George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 8–9 October 1776

To John Hancock

Head Qurs Heights of Harlem
Octobr 8[-9]th 1776


Since I had the honor of writing you Yesterday, I have been favoured with a Letter from the Honble Council of Massachusetts bay, covering One from Richard Derby Esqr., a Copy of which is herewith transmitted, as it contains intelligence of an important and interesting nature.1

As an Exchange of prisoners is about to take place, I am induced from a Question stated in a Letter I received from Govr Trumbull this morning,2 to ask the Opinion of Congress in what manner the States that have had the care of them, are to [be]3 reimbursed the Expences incurred on their Account. My want of information in this instance or whether any account is to be sent in with the prisoners, would not allow me to give him an Answer, as nothing that I recollect has ever been said upon the Subject. he also mentions another matter Viz. Whether such privates as are Mechanicks & Others who may desire to remain with us, should be obliged to return; In respect to the latter, I conceive there can be no doubt of our being under a necessity of returning the whole, a proposition having been made on our part for a Genl exchange and that agreed to;4 Besides the ballance of prisoners is greatly against us & I am informed it was particularly stipulated by Genl Montgomery, that all those that were taken in Canada, should be exchanged when ever a Cartel was settled for the purpose. Under these circumstances, I should suppose the Several Committees having the care of them, should be instructed to make the most exact returns of the whole, however willing a part should be to continue with us; At the same time I should think it not improper to inform them of the reasons leading to the measure, and that they should be invited to escape afterwards, which in all probability they may effect without much difficulty5 if they are attached to us, extending their influence to many more & bringing them away also.

The situation of our Affairs, and the present establishment of the Army, requiring our most vigorous exertions to ingage a New One, I presume it will be necessary to furnish the paymaster General, as early as possible, with Money to pay the bounty lately resolved on to such Men as will inlist. prompt pay perhaps may have a happy effect and induce the continuance of some who are here, but without it, I am certain that nothing can be done—nor have we time to lose in making the Experiment. but then it may be asked, who is to recruit—or who can consider themselves as Officers for that purpose till the Conventions of the different States have made the appointments.

Yesterday afternoon the exchange between Lord Stirling and Govr Browne was carried into execution and his Lordship is now here; he confirms the intelligence mentioned by Captn Souther about the Transports he met, by the arrival of the Daphne Man of War (a Twenty Gun Ship) a few days ago with Twelve Ships under her Convoy having light Horse on board.6 they sailed with about Twenty in each and lost about Eighty in their passage besides those in the Vessel taken by Captn Souther. he further adds, that he had heard it acknowledged more than Once, that in the Action of the 16th Ulto the Enemy had a Hundred men killed, about Sixty Highlanders of the 42d Regiment and Forty of the light infantry—This confession coming from themselves, we may reasonably conclude did not exaggerate the Number.

In pursuance of the Resolve which you were pleased to transmit me, I called upon the Members who concurred in the acquittal of McCumber to assign their reasons. Inclosed you have their Answer, by which you will perceive the direction has given them great uneasiness, and from the information I have received, it has become a matter of much more general concern, than could have been expected, in so much that I will take the liberty to advise that it may rest where it is, having heard that most of the Officers have become party to it and consider that the Resolve materially affects the whole.7

Octobr the 9th. About 8 OClock this Morning, Two Ships of 44 Guns each, supposed to be the Roebuck & Phenix and a Frigate of 20 Guns with Three or four Tenders got under way from about Bloomingdale where they had been laying some time and stood with an easy southerly breeze towards our Chevaux de Frise, which we hoped would have interrupted their passage while our Batteries played upon them, But to our surprize and mortification, they ran thro without the least difficulty and without receiving any apparent damage from our Forts tho they kept up a heavy Fire from both sides of the River. their destination or views cannot be known with certainty, but most probably they are sent to stop the Navigation and cut off the supplies of boards &c. which we should have received and of which we are in great need.8 they are standing up, and I have dispatched an Express to the Convention of this State, that notice may be immediately communicated to Genl Clinton at the Highland Fortifications to put him on his guard in case they should have any designs against them and that precautions may be taken to prevent the Craft belonging to the River falling into their Hands.9 I have the honor to be with great esteem Sir Yr Most Obedt 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 11 Oct. 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 , 6:866).

