George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 19–21 November 1776

To John Hancock

Heckensec [N.J.] Novr 19th[-21] 1776

Sir

I have not been yet able to obtain a particular account of the unhappy affair of the 16th, nor of the Terms on which the Garrison surrendered. The Intelligence that has come to hand, is not so full and accurate as I could wish. One of the Artillery, & whose information is most direct, who escaped on Sunday night, says, the Enemy’s loss was very considerable, especially in the attack made above the Fort by the Division of Hessians that marched from Kings bridge, and where Lieutt Colo. Rawlins of the late Colo. Stevensons Regiment was posted.1 They burnt yesterday One or two Houses on the Heights & contiguous to the Fort, and appeared by advices from Genl Greene, to be moving in the Evening, their Main body down towards the City.2 Whether they will close the Campaign without attempting something more, or make an incursion into Jersey, must be determined by the events themselves.

As Fort Lee was always considered as only necessary in conjunction with that on the East side of the River, to preserve the communication across, & to prevent the Enemy from a free Navigation, It has become of no importan⟨ce⟩ by the loss of the Other, or not so material as to employ a force for its defence. being viewed in this light, and apprehending that the Stores there would be precariously situated, their removal3 has been determined on to Bound Brook, above Brunswic, Prince Town, Springfeild & Acquackinac Bridge as places that will not be subject to sudden danger in case the Enemy should pass the River, & which have been thought proper, as a repositories for some of our Stores of Provision & Forage. The Troops belonging to the Flying Camp, under Genls Herd & Beal with what remains of Genl Ewins Brigade, are now at Fort Lee, where they will continue till the Stores are got away. By the Time that is effected, their Term of Enlistment will be near expiring, and if the Enemy should make a push in this Quarter, the only Troops that there will be to oppose ’em, will be Hands, Hazlets, the Regiments from Virginia and that lately Smallwoods,4 the latter greatly reduced by the losses it sustained on Long Island &c. and sickness. nor are the rest by any means complete. In addition to these, I am told there are a few of the Militia of this State, which have been called in by Governr Livingston. I shall make such a disposition of the whole at Brunswick, and at the intermediate Posts as shall seem most likely to guard against the designs of the Enemy, and to prevent them making an Irruption or foraging5 with detached parties.

The Inclosed Letter from Cols. Miles and Atlee will shew Congress the distressed situation of our Prisoners in New York, and will become greater every day by the cold, inclement Season that is approaching.6 It will be happy if some expedient can be adopted, by which they may be furnished with necessary Blankets and Cloathing. Humanity and the good of the service require it. I think the mode suggested by these Gentlemen for establishing a credit, appears as likely to succeed, and as eligible, as any that occurs to me. It is probable, many Articles that may be wanted, can be obtained there and upon better Terms than elsewhere. In respect to Provision, their allowance perhaps is as good as the situation of Genl How’s Stores will admit of. It has been said of late, by deserters and others, that they were rather scant.

By a Letter from the Pay master Genl of the 17th he says there will be a necessity that large and early remittances should be made him. The demands, when the Troops now in service, are dismissed, will be extremely great. besides the bounty to recruits will require a large supply and he adds that the Commissary Genl has informed him, that between this and the last of Decr he shall have occasion for a Million of Dollars.7

21st. The unhappy affair of the 16th has been succeeded by further misfortunes. Yesterday morning a large body of the Enemy landed between Dobb’s Ferry and Fort Lee. their object was evidently to inclose the whole of our Troops & Stores that lay between the North & Heckensec Rivers, which form a very narrow neck of Land. for this purpose they formed and marched as soon as they had ascended the High Grounds8 towards the Fort. Upon the first information of their having landed & of their movements, our Men were ordered to meet them, but finding their numbers greatly superior & that they were extending themselves to seize on the Passes over the River, It was thought prudent to withdraw our Men, which was effected and their retreat secured.9 We lost the whole of the Cannon that was at the Fort, except Two twelve Pounders, and a great deal of baggage—between Two & three hundred Tents—about a Thousand Barrells of Flour & other Stores in the Qr Master’s department.10 this loss was inevitable. As many of the Stores had been removed, as circumstances & time would admit of. the Ammunition had been happily got away. Our present situation between Heckensec & Posaic Rivers being exactly similar to our late one, and our force here by no means adequate to an opposition that will promise the smallest probability of Success, we are taking measures to retire over the Waters of the latter, when the best disposition will be formed that circumstances will admit of.

By Colo. Cadwalader, who has been permitted by Genl Howe to return to his Friends, I am informed the Surrender of the Garrison on the 16th was on the common terms, as Prison⟨ers⟩ of War. The loss of the Hessians about Three hundred Privates & Twenty Seven Officers, killed & wounded, about Forty of the British Troops & Two or three Officers. The loss on our side but inconsiderable.11 I beg leave to refer you to him for a more particular account and also for his relation of the distresses of our Prisoners. Colo. Miles & Atlees Letter mentioned above upon this Subject, was through mistake sent from hence yesterday evening. the mode of releif proposed by them, was a credit or supply of Cash through the means of Mr Franks—This seems to be doubtfull, as he is said to be in confinement by Colo. Cadwalader, provided it would have been otherwise practicable. ⟨I ha⟩ve the Honor to be with great respect Sir Yr Most Obedt St

Go: Washington

P.S: Your favor of the 16th was duly received. my Letter to the Board of War on the Subject of the return of the Waldeckers I presume you will have seen.12

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 23 Nov. (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 , 6:975). The postscript is not included in the draft or the Varick transcript.

