George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General William Heath, 2-3 February 1780

From Major General William Heath

Highlands [N.Y.] Feb: 2d[–3] 1780

Dear General,

I have been honor’d with yours of the 27 ulto to which I am paying due attention.1

I thank your Excellency for leave of relaxation from business for the recovery of my health: The present distresses of the army will cause me to do it with much reluctance.

I have been indefatigable in my endeavors to obtain a Supply of Provisions for the Troops here. My prospects have been at times various. Mr Fitch by his last Letter of the 25 ultimo observes “I think it is possible that the Troops will not be out of Bread again Soon.” but he expresses his apprehensions that our magazines will not be properly replenished. this, is my principal concern. the enclosed copy of a Letter from Colo. Colt is also expressive of it:2 yet, I am certain the provisions of the country are not exhausted. Our want springs from another source. His Excellency the Governor, and the Legislature of this State have the situation of the army under consideration. I hope we shall feel the salutary effects of it.

I am unhappy in being under the necessity of acquainting your Excellency that the Bomb proof in the North redoubt was discovered to be on fire the last night between ten & Eleven o’Clock. Every assistance was immediately afforded, but the fire being in the top of the Bomb proof in the joints between the Timbers where it pursues the caulking (on which I apprehend it at first kindled by a Spark from the pipe of the Stove) cannot be come at, and the Earth, of which there is a large body on the top of the bomb proof and frozen as hard as earth can be, will prevent for Some time the top being uncovered. The Troops work with great alacrity, and every method is taken to deaden the Fire—the most efficacious we find to be the barrel of a musket with the britch pin taken out with a Spunge on the end of the ramrod; With this water is forced into the Seams and joints, which cannot otherwise be come at. this, is a Striking proof with how much ease the fire might be extinguish’d if we had a water Engine, the leather Hose of which might be directed to any part of the work on fire. Is it not indispensably necessary that one or more should be kept at West-point? I have been up to the redoubt twice to day have returned Since dark; the Troops work with unremitting assiduity—have opened a part of the top of the bomb-proof. Lieut. Colo. Vose with a Strong detachment will work all night unless the Fire is extinguish’d sooner.

3d Feby. The Fire was happily extinguish’d this morning about 2 oClock. no lives were lost, but Several men hurt. the damage done is the throwing off the Earth & taking up the top timbers of the north end of the East Side of the Bomb proof. the under Side of the timbers are considerably burnt, the Bunks and linings of the Bomb proof were taken out. the bomb proof at the west end is not injured, nor are the Sides or end of the other part, or any of the posts—These repeated Fires may seem extraordinary: they are So: but I assure your Excellency that no endeavors in the principal officers have been wanting to guard against them.

I take the liberty to enclose Copy of an order I issued the 10th of January,3 as I have done many others since that time on the same Subject. Indeed the Situation and construction of our wooden buildings, & redoubts are Such that it is a wonder Fires have not been more frequent. The Barracks were built in winter and in a hurry. the chimneys have wooden mantle-pieces, and the chimneys badly built. And those places wherein Stoves are fixed Soon become as dry as tinder. In this cold and blowing Season a Spark catching against a building or work, or blown into a crevice is almost certain to be fanned to a flame. Lt Colo. Brooks has just informed me that the Garrison in hard blowing weather are almost afraid to close their Eyes, lest Fire should break out.4

Enclosed is the report of the Court of enquiry appointed to investigate the cause of the Fire’s breaking out at West point on the night of the 26th ulto.5 I have desired General Paterson to appoint another Court of enquiry to ascertain what articles of public property were lost in the late Fire.6

Enclosed is also a Letter handed to me yesterday by a Mr Wm Spencer of Fort Pitt West augusta who was a Serjeant in Colo. Wood’s Regiment & wounded in the assault on Stony point, by the enclosed is Since appointed to an Ensigncy.7 Mr Spencer is yet in the Hospital at Fish kill. probably your Excellency has Some knowlege of the matter.8 I never Saw him before but he appears deserving, tells me he has neither friends cloathes or money, the officers of the Virginia line being gone. He is now dress’d in his Serjeants Coat, which is much worn. If any relief can be afforded him, either of money or cloathes I will gladly acquaint him with it. This Evening I have been honor’d with a letter from Governor Clinton & take the liberty to enclose Copy of a paragraph.9 I have the honor to be, with the greatest respect your Excellency’s Most obedient Servt

W. Heath

LS, DLC:GW; ADfS, MHi: Heath Papers; copy (extract), enclosed in GW to Samuel Huntington, 14 Feb., DNA:PCC, item 152; copy (extract), DNA:PCC, item 169.

