George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Jay, 11 August 1779

To John Jay

West point August the 11 1779

Sir

I had the honor some days ago to advise Your Excellency—that the Enemy had broke up their Camp at philips’s and retired below Kingsbridge.1 Since this I have used every means in my power to gain information of their designs and future operations, but as yet they remain intirely secret. It is certain, or at least the intelligence comes thro so many and such direct channels that it seems unquestionable, that they have been and are busily employed in repairing and strength[en]ing all the Works on the Island of New York. It would also appear from the enquiries and declarations of Lord Cornwallis—according to the intelligence from James Yard transmitted to Congress by His Excellency Govr Reed,2 that his Lordship expected, Admiral Arbuthnot had arrived at New York with a considerable fleet and a large reinforcement of Troops when Yard left it. And from what I have heard, it was the expectation of the Officers captured at Stony point that there would be a large reinforct—and that Sir Henry Clinton’s operations would be offensive and pushed with great vigor. There are sundry other accounts agreeing with these One of very recent date from New York—and very particular—in which it is said a very large number of Troops is daily looked for and that the Enemy mean to make a vigorous and they hope—a decisive Campaign3—As I have already observed—I have not been able to gain a satisfactory knowledge of their intentions—nor can I pretend to fix the extent of the reinforcement the Enemy may receive or what will be their system of Operation;4 their enquiries extend to our Magazines—our mode of supplies—the condition of the roads between New Windsor & Easton &ca &ca; but I will take the liberty to suggest that it will certainly be right in us, to prepare in the best and earliest manner that circumstances will admit of, for every and any contingency.5 Unhappily, it must be confessed that our Batallions in general are exceedingly deficient in their complement of Men—that many scarcely deserve the name—and I fear there is no good ground to hope that they will be on a more respectable footing—or at least in any reasonable time. Having as yet out of 2000 Recruits to be furnished by the State of Massachusetts recd only 875 from Connecticut6 not more than 20 and from other States few or none—except New York wch have joind that part of the Army undr M. Genl Sullivan. The only succour then that we can expect in case of exigency, must be derived from the Militia. From this view of things—I would humbly submit it to Congress—whether it may not be expedient for them to make an early requisition to the Several States—or at least to such of them, as may not be too remote from the most probable scene of Action, to take immediate measures for arranging their Militia—and putting them in a condition to reinforce the Army for such time and in such numbers as the exigency of Affairs may demand—and to point out the mode of application. This measure appears to me essential—for should the Enemy’s present force at York be augmented to any great degree by the arrival of fresh Troops—or should the whole they now have on the Continent, be drawn together, which agreable to some intelligence is to be done, in either case, without some previous arrangements on our part, the consequences at least might be very disagreable.

But while I am suggesting the expediency of an Arrangement of the Militia, by which early succour may be given to the Army, Other matters of equal moment and equally deserving attention presented themselves—and on which the proportion of aid from the Militia must in a great degree depend. These are the difficulties with which Supplies of flour are obtained in the first instance—and of getting it afterwards to the Army. From the several Accounts of a reinforcement expected by the Enemy—and other considerations⟨,⟩ I have been led in the course of a few days past to speak with the Quarter Master & Commissary General upon these subjects, as they concerned their respective Departments. The latter informed me that from the backwardness and reluctance of the Farmers to part with their Wheat or to have it manufactured into flour—he was much put to it to supply the Troops now in the field, without forming any Magazines; and the Former, that he was equally pushed to provide the means of transportation. Hence it seems, that unless some mode can be devised to encrease and facilitate the supplies of this Article—both in the purchase and the transportation, the consequences of calling in or not calling in aid from the Militia, will be almost equally bad. I mention these matters from duty and necessity & I am convinced, Congress will pursue every measure in their power that will remove the difficulties or contribute in the smallest degree to facilitate the supplies. If this cannot be effected—if the Farmers either withold their Wheat or refuse to part with it when manufactured into flour—and ⟨if⟩ some more substantial—easy—and Systematical mode to aid the transportation of necessaries to the Army, is not adopted more generally by the States than what commonly prevails—it really appears from the representation of those Two Gentlemen that we shall have much to apprehend and particularly so if the Operations on the part of the Enemy should be pushed with vigor.7

Df, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing with additions by GW as noted, DLC: GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 16 Aug. and referred it to the “committee for superintending the departments of the quarter master and commissary general” (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 14:967–68).