1Greene conveyed this intelligence in his letter to GW of 18 November. The previous Sunday was 17 November.

2On the morning of 18 Nov., Frederick Mackenzie says in his diary entry for that date, “the 3rd Battalion of Grenadiers, the 3d Light Infantry, and two Brigades of Hessians, marched from the Army . . . and at 2 o’Clock encamped near New York. The 1st Brigade of British Infantry marched also this Morning from the other side of Kingsbridge; and at McGowan’s house received the Rebel prisoners taken at Fort Washington, from whence they escorted them to the several places appointed for their confinement in New York; after which they encamped near the town.” The British 3d Brigade arrived at New York on this date, and it likewise camped near the town. Fort Washington and its outlying works were garrisoned by men from Knyphausen’s corps of Hessians and Waldeckers (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 , 1:111–12; see also 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 , 1:100–101, 410, and 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 , 112).

3The draft reads: “would be rather precariously situated, their immediate removal.”

4The draft reads: “the Five Virginia Regiments—and the Regiment lately Smallwoods.”

5The draft reads: “or collecting forage.”

6The draft reads: “& which will become.” The undated letter that colonels Samuel Miles and Samuel John Atlee wrote GW about 12 Nov. from New York reads: “Some time since, at the desire of Major Skeene [Andrew Philip Skene], and Mr [Joshua] Loring (who is Commissary for the Prisoners) and who Assured us, it woud be agreeable to General Howe, we wrote, Sir, respecting the American Prisoners now in New York.

“Their Situation is truly deplorable: they are now confine⟨d⟩ in two Churches in the City, where they have been provided with half a pd of Salt Pork and two thirds of a pound of Bread per man per day, or in the same proportion, when they receive small Articles, such as peas, Butter, &ca to this they have no means of adding Vegitables or any other nourishing article for want of Cash.

“Their being confined so long upon salt Provisions, and the common pump Water which in New York is very bad, and their exceeding great want of Cloathing, has rendred them so very unhealthy that unless something is shortly done for them, they must inevitably perish.

“General Howe has been good enough to order, each man a Shirt, and the Beding the Prisoners brought from Cannada, this has been some relief to them; but unless a speedy exchange takes place, or some Method fall’n upon to furnish them with Cloathing, Death must relieeve them from their present misserable Situation: there are now in the Hospitals upwards of 120 numbers dying daily, & yesterday a Return was made of Fifty more whose situation require⟨s⟩ their being sent there.

“We hope that humanity alone, if there is no other Inducement, will be a sufficient Motive, Sir, with you, for promoting and if possible effecting an Exchange: If that cannot be done a sufficient Credit procured here, to furnish them with Cloathing &ca will be the Means of saving some hundreds of Lives, which must otherwise be lost, whither that Credit might not be established thro’ Mr David Franks victualler for the British Prisoners in Pennsylva. who is now at New York, you Sir, will be better able to determine than we are.

“We have hitherto shared with them, the small remittances we have received from our private Freinds, but what we coud spare, has been so trifling that they have received little or no Bennifit from it.

“Your speedy determination will greatly Oblige the poor distress’d Soldiers, as Sir Your Most Obedient and very Hble Servants” (DLC:GW; see also Nathanael Greene to GW, 11–12 Nov., n.2).

British officer Frederick Mackenzie says in his diary entry for 18 Nov.: “The Rebel prisoners were in general but very indifferently clothed; few of them appeared to have a Second shirt, nor did they appear to have washed themselves during the Campaign. A great many of them were lads under 15, and old men: and a few of them had the appearance of Soldiers. Their odd figures frequently excited the laughter of our Soldiers” (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 , 1:111–12).

7See William Palfrey to GW, 17 November. Congress resolved immediately after reading GW’s letter on 23 Nov. to send $500,000 to the paymaster general (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 , 6:975).

8The draft reads “Heights.”

9The draft reads: “It was thought proper to withdraw our Men, which was effected and their retreat secured over Heckensec bridge.”

10Howe chose Fort Lee as his next object, he says in his letter to Lord Germain of 30 Nov., because it gave him “the entire command of the North River and a ready road to penetrate into Jersey” (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 , 12:258–64). Howe assigned the task of capturing Fort Lee to Lord Cornwallis, who commanded a force consisting of two battalions of British light infantry, two companies of Hessian jägers, two battalions of British grenadiers and three battalions of Hessian grenadiers, two battalions of British guards, and the 33d and 42d regiments. Flatboats manned by British seamen carried Cornwallis’s troops across the Hudson River in two divisions, landing them unopposed between eight and ten o’clock on the morning of 20 Nov. on the river’s west bank five to seven miles north of Fort Lee. “The seamen,” Howe writes Germain, “distinguished themselves remarkably upon this occasion by their readiness to drag the cannon up a rocky narrow road for near half a mile to the top of a precipice which bounds the shore for some miles on the west side.

