George Washington Papers

Circular to the General Officers, 26 October 1777

Circular to the General Officers

Head Quarters [Whitpain Township, Pa.] 26th Octobr 1777.


You will, very shortly, be called to a council of War, when your sentiments on the following questions will be asked.

1st  Whether it will be prudent in our present circumstances, and strength, to attempt by a General Attack, to dislodge the Enemy; & if it is, and we unsuccessful, where we shall retreat to?

2d  If such an attack should not be thought eligible, what general disposition of the Army had best take place till the weather forces us from the Feild?

3  Where and in what manner supposing the Enemy to keep possession of Philadelphia, had the Continental Troops best be Cantoned after they can no longer keep the Feild?

4th  What measures can be adopted to cover the country near the City, and prevent the Enemy from drawing Supplies therefrom, during the Winter?

5th  Will the Office of Inspector General to our Army, for the purpose principally, of establishing one uniform set of Manœuvres, and manual, be advisable as the time of the Adjutant General seems to be totally engaged with other business?

6th  Should Regimental promotion extend only to Captains, Inclusively, or to that of the Majority?

7th  Will it be consistent with propriety and good policy to allow Soldiers the reward offered to others for apprehending Deserters?

8th  The Commissaries Complaining of the number and disproportion of the Rations which are Issued to the Troops and at the same time of the advanced price of all kinds of Spirits, owing to the Imposition of the Sutlers upon the Soldiery what regulation, & Remedy can be applied to rectify the one, and prevent the Other? I am Sir Your Most Obedt Servt

Go: Washington

LS, addressed to Henry Knox, in Caleb Gibbs’s writing, NNGL: Knox Papers; LS, addressed to Alexander McDougall, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, CSmH; LS, addressed to Anthony Wayne, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, PHi: Wayne Papers; LS, addressed to George Weedon, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, PPAmP: George Weedon Papers; ADfS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

These questions in slightly altered form were considered by the council of war that met on 29 Oct. (see its proceedings of that date). The only individual written responses that have been found are the undated drafts that Henry Knox and Anthony Wayne wrote, apparently before the meeting of the council of war. Knox answers all of the questions, while Wayne focuses on the first one.

Knox’s draft reads: “On the first question, My sentiments are against a general attack of the enemy, strongly posted as they are, except upon the clearest principles of superior numbers to counterbalance their superior discipline. I am fully of opinion that we have no experience of our troops that will justify the supposition of their being able to storm redoubts defended by British troops. Our knowledge of the militia proves it beyond a doubt that they will not stand a severe fire. The only uses that can be made of them, are either to make a shew by way of feint; or to send them on in a scattering manner, with liberty to take advantages of every thing that can cover them.

“It requires the best discipline, the firmest spirit, and good officers, to storm works or to make an impression on British troops. Not that I suppose the Europeans will make better soldiers than the Americans, but that habitual discipline to which they are used and in which all their officers are initiated, gives them a superiority over us, which nothing but a similar discipline or superior numbers can counterbalance.

“My opinion is against a general action, because we are not in the predicament which obliges us to it. The enemy are in Philadelphia, and even supposing us to be victorious and dispossess the enemy of the city, the advantage in my opinion, would be nothing near equal to the expence we probably shall be at in obtaining it. The utmost would be gaining an empty, city for winter quarters & driving the enemy on board their ships, which they might gain by means of the bridge or bridges over Schuylkill, and which with our present numbers we cannot prevent.

“It is a very possible circumstance in a general action we may be defeated, in which case we are by no means to argue on as favorable retreats as at Brandywine or Germantown. It is possible the enemy may manoeuvre better than before and we worse. The events of war are uncertain. Our affairs, by a total defeat, may be followed with very fatal consequences on the west side the Delaware.

“I am against a general attack on the enemy’s lines at this time. Because the event of General Burgoynes army, in its consequences, if properly used will enable America to terminate the war almost on her own terms. America has been distracted and divided by two different attacks; but in the next campaign we shall be able to unite her whole army, which will be much strengthened and reformed during the approaching winter by the different States filling their regiments, and which by being pointed against one object will be truely formidable: that prospect would be much obscured by the Southern army being dispersed or considerably reduced.