3This word appears in the LB.

4The LB, which is also in Harrison’s writing, contains a draft version of the first part of this paragraph which has been struck out. It reads: “In consequence of a Letter which came to hand this morning from Govr Trumbull in part on the Subject of an Exchange of prisoners, I would beg leave to lay before Congress, with a view of obtaining their Opinion as soon as possible, the substance of Two Questions contained therein, Viz. Whether such privates as are Mechanics & Others who wish to remain in the Country shall be obliged to return; and in what manner the expences and charges incurred on account of the prisoners are to be defrayed[.] In respect to the first, it appears to me.”

5The LB reads “they may easily effect.”

6For Capt. Daniel Souther’s intelligence, see the Massachusetts Council to GW, 3 October. The Daphne and its convoy arrived at New York on 3 Oct. (see 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 , 118). Tench Tilghman says in his letter to William Duer of 8 Oct. that because Stirling “was on b[o]ard Ship the whole time of his captivity he can Say very little of the Situation or intentions of the enemy—He apprehends they are not so strong as they give out as he often heard them mention the want of their reinforcement, he confirms the account of the bad blood between the English & Hessian Troops[.] the latter plunder whig & tory indiscriminately & without punishment while the former are under the severest restrictions” (MH: Sparks transcripts).

7For Congress’s resolve of 30 Sept. regarding the court-martial of Ens. Matthew Macomber, see General Orders, 5 October. In the enclosed unaddressed document dated 7 Oct., the nine officers who sat on the court, including both those who found Macomber guilty of plundering and those who acquitted him of the charge, unanimously refused to give reasons for the court’s verdict. “It has ever been an established Maxim,” they say, “that Judges should be free from all Influence, that their Opinions should proceed from the Dictates of an honest & upright Mind, and that no bias to any particular party or fear of Censure should have Weight in their Judgements—Should we Consent to assign reasons for our Verdict on Mcumbers trial, we think it would be establishing a Precedent of the most dangerous Consequence. Whenever the Sentence of a Court Martial is disagreeable to a Commander in chief, or any other Power, the Members who do not Concur in Opinion with them are expos’d to their Resentment. This certainly must influence some persons, & be of dangerous tendency—Men of Spirit will not attend the Courts, and Servile Cringing Men should not be entrusted with the lives of their Fellows.

“We do not mean absolutely to refuse complying with the Order of Congress: Let us be convinc’d that we ought to do it, and reasons shall be given. We are Young & inexperienced in these matters, and are only guided by the natural impropriety of the thing. Have not the Congress thought it improper? They have. By the last Articles of War every Member is to be Sworn not to disclose the Opinion of any particular Member. Are laws to be made which are not binding on Legislators?” (DNA:PCC, item 152).

8The Roebuck and Phoenix were accompanied through the obstructions at Fort Washington by the frigate Tartar, the armed vessel Tryal, and two tenders. The Americans, Capt. Andrew Snape Hamond of the Roebuck says in his account of events, “had taken a great deal of pains to throw a Boom a cross [the Hudson], by sinking Vessels & frames of Timber, to prevent our ships from passing up. They had placed these obstructions in the narrowest part, where the River is about 12 hundred Yards wide, between two High Lands, having Fort Washington on the Right, and Fort Constitution [Fort Lee] on the left, each containing several batterys of heavy cannon, placed at some distance along the shore, and six row Galleys with each a large Gun in their prow guarded the boom in front; so that, we understood, they looked upon it to be perfectly secure: and it is possible, from seeing the great preparation they had made, we might also have thought so, if a deserter had not informed the Admiral [Howe] that there was a passage open between two of the sunken Vessels (which his Brother the Ferry Man had given him marks for) and offered himself as a Pilot. This intelligence was exceedingly agreable to both the General & Admiral, concieving, that if ships could be got up the North [Hudson] River, the Rebel’s supplys would not only be cut off from Albany & that country, but even their Communication with the Jerseys would become very uncertain & unsafe which could not fail of distressing them, and would very much assist in the intended opperation of surrounding their Army as soon as the Hessians should arrive.”

