George Washington Papers

Council of War, 16 October 1778

Council of War

At a Council of War held at Frederickburgh
October 16th 1778

Present Major Generals Gates[,] Green[,] De Kalb[,] McDougall[,] Steuben[,] Brigadier Generals Nixon[,] Parsons[,] Smallwood[,] Knox[,] Patterson[,] Wayne[,] Hand.1

The Commander in Chief informs the Council, that the enemy’s whole force in these States still continue in two principal divisions one at New York and its dependencies consisting of about thirteen thousand—the other on Rhode Island consisting of about five thousand. That a considerable detachment from the former sent three or four Weeks since into Bergen county, in the Jerseys, have hitherto been employed in a forage, part are said to have lately returned and the remainder it is given out, intend to cut a quantity of wood before they leave the Jerseys.

That their fleet was still in the harbour of New York the 9th instant—rumoured to intend sailing shortly for Boston.

That the general current of intelligence from New York indicates preparations to be in readiness to leave that post—and more particularly a design of making a considerable detachment, generally supposed for the West Indies—the number mentioned from ten to fifteen regiments, which are reported to have been filled up, by the reduction of some other regiments—That an officer of ours, prisoner with the enemy, just exchanged brings an account of the actual embarkation of a large body of troops, on saturday night and sunday last—said to be destined for the southward, of which however, no confirmation has been received from any other quarter.2

That our whole force in this quarter is about fifteen thousand rank and file, fit for duty, including the two brigades in the Jerseys, and the garrison at West Point—a considerable part of which have completed and will soon complete the term of service, for which they are engaged.

That General Sullivan has under his command at Providence and its dependencies about 3500 Continental and state troops.

From this state of facts and under these circumstances, The Commander in Chief requests the opinion of the Council, whether it will be prudent and adviseable, to make a detachment from the main army towards Boston, and of what force.

He further informs the Council, that he has been impatiently waiting for the movements of the enemy to ascertain their intentions for the Winter, in order to enable him the better to judge of a proper general disposition of the army in Winter-quarters; but the uncertainty, in which their designs still continue involved and the advanced season of the year, will no longer admit of delay, in fixing upon a plan for this important purpose—He therefore requests the advice of the council on the following points—whether the army shall be held in a collected state during the Winter and where? whether it shall be distributed into cantonments and in what particular manner? what precautions shall be adopted in either case to shelter the troops and procure subsistence both of provisions and forage?

He observes—That in determining these questions, the considerations principally to be attended to are—the actual strength and situation and the probable designs of the enemy—the security, good government and discipline of the army—the difficulties of subsistence and accommodation—the protection of the country—the support of our important posts—the relation proper to be preserved with the French [fleet],3 considering the degree of probability of its remaining where it now is, and of a winter operation against it, and the occasional succour it may derive from the troops under General Sullivan and from the Militia of the Country.

He finally informs the Council that some time since, he directed the Quarter Master General to endeavour to provide materials for barracks—The result of his measures will appear in a letter from Mr Pettit hereunto annexed.4

D, in Alexander Hamilton’s writing, DLC:GW; Df, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, DLC:GW; Df, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, PHi: Wayne Papers; copy, in Tilghman’s writing and signed by Tilghman, sold by Stan V. Henkels, Philadelphia, item 471, 27 April 1900; copy, attached to Alexander McDougall to GW, 21 Oct. 1778, DLC:GW; copy, attached to a copy of McDougall to GW, 21 Oct. 1778, CSmH; copy, MiU-C: Nathanael Greene Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW; copy, NNGL: Knox Papers.

The document in Tilghman’s writing at PHi contains a considerably condensed version of the proceedings that could be notes made by Tilghman before he wrote the draft in DLC:GW. Wayne docketed the PHi document: “16 Octr 1778 from Genl Washington Concerning Winter Quarters &ca.” Tilghman docketed the draft in DLC:GW: “Questions at a Council of war, with M.G. Baron Steubens answer Oct. 16 1778 Tench Tilghman.” Tilghman apparently was referring to Steuben’s letter to GW of 18 October.

For the attendees’ written replies to the questions posed at this council of war, see the letters and documents from Samuel Holden Parsons, 17 Oct., William Smallwood, 17 Oct., Nathanael Greene, 18 Oct., Edward Hand, 18 Oct., Steuben, 18 Oct., Anthony Wayne, 18 Oct., Horatio Gates, 19 Oct. (second letter), Johann Kalb, 19 Oct., Henry Knox, 19 Oct., John Nixon, 19 Oct., and Alexander McDougall, 21 October. Enoch Poor, who did not attend this council of war, and John Paterson signed a note on Gates’s reply indicating their concurrence with his opinions.