2James Yard, described by Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council president Joseph Reed as “an intelligent young Man,” had reported to Reed on his questioning by British lieutenant general Charles Cornwallis onboard the British warship Greyhound after that ship captured the privateer on which Yard was embarked (see Reed’s letter to Jay of 27 July, quoted in Jay to GW, 29 July, n.1).

James Yard probably was the James Yard (1760–1835), of New Jersey and Philadelphia, who had a personal friendship with many past and present delegates—among them Joseph Reed—and whose mother, Sarah Yard, operated a popular boarding house in Philadelphia, used by many delegates to Congress since 1774 (see Smith, Letters of Delegates, description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends 10:335, 11:75 n.1; see also Stephen Moylan to GW, 13 May 1778, and n. 3 to that document). James Yard became a wealthy merchant in the 1790s and served as the U.S. consul at Santa Cruz (St. Croix) from February 1791 to May 1792 (see GW to the United States Senate, 23 Feb. 1791, in Papers, Presidential Series, description begins W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. 17 vols. to date. Charlottesville, Va., 1987–. description ends 7:456). After resigning his consulship, he returned to Philadelphia and engaged in the mercantile business. He was a director of the Bank of Philadelphia in 1794.

3A note written by GW’s secretary Robert Hanson Harrison at the end of this letter reads: “For The information with respect to reinforce[men]ts expected by the Enemy Vize—Copy of a Letter from Gov. Reed 27. July—In Letter from Congress 28 James A. Stewarts Letter 28 July. 1779 Major Genl Howe—Aug. 8th 1779 Inclosing a Copy of One from [ ].” Reed’s 27 July letter to Congress, with Yard’s report, was enclosed in Jay’s letter to GW of 29 July. Stewart’s letter has not been found. Maj. Gen. Robert Howe’s letter to GW of 8 Aug. and its enclosure, presumably from one of Howe’s spies in New York, has not been found.

4GW wrote the next twenty-two words.

5Since May, GW had been anticipating the arrival of the British army reinforcements carried by Arbuthnot’s fleet. He also had made extensive defensive preparations to counter the offensive he expected British commander in chief General Henry Clinton to launch after their arrival at New York (see GW to William Livingston, 4 May, and n.2 to that document; GW to John Jay, 5 May; GW to Benjamin Harrison, 5–7 May; Circular to General Officers, 28 May; GW to Robert Howe, 25 June; GW to Arthur St. Clair, 20 July; and Board of General Officers to GW, 22 July). In July, GW had moved the expansion of the West Point fortifications into high gear (see GW to Alexander McDougall, 19 June, n.2), and he had ordered Major General Putnam to consult with his generals near West Point and submit a plan for the defense of the important post (see GW to Putnam, 20 July, and A Board of General Officers to GW, 22 July; see also GW’s “Thoughts on Defense of West Point,” July 1779). Clinton expected the reinforcements to number 6,600 troops. With this sizable addition to his army, Clinton intended to take the offensive and follow up his seizure of King’s Ferry in June (see William De Hart to GW, 30 May, n.1) by either attacking GW at West Point or threatening GW’s supply lines in New Jersey (Willcox, American Rebellion, description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends 126–27 and 140, and also 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 17:146).

Arbuthnot’s squadron and his transports sailed from Portsmouth on 1 May, but he was delayed for a week countering a French expedition against the island of Jersey (see 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 17:116, 124). Arbuthnot’s ships carried the 76th and 80th British Infantry Regiments; four companies of the 82d Regiment; and recruits and drafts for seven other regiments, “making in the whole about 3800 men” (Willcox, American Rebellion, description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends 140; see also 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 202). The squadron and transports arrived in New York Harbor on 25 August. Many of the troops were sick with a “malignant jail fever” that soon spread among the New York garrison and put some 6,000 of Clinton’s troops in hospital. Clinton later claimed that the unexpectedly small number of reinforcements had forced him to abandon his plans for an offensive against GW’s army (Willcox, American Rebellion, description begins William B. Willcox, ed. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782, with an Appendix of Original Documents. New Haven, 1954. description ends 126, 140; 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 202).