1On the draft, Heath included the following additional text at this point: “Mr Read the Dy Paymaster has at length arrived.” The Board of Treasury had ordered assistant paymaster Thomas Reed to West Point to pay the troops (see GW to Heath, 14–15 Jan.).

2John Fitch of Canterbury, Conn., had been appointed issuing commissary of Connecticut’s Continental regiments in June 1777. At this time he was deputy commissary general of issues at Fishkill, New York. He also supervised the army’s provision magazines at West Point and its dependencies, the magazines on the east side of the Hudson, and those in western Connecticut.

The enclosed copy of Peter Colt’s letter to Fitch, dated at Wethersfield, Conn., on 23 Jan., reads: “Your favor of the 11th Instant came to hand yesterday—Am surprised that your Magazines of salted meat should be so trifeling—What became of ⟨Reeds⟩ Cattle—and the other large Droves that were sent your way to barrel? Perhaps you will be as much surprised on the other hand when I assure you its out of my power to comply with your request of sending forward 3,000 barrells of meat—It is my opinion that there will not be 1000 barrells on hand at the opening of next Campaigne in the States of Massachusetts, Rhode Island & Connecticutt; as Colo. Champion assures me he cant furnish Beff Cattle sufficient for the demands your way all the Troops in those States must be fed on salted provissions.

“I am not in possession of actual Returns that would enable me to make an accurate estimate of the salted meat on hand or the daily expenditures—But I believe we have not more than 4,500 barrells of Beff & 1500 barrells of Pork in the Department (the latter I am confident is rated full high) General Poors Brigade—The two regts Light Dragoons—The shoar Guards—Troops in State of Rhode Island and Massachusetts The Prisoners of war & their Guards—The Q.M. Genls Dept and marching Troops cannot be estimated at less than 6,000 rations daily—which will amount to 4330 barr⟨ls⟩ by the first of June at the rate of 1¼ lb. meat to a ration—From this estimate you may judge of the probability of your being able to draw 3,000 barrells meat from this Quarter—The want of money has prevented my filling the Magazines—what is in my power to send forward shall be put under way as soon as the roads become passible—at present we cannot move” (DLC:GW).

Heath may also have enclosed Fitch’s letter to him dated at Fishkill on 25 Jan.: “Your favors of the 23rd & 24th Instant I have received. Previous to the receipt of the former, I had sent an Express to the purchasing Commissaries, informing them our situation and requesting, in the most urgent manner, their exertions to give us relief. I have now sent a second Express. Whether our not being regularly supplied with flour is owing to a real scarcity or not, I cannot say: But if the information I received from Mr Cuyler, respecting the Wheat, his assistants had on hand is right, I think it cannot be owing to a scarcity. I have written to the Purchasers as often as once a week, informing them our situation and requesting a continuance of their exertions, ’till we could get in a sufficient supply of flour to put into our Magazines. I have informed the Commissaries General of Purchases and Issues of the scarcity of flour, and requested of them some from the Southward, or information where to apply for any, besides of the purchasers in this State. They give me no encouragement of getting any from any other State, but this. What further applications I can make, or what more, I can do towards getting a supply of provisions, I know not.

“Our present situation is really alarming. I see no prospect of our gettin a sufficient quantity of flour to deposit in the different Magazines, which is to be kept in case of a siege. Indeed, if I can get enough to feed the Troops through the winter, it will be more, than I expect from the present prospect.

“I have stoped the provisions being put into the Magazine, at Verplanks Point” (DLC:GW).

3The enclosed “Extract from General orders,” dated “Head quarters Robinsons House” on 10 Jan., reads: “The commanding officers at the different posts and quarters are desired to give frequent and positive orders that the chimneys of the Barracks & Hutts are kept clean: in particular where Barracks and guard Houses are situated within Works, or guards are lodged in Bomb proofs or casemates.