“Answer to the 2d Question. In my opinion, the Army ought to take such a general disposition, until the badness of the weather shall drive us from the field, as will enable us either to reinforce the forts in the river by the way of the Jersey, or transport a body of troops thither, if the enemy should lay siege to Red Bank; to raise the siege. The preservation of the forts in the river, and ruining any body of troops which may be sent to operate against them, is now, in my opinion, become the first object of this Army. For this reason I would still reinforce the posts there, and hold a respectable body of troops ready to operate against the enemy should they attempt Red Bank by siege. The remainder of the Army should remain in a strong fortified camp, chosen for that purpose, so far distant from Philadelphia as to be secure against a surprize; and, in my opinion, the camp lately recommended near Whitemarsh Church would be proper for this purpose.

“Answer to the 3d question. Supposing the circumstances to exist as in the 3d question, I think Reading ought to be fortified and made the principal cantonment, and Allen Town, Bethlehem and Easton the lesser ones; all of which ought to be fortified by redoubts, with which and the stone houses they would be impregnable to any surprize or siege in the winter.

“4th The evils of the enemies drawing supplies can be remedied only by a very large body of horse. Waggon horses may very well answer this purpose in conjunction with the light horse. These waggon horses, as they are strong and hardy, will answer very well to carry two footmen, who must be well equipped with each two blankets, a warm jacket and overalls. A very useful body of partisans may by this means be formed, and without which I believe it will be impracticable to prevent the enemy from drawing supplies.

“5th The office of Inspector General I think would be highly useful, as well to introduce one uniform set of manoeuvres, as to see that the soldiers habliments and clothing be uniform and proper. Provided that he have not power to introduce any new manoeuvre without first laying it before the Commander in Chief or a full board of general officers.

“6th Regimental promotions should be to captains inclusive, and no farther. When a majority becomes vacant the oldest captain in the line of the State where the vacancy happens to succeed to it—provided he be competent to the place.

“7th It is my opinion that it would not be consistent with propriety and good policy to allow soldiers the reward offered to others for apprehending deserters. Because desertion is a crime of the blackest die committed against the well being of a State, which every good man ought as far as in his power to bring to light. It cannot be argued from this that a man will not betray his comrade or his friend; because if the tye by which the soldiers are bound to the country is not strong enough to induce them to discover a deserter, no more will the paltry sum allowed for apprehending deserters.

“8th The commissary informs me that he knows of no abuse in his department. The officers draw but one ration, except now and then an officers drawing a piece of beef” (Df, NNGL: Knox Papers).

Wayne’s draft reads: “The first Question you offer is ‘Whether it will be prudent in our present circumstances & Strength to Attempt by a General attack to Dislodge the enemy, and if it is, and we unsuccessful, where shall we Retreat to.’

“I am not perfectly acquainted with our Circumstance or Strength—I have some knowledge of it as well as that of the Enemy’s, Which nearly meets the Idea I always entertained of it—however I might have differed with Other Gentlemen on the Occasion—when I gave my Opinion for the Attack of Germantown I did not Diminish their number’s—in point of Possition they had then much the Advantage of us—the Ground they occupied was Strong—many Roads led Immediately for our flanks. In their present possition—it may be said their flanks are covered—so are our’s when once we move to the Attack—we shall be under no Apprehension of either being out flanked or Enclosed in the Rear—In case of a Misfortune we have every Road and the Whole Country open to favour our Retreat—the Shipping at the same time may move up to favour our attack or Retreat—the Militia from the Other side of Schuylkill with a few field pieces will not only draw the Attention of the Enemy to them but will Annoy and Enfilade them—this will also facilitate the Victory or Cover the Retreat.

“It may be necessary to Offer some Reasons for giving this advice—they are then viz., if the Enemy are not Immediately Dislodged—all our Defences and Shipping On the River will Inevitably fall into their hands—they will thereby Secure to themselves Comfortable Winter Quarters the Inclemency of the Weather will soon force your Army from the field—if you should Attempt to keep it you will loose more men by Sickness Desertion and every other Concomitant Evil Incedent to a Naked Discontented Army—than you would in the Severest Action—add to this the small prospect of Recruiting or Strengthening your Forces under the present Militia acts—especially as your Officers will necessarily be Engaged in the field.

“for my own part I am well Convinced, that on the Activity and Prowess of our present Troops much Depends—which Induces me to wish for an Immediate Attack—that if unsucessful we may Retire to some place best Suited to Receive, us and where we may Cloth and Refresh our Troops, and Employ our Officers on the Recruiting Service—to Attempt to prevent the Enemy from Drawing Supplies when they are once in Possession of the River will Answer no Other end than to fatigue and Distroy our own Soldiers” (ADf, PHi: Wayne Papers).

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