After he received information confirming Arbuthnot’s arrival, GW pushed forward his final defensive preparations. He moved to concentrate the main army to have “the whole army in a condition to operate at the shortest notice & to the greatest advantage” (GW to Robert Howe, 7 Sept.). With the exception of the brigades with Maj. Gen. John Sullivan on the expedition against the Six Nations, GW ordered his detached regiments to rejoin the main army (see GW to David Hall and to Moses Hazen, both 28 Aug.). GW ordered Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, commanding the army’s forward division near the Croton River, to put his brigades in a position to join the brigades near West Point on short notice, and he ordered Major General Stirling to move the Virginia division closer to West Point (see GW to Howe, 28 Aug., and GW to Stirling, 28–29 Aug.). He alerted his spy networks to provide intelligence on the reinforcements and on Clinton’s intentions (see GW to Howe, GW to Benjamin Tallmadge, and GW to John Taylor, all 28 Aug.). GW directed Maj. Gen. William Heath, commanding the army’s left wing, to have his officers become thoroughly familiar with the terrain and roads around West Point to enable ambuscades and flanking movements. Expecting strong and rapid British movements up the Hudson if the reinforcement was a large one, GW ordered Heath to have his left-wing bridages fit for battle and ready to move at the shortest notice (see GW to Heath, 29 Aug.). GW ordered the commander of Lee’s Corps to scout out and immediately report to him any movement by Clinton (see GW to the Officer Commanding Major Lee’s Corps, 29 Aug.).

By 7 Sept., GW’s assessment of his intelligence reports on Arbuthnot had convinced him that the reinforcement numbered only about 3,000, with many of these sickly. He judged correctly that this reinforcement would be too weak to enable Clinton to launch an offensive against West Point, and he began to try to determine Clinton’s alternative strategy (see GW to Jay, 7 Sept. [second letter]). Fairly certain by 7 Sept. that Clinton intended no move up the Hudson, GW informed Howe that he need not move closer to West Point and could keep his division in the eastern part of Westchester County covering the country against any British raid from the sound. GW even returned Brig. Gen. John Nixon’s brigade, which had been guarding the approaches to West Point below Continental Village, to Howe’s division (see GW to Howe, 7, 18 Sept.). Then, when GW learned that the British had withdrawn several regiments from the King’s Ferry garrisons, he began planning for attacks on Stony Point and Verplancks Point (see GW to John Jay, 25 Sept., n.11).

When intelligence reports of a large French fleet on the coast began to arrive in the middle of the month, GW’s mind began turning to offensive operations (see the head note to Planning for an Allied Attack on New York, c.3–7 Oct. 1779, and especially Loose Thoughts upon an Attack of New York, c.3 Oct.).

6GW wrote the last twenty words, left a blank space where the words “not more than 20” were subsequently written in by Harrison, and then wrote the next twenty-two words.

7A 9 Aug. letter from Commissary Gen. Jeremiah Wadsworth and Commissary of Issues Charles Stewart, reporting that provisions were coming to the army’s camps so slowly that they failed to meet one quarter of the army’s consumption, prompted Q.M. Gen. Nathanael Greene to issue a “Special order” the same day. He directed the assistant deputy quartermasters at the stations along the army’s main supply routes to furnish as many wagons as Stewart required to move provisions to the army’s camps near New Windsor, N.Y. (see Greene Papers, description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends 4:309–10). For Greene’s request to Major General Stirling at Ramapo, N.J., to ask the New Jersey wagoners to transport provisions beyond the state line to the army’s camps on the Hudson at New Windsor, N.Y., and the efforts of Stirling to gather wagons and forward provisions to the army’s supply magazines, see Greene’s 10 Aug. letter to Stirling and Stirling’s reply of the same date in Greene Papers, description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends 4:311, 313–14.

The continued alarming difficulty in obtaining transportation for the army’s provisions soon led GW to issue a warrant to Greene authorizing him to impress forty teams (see GW to Greene, 15 Aug.).

After a further report from Commissary Gen. Jeremiah Wadsworth at the end of month that stated the army would exhaust its supply of flour in three weeks if no action was taken, GW addressed a circular to the state executives on the subject (see Wadsworth to GW, 27 Aug., and GW’s Circular to the States, 28 Aug.).

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