George Washington Papers

Council of War, 23 September 1777

Council of War

[Camp near Pottsgrove, Pa., 23 September 1777]

At a Council of War held at the Camp near Potts Grove the 23d day of Septemr 1777.

Present His Excellency the Commander[,] Major Generals Sullivan[,] Green[,] Lord Stirling[,] Stephen[,] Armstrong[,] Brigadiers General Knox[,] Weedon[,] Nash[,] Scott[,] Conway[,] Potter.

Besides the above Major Genl St Clair and John Cadwolader Esquire were also present.

His Excellency informed the General Officers that the Reason of his calling them together was to acquaint them that the Enemy had, the preceeding night, crossed the Schuylkill by several Fords about twelve Miles below and by the best accounts were proceeding towards Philadelphia.1 He also informed them that the Troops under Generals Smallwood & Wayne had not yet rejoined the Army and that a Brigade of Continental Troops under the command of General Mcdougal might be expected in a few days from Peekskill and about one thousand Militia from Jersey under Genl Dickinson in the same time—He therefore desired the opinion of the Council whether it would be most advisable to advance upon the Enemy with our present Force or wait till the Reinforcements and detachments above mentioned should come in?

Previous to taking the Voices upon the foregoing Question His Excellency begged leave to inform the Council of the present state of the Army and the Reasons which had induced him to make the late Movements which (tho’ well known to most of them) were not so fully to Major Genl Armstrong and Brig: Genl Potter who had been detatched from the main Body of the Army—this being agreed to, His Excellency proceeded to inform the Council That when the Army left Germantown upon the 15th instant it was with a determination to meet the Enemy and give them Battle whenever a convenient opportunity should be found—that they advanced the same day to the Sign of the Buck and the day following to the Warren Tavern upon the Lancaster Road.2 On the 17th in the morning intelligence was brought that the Enemy were advancing upon which the Army were paraded and a disposition made to receive them, the pickets had exchanged a few shott when a violent Storm of Rain which continued all the day and the following Night prevented all further operations.3 Upon an examination of the Arms and Ammunition on the 18th it was found that the former were much impaired and all the latter that was in Cartouch Boxes was intirely ruined, wherefore it was judged expedient to withdraw the Army to some place of security untill the Arms could be repaired and the Ammunition recruited. Before this could be fully effected advice was received that the Enemy had quitted their former position near the White Horse Tavern and were marching down the Road leading to the Swedes Ford, but the Army not being in a condition to attack them owing to the want of Ammunition, it was judged most prudent to cross the River at parker’s Ford and take post in the Rear of the Fat Land Ford opposite to the Enemy.4 In this position the Armies continued for two days when on the 20th instant that of the Enemy appeared to be in motion, and from our own observation and the accounts of our reconnoitering parties were marching rapidly up the Reading Road this induced us to move up likewise ⟨to hinder them⟩ from crossing above us and by getting between us and Reading take an opportunity of destroying a large collection of military Stores deposited there. On the Night of the 20th the Army decamped and marched up to the Trap and on the 21st to within four Miles of Potts Grove, the Enemy’s Van then being at French Creek upon the West side of Schuylkill.5 In the Night of the 22d advice was received that the Enemy had crossed schuylkill at Gordons Ford below us, but the account was again contradicted, but in the Morning of the 23d, certain accounts came to hand that they really had crossed in large Numbers and were moving towards Philada. His Excellency further informed the Council that the Troops were in no condition to make a forced March as many of them were barefooted and all excessively harrassed with their great Fatigue. The Question being then put—The Council were unanimously of opinion That, from the present state of the Army it would not be adviseable to advance upon the Enemy, but remain upon this Ground or in the Neighbourhood till the detatchments and expected Reinforcements come up.

D, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DLC:GW; D, in Stirling’s writing, DNA: RG 93, manuscript file no. 29573; D, in Nathanael Greene’s writing, DNA: RG 93, manuscript file no. 29573; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The mutilated text on the manuscript is supplied within angle brackets from the Varick transcript.

The document in Tilghman’s writing and the Varick transcript are nearly identical in wording, but the documents in Stirling’s and Greene’s writings each contain quite different wording. Stirling’s account of the council proceedings, which is undated, reads: “His Excellency informed the Council that although most of the Members Now present were well acquainted with the Motives which have induced him to make the Several late movements of the Army, yet for the fuller information of all, he now Chose to recapetulate them; After haveing refreshed the Army Near German Town he recrossed the Schuykill on the 15th with a determination of Immediately attacking the Enemy’s Army under Genl Howe and for that purpose had ordered the Army to be provided with Cooked provision & a large Stock of Am[munitio]n that he proceeded that day to [ ], [ ] on the Next morning he intended to go on towards the Enemy, But found a Considerable part of the Army was still unprovided with provisions thro’ the Neglect of some of the Commissaries & the Confusion in that department; to remedy this Greatest part of that day was lost, by which means the Enemy had time to gain Intelligence of our motions, and were prepareing to Attack us the Next day, which rendered it necessary to Alter the position of our Army, dureing which Came on a Voilent Storm of Rain which Continued all the Succeeding Night, and a great part of the Next day; the Consequence of which was the loss of all the Amunition in possession of the Soldiers & a great part of what was in the Amunition Carts, the Arms put in very bad order, and the Men much fatigued and distressed—to remedy which it became Necessary to retire over french Creek & towards Reading furnace. that while this was doing, the Enemy moved towards the Sweed’s Ford on Schuylkill, which Induced him to repass the that River in order to meet them on this Side in Case they should Attempt to pass it. that by every account We received Yesterday Morning, & by the Motions we could our selves observe it appeared that the Enemy were Moveing up the Schuylkill, that Considering the importance of the Town of Reading on Account of the large Magazine of Stores & Amunition, the great disadvantage this Army must be under in Case the Enemy should pass above induced him Yesterday to Move the Army to this place.