“That great attention be paid to the Stoves, and every precaution exercised to prevent accidents by Fire.

“And, it is constantly and invariably to be observed if fire should happen to break out in any Fortress Barracks or Quarters, that all the Troops within sight or hearing, instantly parade compleatly ready for action, and man those posts assigned them respectively in case of alarm, except such part of the Troops belonging to the particular Work or quarters on fire, as the commanding officer of such post shall direct to remove the Stores or extinguish the Fire. And the commanding officer is immediately to Send an express to the commander in chief of the Department to inform him of the fire’s having broke out, and in what building: He will also, if the Troops present are not sufficient to remove the Stores and extinguish the Fire, send to the nearest post requesting aid; When, proper detachments are to be immediately Sent with Axes, Shovels, Buckets &c. as the nature of the case requires.

“The Troops, except such as are detached to extinguish the fire, to remain at their alarm posts until the fire is over and all quiet” (DLC:GW).

4Lt. Col. John Brooks, in addition to being commandant of the 7th Massachusetts Regiment and a sub-inspector, was deputy adjutant general of the Highlands department.

5The enclosed “Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry, held in fort Arnold this 27th Jany 1780, by order of Brigr Genl Patterson, ‘to inquire very minutely into the circumstances of the Barracks being burnt last evening, as well as all matters relating to it,’ ” signed by Col. Michael Jackson, president of the court, is in DLC:GW. The court convened on 27 Jan. and continued to 29 January. In addition to Jackson, the members of the court were Col. James Wesson and Capt. George Fleming. After questioning six officers, two clerks, two privates, and four servants, the court concluded that “the Fire was Accidental, occasioned by the Mantel Piece taking fire, and communicating it through the Joints, up the Vacancy at the side of the Chimney to the Ceiling.”

6For the report of this court of inquiry, see Heath to GW, 4 Feb., n.4. On the draft, Heath added the following text at this point and then crossed it out: “enclosed is also the report of the Court of Enquiry respecting the Public Hides.” This most likely refers to the inquiry that GW directed Heath to make into the conduct of Moses Hatfield (see GW to Heath, 12 Jan.).

7The enclosed copy of a letter from Capt. Robert Gamble to Ensign William Spencer, dated at “Light Infantry Camp Fort Montgomery [N.Y.]” on 15 Sept. 1779, reads: “I have been at the Virginia Camp the other day—[Randle (Randolph)] Death & [John] O’Harroh are promoted I believe to Serjeants.

“Yourself has been recommended to his Excellency Genl Washington, who has been pleased to approve of your being appointed an Ensign in the 8th Virginia Regiment.

“Congress has given every Ensign 100 Dollars month for Subsistence & to every non Commission’d officer &c. 10 Dols.

“Your monthly pay is now One hundred and twenty Dollars m. I Congratulate you on this advancement Colo. Wood & the officers of the Regt are all very glad of it.

“You will let the director of the Hospital know you are a commissioned officer, that you may be treated as becomes your rank in the army. Lt [David] Williams is gone to camp very Sick, So that I have not had any officer to the Company these Six weeks, which is the reason I have not got to See you before this. I expect one in his place Soon, and if we do not move from this ground I will be with you as soon as I can.

“remember me to Death & O’Harroh. Keep in Spirits & there is no danger.” Gamble added the following postscript: “The State of Virginia has allowed the officers who continue to the end of the war half pay for Life” (DLC:GW).

8In August 1779, GW had identified William Spencer as one of the “most meritorious” sergeants in the Virginia regiments, and he had authorized his promotion to ensign (see GW to William Woodford, 31 Aug. 1779).

9Heath enclosed an extract from New York governor George Clinton’s letter to him dated at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on 2 February. The extract reads: “Your letter of the 24th and 28 Ulto are this moment received—Unfortunately I was on my way home when the Bearer of them was on the road to Albany and we missed each other—I had however laid the distressed situation of the army very fully before the Legislature before I left them and in the strongest terms urged the necessity of their immediate interposition for your relief—The moment I return to Albany, (and I mean to sit out tomorrow or next day at furthest[)] your letter on that subject shall be communicated to them & I have the fullest reliance on their exertions” (DLC:GW).

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