“Lord Cornwallis immediately began his march, and had not the enemy at Fort Lee been apprized of his moving towards them by a countryman after he had proceeded some distance, he would have surrounded two thousand men at the fort, who escaped in the utmost confusion leaving all their artillery and a large quantity of stores and provisions, their tents standing and kettles upon the fire. His lordship encamped that night near the fort, making use of the enemy’s tents.

“The next day [21 Nov.] Major-General [John] Vaughan, with the light infantry and British grenadiers, was detached to the New Bridge upon Hackinsac River, and a detachment of the 16th dragoons under the command of [Lt.] Colonel [William] Harcourt was sent over to Fort Lee. This detachment with some companies of light infantry scoured the country on the 22nd as far as Pisaick [Passaic] River and found the enemy had abandoned all the intermediate country, their advanced guard being at Aquakinunc” (ibid.; 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 , 112–13; 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 , 1:101, 411; 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 , 144–45; 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 , 1:112–13; Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 17–19; 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 , 71).

Nathanael Greene says in his letter to Nicholas Cooke of 4 Dec., that the strength of Cornwallis’s force was “about 6000, most accounts say 8000. We had then at Fort Lee only between two and three thousand effective men. His Excellency [GW] orderd a retreat immediately. We lost considerable baggage for want of Waggons, and a considerable quantity of Stores. We had about Ninety or a hundred Prisoners taken, but these were a set of rascals that Skulkt out of the way, for fear of fighting. The Troops at Fort Lee were mostly of the Flying Camp—irregular and undisciplind. Had they obeyed orders not a man would have been taken. I returnd to the Camp two hours after the troops marcht off. Col Cornwell [Lt. Col. Ezekiel Cornell] and myself got off several hundred. Yet notwithstanding all our endeavors still near a hundred remaind hid above in the Woods” (Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 1:360–64; see also Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, pt. 1, in Foner, Paine’s Writings description begins Philip S. Foner. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. 2 vols. New York, 1945. description ends , 1:51–52). For a report of drunkenness among the American soldiers at Fort Lee, see “Journal of a Pennsylvania Soldier, July–December 1776,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 8 (1904), 549.

Sometime during the morning or afternoon of 20 Nov., GW’s aide-de-camp William Grayson wrote from Hackensack to Gen. Hugh Mercer: “His Excellency has directed me to . . . acquaint you of the late movements of the Enemy, They landed this Morning between Dobbs Ferry & Fort Lee (as the Genl has been informed) in great numbers & an advanced Party of them proceeded as far as an Hill, two Miles above the Liberty Pole, at the cross Roads, where I left his Excellency; The Road leading from thence to Hackensack Bridge as well as the Bridge is open for our people to retreat & from present Appearances it is expected they may be got of without Loss of many of them—What their Loss [object] is cannot at present be clearly ascertained, but it is imagined the getting possession of Fort Lee, is one part of their Designs. however it is possible they may have other & more capital Views.

“You will be pleased to hold yourself in readiness to march at a moments Warning & to forward this Letter to Lord Stirling & Genl Stephen who are to make the same preparation” (DLC:GW). The Liberty Pole Tavern at Englewood, N.J., was about two miles north of Fort Lee.

Grayson wrote Gen. Charles Lee on 20 Nov. conveying similar intelligence and informing that “His Excellency [GW] thinks it would be adviseable in you, to remove the troops under your command on this side the North river, & there wait for farther orders” (NN: Washington Collection; see also GW to Charles Lee, and GW to William Livingston, both 21 November).

Capt. Johann Ewald of the Hessian jägers was frustrated that Cornwallis refused to let his men pursue more vigoriously the Americans retreating from Fort Lee in order to cut them off at the bridge across the Hackensack River. “Let them go, my dear Ewald, and stay here,” Cornwallis reportedly told him. “We do not want to lose any men. One jäger is worth more than ten rebels.” Later in the day after again being restrained from pursuing the Americans, Ewald “perceived what was afoot. We wanted to spare the King’s subjects and hoped to terminate the war amicably, in which assumption I was strengthened the next day by several English officers” (Ewald, Diary description begins Johann Ewald. Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal. Translated and edited by Joseph P. Tustin. New Haven and London, 1979. description ends , 18; see also Sachse, “Heinrichs’s Letter-Book,” 139, and 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 , 1:113).

Cornwallis’s force captured eighteen artillery pieces at Fort Lee and its outworks, including five thirty-two-pounders, three twenty-four pounders, two six-pounders, two three-pounders, two brass mortars, and four iron mortars (see Samuel Cleaveland, Return of Ordnance and Stores Taken By His Majesty’s Troops, 12 Oct.—20 Nov. 1776, in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 3:1058–59).

11For a discussion of the casualties incurred at Fort Washington on 16 Nov., see GW to Hancock, 16 Nov., n.9.

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