George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 16 September 1776

To John Hancock

Head Qrs at Col. Roger Morris’s House
Septr 16th 1776

Sir

On Saturday about Sunset Six more of the Enemy’s Ships, One or Two of which were men of War; passed between Governors Island & Red Hook and went up the East River to the Station taken by those mentioned in my Last1—In half an Hour, I received Two Expresses, One from Col. Serjeant at Horn’s Hook (Hell Gate) giving an Account that the Enemy to the amount of Three or Four Thousand had marched to the River & were embarking for Barns’s or Mont[r]esors Island where Numbers of them were then Incamped; the other from Genl Mifflin, that uncommon & formidable movements were discovered among the Enemy, which being confirmed by the Scouts I had sent out, I proceeded to Harlem where It was supposed, or at Morisania opposite to It, the principal attempt to land would be made2—However Nothing remarkable happened that night—But in the morning they began their Operations—Three Ships of War came up the North River as high [as] Bloomingdale which put a total stop to the removal by Water of any more of our provision &c. and about Eleven OClock those in the East River began a most severe and Heavy Cannonade to scour the Grounds and cover the landing of their Troops between Turtle-Bay and the City, where Breast Works had been thrown up to oppose them.3 As soon as I heard the Firing, I road with all possible dispatch towards the place of landing when to my great surprize and Mortification I found the Troops that had been posted in the Lines retreating with the utmost precipitation and those ordered to support them, parson’s & Fellows’s Brigades, flying in every direction and in the greatest confusion, notwithstanding the exertions of their Generals to form them. I used every means in my power to rally and get them into some order but my attempts were fruitless and ineffectual, and on the appearance of a small party of the Enemy, not more than Sixty or Seventy, their disorder increased and they ran away in the greatest confusion without firing a Single Shot4—Finding that no confidence was to be placed in these Brigades and apprehending that another part of the Enemy might pass over to Harlem plains and cut off the retreat to this place, I sent orders to secure the Heights in the best manner with the Troops that were stationed on and near them, which being done, the retreat was effected with but little or no loss of Men, tho of a considerable part of our Baggage occasioned by this disgracefull and dastardly conduct5—Most of our Heavy Cannon and a part of our Stores and provisions which we were about removing was unavoidably left in the City, tho every means after It had been determined in Council to evacuate the post, had been used to prevent It. We are now encamped with the Main body of the Army on the Heights of Harlem where I should hope the Enemy would meet with a defeat in case of an Attack, If the Generality of our Troops would behave with tolerable bravery,6 but experience to my extreme affliction has convinced me that this is rather to be wished for than expected; However I trust, that there are many who will act like men, and shew themselves worthy of the blessings of Freedom. I have sent out some reconoitring parties to gain Intelligence If possible of the disposition of the Enemy and shall inform Congress of every material event by the earliest Opportunity. I have the Honor to be with the highest respect Sir Your Most Obedt Sert.

L, 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 17 Sept. (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 , 5:779).

At the end of the letter sent to Hancock, Harrison wrote and signed a note that reads: “The above Letter is nearly a Copy of a rough One sketched out by his Excellency this Morning & who Intended to sign It, but having rode out & his return or where to find him, Incertain I have sent It away without” (DNA:PCC, item 152). For the alarm that called GW away from his headquarters, see GW to Hancock, 18 September.

1See GW to Hancock, 14 September. Five transports sailed up the East River on Saturday evening, 14 Sept., and anchored at the mouth of Bushwick Creek about six or seven o’clock (see the journals of the Carysfort and Roebuck, that date, in Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 6:822–23, 839, and 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 , 102–3).

2No written reports to GW from Sargent or Mifflin on the evening of 14 Sept. have been found. British Capt. Frederick Mackenzie says in his journal entry for 15 Sept.: “Orders were given last night for the four brigades encamped in the Environs of Newtown, to strike their tents at 2 o’Clock this morning, load their baggage, form at the head of their Encampments, with their blankets and two days provisions, and wait for orders. Some other preparatory movements were also ordered, and executed. At 4 this Morning the Brigade of Guards marched to Newtown where they waited for orders. In this situation we all expected to have received orders to proceed towards Hellgate, and either to have embarked there or at some place farther to the right, in order to make a descent on that part of New York Island opposite; but were much surprized at receiving orders to march towards Bushwick” (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 , 1:46; see also Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 97, and Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 48). Barns’s Island is one of several names given to Buchanan’s (now Ward’s) Island, which is adjacent to Montresor’s (now Randall’s) Island in the Hell Gate portion of the East River.

3The British warships Renown, Repulse, and Pearl and the schooner Tryal were sent up the Hudson River early on 15 Sept. to divert American attention from the landing that Howe’s army was preparing to make on the east side of Manhattan Island (see William Howe to George Germain, 21 Sept., in 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 , 12:227–29, and Lord Howe to Philip Stephens, 18 Sept., in Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 6:885–90; see also the journals of the Pearl and Renown, 15 Sept., ibid., 844, 861, and 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 , 103).