The questions regarding the disposition of the army for the coming winter also had been posed in GW’s circular of 14 Oct. to Kalb and six other general officers who, unlike Kalb, did not attend this day’s council of war: Israel Putnam, Stirling, James Clinton, William Maxwell, Peter Muhlenberg, and William Woodford. The question regarding the advisability of sending a detachment toward Boston also had been posed in GW’s letter to Stirling, William Maxwell, and William Woodford of 15 October. Muhlenberg replied to the 14 Oct. circular on 16 Oct., and Putnam replied to it on 20 October. Maxwell replied to the letters of 14 and 15 Oct. on 21 Oct., and Stirling replied to them on 17 and 26 October.

1On 14 Oct. GW had written brief letters to major generals Gates and Kalb directing them and their respective brigadier generals—Enoch Poor and John Paterson under Gates’s command, and William Smallwood under Kalb’s command—to be at his headquarters “at 10 O’Clock next Friday Morning [16 Oct.], to consult upon a proper disposition for the Winter Quarters of the Army under present appearances and circumstances” (LS, addressed to Gates, in Tench Tilghman’s writing, NHi: Gates Papers; two drafts, addressed respectively to Gates and to Kalb, DLC:GW; two Varick transcripts, addressed respectively to Gates and Kalb, DLC:GW). Gates had replied to GW on 15 Oct.: “I was last night Honored with Your Excellencys Commands by The Bearer, & shall, with the Other General Officers of this Division, attend at the Time, & place, your Excellency has directed” (ALS, DLC:GW). Brigadier General Poor, however, did not attend.

2For this intelligence report, see Charles Scott’s second letter to GW of 15 October. The previous Saturday and Sunday were 10 and 11 October respectively. Scott’s informant has not been identified.

3This word is taken from the draft manuscript at DLC:GW.

4GW’s orders on this subject are in his letter to Charles Pettit of 7 September. The annexed letter is the one that Pettit wrote to GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton of this date. It reads: “I can only give you a general Idea of the Preparations made and making for the Building of Barracks on Hudson’s River, not having had such Returns as ascertain the Quantitys of the different Articles prepared.

“With respect to Timber. Orders were given to send as many Carpenters as could be spared from the Army at White Plains and from the Neighbourhood of Fishkill, to the most suitable Places on the Banks of the River, to prepare Timber for Joists, Rafters, Plates &c. This Matter was committed to Col. Hay, and Col. Baldwin, after making them acquainted with the Business to be done, and getting their Assistance in making the Estimate of the Quantity of Materials necessary. Col. Baldwin who lately came from Albany has informed me the Business was going on with Spirit & in a good Degree of Forwardness. Orders were also given for purchasing all the Boards within a proper Distance of the navigable Water—By a Letter lately recd from Col. Lewis he had obtained an Inventory of the several Parcels within his Power, which he reports as follows.

  11½ Inch Plank Inch Boards
From the Westward 5085 11,160 white Pine
  4870 3230 Pitch Pine
From the Northward 1000 4000  
  10,955 18,390  

“Each Board and Plank containing about 14 superficial Feet[.] These were all ordered to be forwarded to Fishkill & the Neighbourhood of it as speedily as Circumstances would admit.

“A sufficient Quantity of Nails are procured at Philada and part of them are on the Way (some probably arrived) to Fishkill.

“Colonel Hay informed me he had engaged 100 Stoves—He has since ordered 50 more of a larger Size for the Barns & other out Buildings which may be occupied for Barracks & Hospitals. Col. Saml Ogden is to furnish the Plates for Pipes or Flues. Orders are sent to Philadelphia for Mason’s Trowels and Hammers—Carpenter’s Tools we have in Store, I believe in sufficient Plenty.

“Col. Lewis from Albany is now in Camp, and Col. Hay is expected this Morning from whom farther Particulars may be learned” (DLC:GW). Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, who had left Fishkill for Albany on 24 Sept., had returned to Fishkill on 5 Oct. with a sloop loaded with lumber and had waited on GW at Fishkill the following day (see Baldwin, Revolutionary Journal description begins Thomas Williams Baldwin, ed. The Revolutionary Journal of Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, 1775–1778. 1906. Reprint. New York, 1971. description ends , 135–36).

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