George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General William Heath, 24 November 1776

From Major General William Heath

Peeks kill [N.Y.] Novr 24th 1776

Dear General

I some Days Since Presented to your Excellency The Disposition of the Troops at this Post. I have not as yet received your Excellency Express approbation1 I am Endeavouring to Compleat the Business your Excellency Assigned to me, as fast as Possible.

On the 21st Instant I received a Letter from General Lee a Copy of which is Inclosed, I returned him for Answer that my Division was Posted at Important Passes and with such Possitive and pressing Instructions from your Excellency That I Dare not remove them with out your Excellencys Express Orders which was also the Opinion of my Brigadier Generals That it would be Extremely Hazardous, The last Evening I received another Letter from him which I also Inclose It needs no Comment2—I still Conceive my Self Strictly bound by your Excellencys Instructions and that the Importance of this Post is enhanced by the Enemies having got the Possession of Fort Lee and thereby Secured to themselves the intire navigation of Hudsons River up to this place—should the number of Troops mentioned by General Lee be Drawn from this Post there would not be more than 400 men Exclusive of the Garrisons of the Forts be left on this Side the River,3 I consider my Self as accountable for the Post being So Expressly Instructed by your Excellency and shall most strictly adhere to them4 Untill Countermanded by your Excellencys orders, or a Signification of your Excellencys Pleasure that I am to Obey Such orders as I shall receive from Some other my Senior Officer, which alone I think can warrant a Departure from my Instructions I wish to know your Excellencys Pleasure as Soon as agreable to you as it may Prevent altercation and Confusion—I beg leave also to acquaint your Excellency that the Time to which the Garrisons of Fort Montgomery and Constitution are Engaged Expires (Except as to 328 privates) in Six Days—as Does that of General Scotts whole Brigade & Colonel Tashes Regiment.

I cannot Conclude without observing that General Lee in his first Letter to me mentions that he has received a Recommendation not a Possitive order to move the Corps Under his Command to the other Side of the River, and yet altho He did not think it Obligatory on himself, in his Second Letter he possitively orders me to Hold Two Thousand of my Division in readiness to march with Him aCross the River Directly Contrary to my Instructions, Extracts of which I had furnished him with. I have the Honor to be with great respect your Excellencys most Humble Servt

W. Heath

ADfS, MHi: Heath Papers.

1Heath’s letter to GW of 18 Nov. describing the disposition of his division was answered by Robert Hanson Harrison on 20 Nov. (see Heath to GW, 18 Nov., source note; see also note 2).

2Charles Lee wrote Heath on 21 Nov.: “I have just receiv’d a recommendation not a positive order from the General [GW] to move the Corps under my command to the other side the [Hudson] River—this recommendation was I imagine on the presumption that I had already mov’d nearer the Peeks kills—there is no possibility of crossing over Dobb’s Ferry or at any place lower than Kings Ferry—which to us wou’d be such an immense round that We cou’d never answer any purpose—I must therefore desire and request that You will order two thoushand of your Corps under a Brig’r General to cross the River; apprize the General and wait his farther orders—as soon as We have finish’d a necessary Jobb—I will replace this number from hence—which jobb will I believe be finish’d tomorrow” (MHi: Heath Papers). Lee is referring to William Grayson’s letter to him of 20 Nov. in which Grayson informs him that in view of Cornwallis’s advance on Fort Lee, 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 Hancock, 19–21 Nov., n.10).

In the reply that Heath wrote Lee at ten o’clock on the night of 21 Nov., he quotes the pertinent part of his instructions from GW of 12 Nov., and says: “After Instructions so positive & pressing, you will readily agree, that it would be very improper in me, to order any of the Troops from posts to which they are so expressly assigned, & from business which in his Excellency View is so very important—Add to this their present Disposition is such, that to collect any thing near the number you mention, would occasion as great Delay, and cause many of them to march nearly as far, as if sent immediately from your Quarter” (MHi: Heath Papers).

Lee’s letter to Heath of 23 Nov. reads: “By your mode of reasoning the Generals injunctions are so binding that not a tittle must be broke through for the salvation of the General and the Army—I have ordered Glover’s Brigade to march up towards the Peeks Kills to put the passage of the Highlands out of danger—but I intend to take two thoushand from your division with me into the Jerseys—so I must desire that you will have that number in readiness by the day after tomorrow when I shall be with you early in the forenoon” (MHi: Heath Papers).

Heath wrote Lee on this date: “Be my mode of Reasoning as it may I Conceive it to be my Duty to Obey my Instructions, Especially those which are Possitive and Poignant and that to deviate from them even in Extreme Cases would be an Error—Though Perhaps an Error on the Right Side.

“I can assure you Sir that I have Salvation of the General & army So much at Heart that the least recommendation from him to march my Division or any Part of them over the River should have been Instantly obeyed, without waiting for a Possitive order.

“My Conduct must be approved or Censured as I adhere to or Depart from my orders, and as it is my Duty I shall strictly abide by them, Untill they are Countermanded in Such manner as will Justify a Deviation from them to him who Instructed me and to the world.

“I shall be Happy in being Honor’d with your Company to morrow” (MHi: Heath Papers).

Heath says in his memoirs that after he sent off his letter to Lee of this date, he “reflected for a moment, that as circumstances alter cases, Gen. Washington being now pressed, and the army with him but feeble, he might possibly wish for some aid from his division. He [Heath] therefore sat down and wrote him [GW] a short letter [this letter], stating in what manner he had disposed of the troops under his command, and wishing to know his pleasure whether any part of them should join him; enclosing copies of the letters he had received from Gen. Lee, and of his answers. The express was directed to make the utmost dispatch out and returning, which he effected on the 26th” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 103).

The express rider, Heath says, returned with the following letter to him from Robert Hanson Harrison, dated 25 Nov. at Newark: “I AM directed by his Excellency [GW] to acknowledge his receipt of your letter of yesterday, and to inform you the disposition of the troops, mentioned in your former letter, has his approbation.

“In respect to the troops intended to come to this quarter, his Excellency never meant that they should be from your division. He has wrote Gen. Lee, since, so fully and explicitly upon the subject that any misapprehensions he may have been under at first, must be now done away. He will most probably have reached Peekskill before now, with his division, and be pushing to join us” (ibid.).

3At this place on the manuscript Heath wrote and then struck out a sentence that reads: “If this Post is to be evacuated I shall Comply with the orders when I shall receive them from your Excellency.”

4On the manuscript Heath first wrote “to my orders,” and then he struck out “my orders” and wrote “them” above the line.

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