Shortly after noon about four thousand British and Hessian soldiers in flatboats crossed the East River from Bushwick Point on Long Island and landed on Manhattan Island at Kip’s Bay, a small inlet located at the foot of present-day East 34th Street. By 5:00 P.M. about nine thousand more troops were ashore (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 , 1:47–49; Kemble Papers, 1:88; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 97–98; and Ward, War of the Revolution description begins Christopher Ward. The War of the Revolution. Edited by John Richard Alden. 2 vols. New York, 1952. description ends , 1:242–44). The preliminary cannonade was delivered by the warships Phoenix, Roebuck, Rose, Carysfort, and Orpheus, which were anchored two to three hundred yards off shore (see each ship’s journal entry for 15 Sept., in Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 11 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964—. description ends , 6:839–41, 849; 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 , 1:46–47; and 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 , 103). “It is hardly possible to conceive,” Midshipman Bartholomew James of the Orpheus writes, “what a tremendous fire was kept up by those five ships for only fifty-nine minutes, in which time we fired away, in the Orpheus alone, five thousand three hundred and seventy-six pounds of powder. The first broadside made a considerable breach in their works, and the enemy fled on all sides, confused and calling for quarter, while the army landed, but, as usual, did not pursue the victory, though the rebels in general had left their arms in the intrenchment” (Laughton, James’s Journal description begins John Knox Laughton, ed. Journal of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew James, 1752–1828. London, 1896. In Publications of the Navy Records Society, vol. 6. description ends , 31).

4The LB reads “Sixty or Seventy in Number.” Col. William Douglas, whose brigade of Connecticut militia and militia levies occupied crudely dug entrenchments a short distance south of Kip’s Bay, wrote his wife three days later, that during the British cannonade, “my Left wing gave way which was form,d of the militia. I Lay myself on the Right wing, wateing for the [British landing] boats untill Capt. Printice [Jonas Prentice] Came to me and told if I ment to Save my Self to Leave the Lines for that was the orders on the Left and that they had Left the Lines. I then told my men to make the best of their way as I then found I had but about ten Left with me. . . . we then had a Mile to Retreat Through as hot a fire as Could well be made but they mostly over shot us. the Brigade was then in Such a Scatter,d poster [position] that I Could not Collect them and I found the whole Army on a Retreat” (“Douglas Letters” description begins “Letters Written during the Revolutionary War by Colonel William Douglas to His Wife Covering the Period July 19, 1775, to December 5, 1776.” New-York Historical Society, Quarterly Bulletin 12 (1929): 145–54; 13 (1929–30): 37–40, 79–82, 118–22, 157–62; 14 (1930): 38–42. description ends , 13:122; see also Martin, Private Yankee Doodle description begins Joseph Plumb Martin. Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier. Edited by George F. Scheer. 1962. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 32–41).

Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons marched three of the Continental regiments in his brigade north from Corlear’s Hook to reinforce the troops under attack near Kip’s Bay. On Murray Hill about a half a mile west of the bay, Parsons met GW, who directed him to keep his troops in order and bring them forward. As the brigade approached the top of the hill from the west, British grenadiers were advancing up its eastern slope from Kip’s Bay, and Parsons heard GW shout “Take the walls!” and then add “Take the corn-field!” referring to a field on the nearby post road connecting New York City and King’s Bridge. “Immediately from front to rear of the brigade,” Parsons later testified, “the men ran to the walls, and some into the corn-field, in a most confused and disordered manner.” Parsons “used his utmost endeavour to form the brigade into some order upon that ground, but the men were so dispersed he found it impossible” (report of the court of inquiry on Col. John Tyler, 26 Oct. 1776, in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:1251–54). Quickly routing Parsons’s and Fellows’s brigades, the British grenadiers seized the hill, cutting the post road, and then they halted to wait for the rest of Howe’s army to land at Kip’s Bay (see Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:88; 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 , 1:47–48; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 97–98).

William Smallwood says in a letter to the Maryland convention of 12 Oct. that during the Kip’s Bay landing, “sixty [British] Light Infantry, upon the first fire, put to flight two brigades of the Connecticut troops—wretches who, however strange it may appear, from the Brigadier-General down to the private sentinel, were caned and whipped by the Generals Washington, Putnam, and Mifflin, but even this indignity had no weight, they could not be brought to stand one shot” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:1011–14). Heath says in his memoirs that the poor showing of the troops on 15 Sept. so exasperated GW that he “threw his hat on the ground, and exclaimed, ‘Are these the men with which I am to defend America?’” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 70). George Weedon wrote John Page on 20 Sept. that GW “was so exhausted” by his efforts to rally the retreating Americans at Kip’s Bay, “that he struck Several Officers in their flight, three times dashed his hatt on the Ground, and at last exclaimed ‘Good God have I got such Troops as Those.’ It was with difficulty his friends could get him to quit the field, so great was his emotions” (Ward, Duty, Honor or Country description begins Harry M. Ward. Duty, Honor or Country: General George Weedon and the American Revolution. Philadelphia, 1979. description ends , 59). These stories, which apparently were based on “camp gossip,” cannot be substantiated by eyewitness accounts (see Freeman, Washington description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends , 4:194, n.118).

5Howe’s delay in moving his troops beyond Murray Hill until late afternoon enabled GW to reform the disorganized American brigades on the Bloomingdale Road a short distance west of the hill and use that road and the upper part of the post road to evacuate nearly all of his army to Harlem Heights before Howe’s forces extended their lines across the island to the Hudson River and occupied New York City later that evening (see the report of the court of inquiry on Col. John Tyler, 26 Oct. 1776, in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:1251–54; William Smallwood to the Maryland Convention, 12 Oct. 1776, ibid., 1011–14; 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 , 1:49–50; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 98–99; and Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:88).

6The LB reads “with tolerable resolution.” For criticism of GW’s decision to defend Harlem Heights and to fight “a war of posts,” see Graydon, Memoirs description begins Alexander Graydon. Memoirs of His Own Time. With Reminiscences of the Men and Events of the Revolution. Edited by John Stockton Littell. Philadelphia, 1846. description ends , 174–75.

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