“That this Morning he has received intelligence that a part of the Enemy’s Army has Crossed the Schuylkill at or near the fat Land ford, and by other Intelligence it appeared that a Considerable part of the Army were still on the other side of Schuylkill near french Creek Bridge but that numbers on other side was not yet ascertained, that he had dispatched several parties in order to gain further Intelligence, and had wrote repeated letters to hasten the March of General Mack Dougal with the troops from pecks Kill, to Genl Dickinson with the Jersey Militia & had ordered Genl Wayne & Genl Smallwood to Join this Army with the Troops under their Command. That under these Circumstances he requested the Sentiments of this Council wether it would be adviseable to attack the Enemy, or to March nearer to the Enemy’s Army, or remain in or near this place untill we were Joined by the different bodies of troops before mentioned, and in the mean time to get this Army better refreshed from their late very great fatigues.

“The Council after Maturely Considering the present State of this Army and all Circumstances are Unanimously of Opinion that Untill we are reinforced by the Troops expected with the Generals McDougal, Dickinson, Wayne and Smallwood, it will not be prudent to advance nearer to the Enemy.”

Greene’s incomplete account of the council proceedings, which GW docketed “Sentiments of a Board of Genl officers taken near Potts grove. Sep: 1777,” reads: “The unfortunate Storm of the 16th instant haveing defeated our design of attacking the enemy agreeable to the resolution taken at German Town—The loss of our Ammunition oblig’d us to move at such a distance from the Enemy as gave them an opportunity to gain the Schuylkill[.] the division of our force that took place to retard the enemies crossing to gain time to repair the misfortune of the Ammunition put it out of our power of attacking the enemy unless it was done under such disadvantages as prudence forbid[.] The Enemy haveing crost the Schuylkill between us & Philadelphia—His Excellency requested the opinion of the board of General Officers whether we should move down upon the back of the Enemy immediately or wait until the reinforcements under the command of Gls McDougall, Smallwood, and Waynes division join us.”

1Howe’s aide-de-camp Captain Muenchhausen says in his diary entry for 22 Sept. that “at 11 o’clock at night the English Guards started to cross the Schuylkill at Fatland Ford. The English grenadiers, the English light infantry, artillery, dragoons, etc., followed.” In his entry for 23 Sept., Muenchhausen writes: “The crossing of the Schuylkill delayed us considerably because the water was three feet deep and the men had to walk about 300 paces in the water owing to a bend in the ford. Sometime after three o’clock in the morning, three brigades of English crossed, then General [Johann Daniel] Stirn’s brigade of Hessians, then the Hessian grenadiers and jaegers, then the complete baggage, cattle, etc. After this came two brigades of English, and at the end came [Maj. James] Wemys’ corps of Provincials, which did not cross till four in the afternoon.

“As soon as the individual regiments had crossed, they formed into line some 100 paces from the water, and lighted big fires to dry their clothes. The 100 grenadiers and 60 jaegers who last night had crossed the Schuylkill six miles farther up [at Gordon’s Ford], were ordered to come back before dawn; they crossed the Schuylkill at Fatland Ford where the entire army crossed.

“We halted until an hour before noon, which was about the time the baggage was crossing. Then we proceeded about seven miles from the ford to the Norrington house [at present-day Norristown], where the main Lancaster Road goes to Philadelphia by way of Reading. Our position was then about 16 or 17 miles from Philadelphia. The van of our column was stationed here, and the Hessian jaegers and Wemys’ corps were about three miles from the ford. The other troops were spread between these two points, along the road. Today we got hold of a hidden large flag, a couple of drums, 5 dragoons, 13 infantrymen, and four iron 18–pounders, that were mounted in the region of Swedes Ford, where we were expected to cross” (Muenchhausen, At General Howe’s Side description begins Friedrich von Muenchhausen. At General Howe’s Side, 1776–1778: The Diary of General William Howe’s Aide de Camp, Captain Friedrich von Muenchhausen. Translated by Ernst Kipping. Annotated by Samuel Smith. Monmouth Beach, N.J., 1974. description ends , 35).

Capt. John Montresor says in his journal entry for this date that “our couriers affirm that the Rebel army principally retreated to Reading. On leaving the ground of our last Encampment we set fire to the Valley Forge and destroyed it” (Scull, Montresor Journals description begins G. D. Scull, ed. The Montresor Journals. New York, 1882. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vol. 14. description ends , 457; see also Howe to Germain, 10 Oct. 1777, 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 , 14:202–9; 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 , 150; André, Journal description begins John André. Major André’s Journal: Operations of the British Army under Lieutenant Generals Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, June 1777 to November 1778. 1930. Reprint. New York, 1968. description ends , 52; 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 , 116–17; and 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 , 91).

2The army marched from Germantown on 14 Sept., and it reached the Admiral Warren Tavern on 15 Sept. (see General Orders, 14 Sept., n. 1, and 15 Sept., source note and note 1).

3These events occurred on 16 Sept. (see General Orders, 16 Sept., source note).

4The army crossed to the east side of the Schuylkill River at Parker’s Ford on 19 Sept. (see General Orders, that date, source note).

5The army made these marches on 21 and 22 Sept. respectively (see General Orders, 21, 22 Sept., source notes).

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