As the ships approached the obstructions, however, the pilot told Capt. Hyde Parker of the Phoenix “that the marks which then appeared were not those that had been described to him, and he was totally at a loss.” Parker decided “to take his chance where he knew the deepest water to be, which was Close to the eastern Shore, and which was the passage he came through when he passed down, before the obstruction of the Channel were said to be completed” (Hamond’s narrative, 3–9 Oct., in Clark and Morgan, Naval Documents description begins William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 12 vols. to date. Washington, D.C., 1964–. description ends , 6:1182–84).

In passing the American batteries, the Phoenix and Tartar suffered much damage to their masts, sails, and rigging. The Phoenix received four shot through its hull, and the Tartar was hulled several times (see the journals of the Phoenix, Roebuck, and Tartar, 9 Oct., ibid., 1178–81). A total of nine men aboard the British ships were killed, and eighteen men were wounded (see Captain Parker’s return of casualties, 23 Nov., ibid., 1182).

After reading this letter on 11 Oct., Congress resolved that GW “be desired, if it be practicable, by every art, and whatever expence, to obstruct effectually the navigation of the North river, between Fort Washington and Mount Constitution, as well to prevent the regress of the enemies’ frigates lately gone up, as to hinder them from receiving succours” (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 , 6:866).

9See Tench Tilghman to the New York committee of correspondence description begins Memoir of Lieut. Col. Tench Tilghman, Secretary and Aid to Washington, together with an Appendix, containing Revolutionary Journals and Letters, Hitherto Unpublished. 1876. Reprint. New York, 1971. description ends , 9 Oct., in MH: Sparks transcripts. For the letter to Gen. James Clinton that the convention drafted on 10 Oct. after reading Tilghman’s letter, see 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 , 1:669–70. In a second letter to the committee of correspondence of 9 Oct., Tilghman writes: “Mr Weisner [Henry Wisner, Jr.] came here and informed the General [GW] that there were ten Tons of Powder at New Windsor[,] five from his Mill and five from Philadelphia, it would be well to send immediately over and have it secured” (NHi: Duer Papers).

The New York committee of safety read Tilghman’s second letter on 12 Oct. and appointed a committee of three members to secure the gunpowder mentioned by him and move it to some safe place (see ibid., 672). Two days later that committee reported “that there is not any quantity of gunpowder belonging to the public now at that [the New Windsor] landing. That they are informed that the 5 tons of gunpowder which arrived at New-Windsor from Philadelphia, was immediately carried down to Fort Constitution, and there lodged, from whence part of it, by order of the commanding officer, has been taken to Fort Independence [near Peekskill], and placed in such a manner as to supply the troops or militia there. That the powder brought from the mill of Messrs. Wisner and Phillipse to New-Windsor, was immediately put on board of a proper vessel for the purpose, to be transported to Spytden-Duyvel creek. Mr. Phillips, one of the manufacturers, proceeded with the vessel with the powder. The enemy’s ships having got up the river before the vessel with the powder could reach her destination. Information is received that Mr. Phillips, who was at Peekskill with the powder, intended to land it there, and proceed by land. That a letter has been sent by Mr. [John] McKesson, one of the Secretaries, to the owners of the two powder mills near Goshen, requesting them not to send any gunpowder to the river side until further order” (ibid., 673).

The committee of safety on that same date ordered a copy of the report to be sent immediately to GW (ibid.). On 20 Oct. Tilghman wrote William Duer: “The General [GW] desires that Mr Philipse would not send down the powder from his Mill but Keep it in some secure place untill further orders—This is in answer to Mr McKessons Letter of the 14th Our hurry will excuse my not writing him particularly” (MH: Jared Sparks Collection). McKesson’s letter has not been identified.

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