building of Barracks at Kings bridge and the posts thereabouts. His Reasons for pressing you to exert yourself at this time are, that the North River down which most of the Articles must come, is now entirely free from any Obstruction by the Enemy, but how long that may continue is uncertain. The Season advances fast, when it would be impossible for the Troops to lay in Camp, even if they were all supplied with Tents and had a sufficient Stock of Blankets and other warm Cloathing, but you well know that in the Article of Tents, at least one third part of the Army are unprovided, and those that we have are worn and bad, as to bedding and other Cloaths they are in a manner destitute. We have every Reason to fear and suppose that the great naval Force of the Enemy will oblige us to quit this City whenever they please to make an Attack upon it. We must then depend upon Barracks for Shelter, and for that Reason his Excellency calls upon you and your Deputies to exert yourselves in the most strenuous Manner in collecting such a Stock of Wood for the Building and Brick or Stone and Lime for the Chimneys and Ovens as will enable you in a short time to provide comfortable Covering for the Men at the different posts” (DLC:GW).

3Nathanael Greene was a prominent proponent of immediately evacuating the city. For further arguments on this point, see Greene to GW, 5 Sept.; Certain General Officers to GW, 11 Sept.; the proceedings of the council of war, 12 Sept., and Heath to GW, 13 Sept.; see also GW to Hancock, 11, 14 September.

4The enclosed general return has not been identified. Capt. Eliphelet Newell’s report to Col. Henry Knox, written at 9 A.M. on this date, concerns the British attempt to destroy the American redoubt at Horn’s Hook. GW reinforced that post as the mainstay of the defense of Hell Gate after the Battle of Long Island (see General Orders, 30 Aug.), and the British began building a battery directly across the East River from the redoubt on 4 Sept. (see Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:38, 40). “I wou’d inform you” Newell writes Knox on this date, “that the enemy has open’d two 3 gun Batterys & have At least 4 Royals [small mortars] & have very much damag’d two plat-forms & the breast-works are very much shatter’d they have also broke our Limbers they have sent a shott through one of our Large Carriage’s one of Colo. Sergents Regt is kill’d & two or three wounded but we have none lost or wounded they continue to keep up a very severe Bombardment & Cannonade their Ordnance is 12 & 24 p[ounde]rs I shou’d think it nessesary that there should be carpenters sent here to repair platforms. . . . P.S. we can bring but two guns to bear upon them” (DNA:PCC, item 152). For other accounts of this action, see Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 41–43, Tatum, Serle’s Journal description begins Edward H. Tatum, Jr., ed. The American Journal of Ambrose Serle: Secretary to Lord Howe, 1776–1778. San Marino, Calif., 1940. description ends , 95, and George Clinton to Abraham Yates, Jr., this date, in Hastings, Clinton Papers, 1:338–42.

5The enclosed letter that Col. Isaac Nicoll wrote General Heath on this date from New Rochelle reads: “We have sent one Samuel Hunt on Long Island a young Man I think will answer every purpose he is sent after it tis uncertain when he will return, but this Evening there is one Mr Sands to be Over, who can give us a particular Account, there is one Wm Tredwell and another person from Goshen in Orange County, the latter unknown to me crosst here 4 or 5 days ago Mr Tredwell is a Disaffected person & all his Friends live on long Island—I understand that his brothers are warmly engaged against us & I am well persuaded he will go thro’ the whole of their Camps, he is expected over every hour, I have secured the Horses & intend to secure them, put them apart, & bring them, to you as soon as they cross—we will be able to get all we want from them—The News collected since I saw you is that the main body of their Army is at New-Town, & Lord Howe [General Howe] keeps that as Head Quarters, that all the Waggons as far Eastward as they have been able to go, is presst & carried to New Town, and that every Horse fit for the Troops is presst & taken away from their proper Owners without any respect of Persons—They talk of raising three Regiments one to be a Regiment of Rangers, to be commanded by Major Rodgers [Robert Rogers], and if the People will not turn out Volunteers they will draft them—They had their Genl Muster yesterday, but raised no recruits on account of the Weather, At which meeting they agree’d to keep but Two Senteries on Cow Neck—one at long Point, and the other at Watch point which makes it safe to cross, It is said there is three Regiments at Flushing, One at Jamaica” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

William Treadwell (1747–1818), a physician and merchant from North Hempstead, Long Island, and Benjamin Ludlum of Goshen, N.Y., were examined by George Clinton on 13 Sept. and by a committee of the New York convention the next day (see Clinton to Abraham Yates, Jr., 13 Sept., in Hastings, Clinton Papers, 1:346, and N.Y. Prov. Congress Journals description begins Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety, and Council of Safety of the State of New-York, 1775–1776–1777. 2 vols. Albany, 1842. (Microfilm Collection of Early State Records). description ends , 1:626). For their statement of 15 Sept. giving additional intelligence about British activities on Long Island, see Hastings, Clinton Papers, 1:347–48.

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