George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Stirling, 2 September 1778

From Major General Stirling

Camp White plains September 2d 1778.

On Considering the Several Questions Stated by your Excellency Yesterday to your General Officers1 I am of Opinion,

That any Attempt on the troops on New York Island must be futile and extremly dangerous. Futile because, if we could drive the troops from that Island, and they should retire either to their Ships or to Long Island, our acquisition would be Useless; especially while the Enemy have a Naval force there and we none.

Dangerous because, 1st Wee know not with any Certainty what troops are on the Island, and Consequently the Event of an Attack on it Uncertain; the probability is, that it would be attended with such a loss of Troops as this Army ought not to risque. 2dly because this Army would be thrown into Such a Scituation, that if the Enemy with their force returning from Rhode Island, Joined by those now at New York should land at frogs point or any other good landing in the Sound, and take post on this Side of Kings bridge; it would infalliably be Cut off from their provision, and in Short from all further Connection with the Continent.

That an immediate Movement of this Army to the Eastward is unecessary and must be Attended with many disadvantages.

Wee have as yet received no advices that the Enemy have made such preparations as will enable them immediately to operate on the Continent; it is most probable they have not. should we move, and they afterwards return with their whole force, they might force the passage of the high lands, and be Masters of all the Country West of Hudsons River before we could possibly return to Oppose them.

We have no Magazines of bread or flower formed near that line of March. the Country is not a Bread Country, and Cannot Subsist an Army in that Essential Article, untill a Supply can be brought from other parts. This necessarily makes it proper to Collect Magazines of that Article, and to form them in that Country previous to the March of an Army into it.

It therefore seems Judicious to keep the Army in this Neighbourhood ’till such Magazines can be formed, or ’till we find by our advices of the Motions of the Enemy, it becomes Necessary for some important purpose to Change our ground.

When I say this Neighbourhood I do not mean the Identical spot we are now encamped upon: for I have my Suspicions that we are now too low down in the Cul de Sac. for Supposeing the Enemy should retire with their whole force from Rhode Island, should land at Norwalk and be Joined with their whole force from Nyork Meeting them either thro’ the Sound or by way of Long Island: would not this Army be so hem’d in that it would be difficult to gain the Enemy’s Right, or to Maintain itself in provisions, especially if the Enemy should push a few small ships up Hudsons River even so far as to Kings ferry. I would therefore Suggest the propriety of looking out in time for some ground fitting to encamp on, further in our Rear.

I take the liberty here of Mentioning that I think there is too much flower brought to Tarry Town, it is a precious Article, and I fear may be Cut off. The Army should by that Communication receive enough to Subsist upon, whatever can be Collected more than that should be Stored Elsewhere; if we have a large stock on hand here, it will in Case of a Movement be lost for want of Teams to Carry it off.2

The Secureing the passage of Hudsons River thro’ the Highlands is of the Utmost importance, and in Case of a Movement of this Army to the Eastward; a proper force should be left for that purpose in the Vicinity of the works at West point; what Number of Troops will be Competent I can form no Judgment of, as I do not know the Nature of nor the State of those works.


ALS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

Subsequently, probably about 4 Sept., Stirling revised his ideas on the basis of additional intelligence about British movements and wrote a second opinion. That undated and unsigned document was docketed by Varick’s transcribers with a date of “Septr 2nd 1778,” but it mentions the appearance of British forces off New London, which did not occur until the afternoon of 3 Sept., and Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s retreat to the mainland, news of which reached GW on 4 September. Whether the two opinions were submitted separately or together has not been determined. The second opinion reads: “Since I had the Honor of giveing my Opinion on the Subject wch I shall suppose is now before us, the face of Affairs is greatly Changed, every such Change most probably will alter our opinions, of what ought to be the immediate movements of the Army.

“After General Sullivan had happily Effected his retreat from R. Island, & Sir Henry Clinton had arrived there with a Strong detachment of the best troops in his Arrmy, and Lord Howe had arrived off Boston Harbour and blocked the Counte de Estainge in. I will Confess it was my Opinion that the Enemy would have made the destru[c]tion of the french fleet their first grand object, especially as Sir Henry might Cooperate there with his whole Army; a few Ships being Suffecient to Secure Rhode Isle & New york; then become useless to this Army.

“Sir Henry Clinton haveing left Rhode Island, and was as I am informed so far on his return as New London—I must Conclude they have something Else in Veiw.

“If they mean to Continue the war in America they Cannot now have any other object, than the destruction of this Army, If that is their Object, they will never attack us in front as we are now posted. they can land in our rear and with their whole force can operate there, while with their Shipping they Annoy the Navigation of Hudsons River. while this is possible, I think the Army should be moved further Northerly towards Danbury, where it Can have a possition more Secure to itself, and equally Convenient to protect the pass of the Highlands and more so in Communicating with the Country from whence it is to receive its provision” (DLC:GW).

2On 5 Sept., GW’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman wrote Assistant Commissary General of Purchases Royal Flint: “His Excellency has been informed that there is a considerable quantity of Flour at Tarry town, which he looks upon as a very unsafe place, considering the ease with which the Enemy may run up a Vessel of Force. He would never wish more Flour or any other provision to be lodged there at one time than can be immediately brought forward to the Army, especially at this time when our stay is very uncertain” (DLC:GW).

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