George Washington Papers

Council of War, 6 September 1780

Council of War

At a Council of War held in Camp Bergen County Septr 6th 1780


The Commander in Chief

Major General Brigadier General
Greene Nixon Huntington
Lord Stirling Clinton Starke
St Clair Knox Hand
Howe Glover Irvine1
de la Fayette Wayne

The Commander in Chief states to the Council, that since he had the honor of laying before the General Officers, at Morris Town, the 6th of June last a general view of our circumstances,2 several important events have occurred, which have materially changed the prospects of the Campaign.

That the succour expected from France, instead of coming out in one body, and producing a naval superiority in these Seas, has been divided into two divisions, the first of which only consisting of seven Ships of the line, one forty four and three smaller Frigates, with five thousand land forces, had arrived at Rhode Island.

That a reinforcement of Six Ships of the line from England having reinforced the Enemy,3 had made their naval force in these Seas amount to nine Sail of the line, two fifties, two forty fours, and a number of smaller Frigates; a force completely superior to that of our Allies, and which has in consequence held them blocked up in the Harbour of Rhode Island, till the 29th Ulto—at which period, the British Fleet disappeared, and no advice of them has been since received.4

That accounts received by the Alliance Frigate, which left France in July announce the second division to be confined in Brest with several other Ships by a British Fleet of Thirty two sail of the line—and a fleet of the Allies of thirty six or thirty eight Ships of the line ready to put to Sea from Cadiz to relieve the port of Brest.5

That most of the States, in their answers to the requisitions made of them, gave the strongest assurances of doing every thing in their power to furnish the men and supplies required for the expected cooperation6—the effect of which however has been far short of our expectations, for not much above one third of the Levies demanded for the Continental Battalions, nor above the same proportion of Militia have been assembled—and the supplies have been so inadequate that there was a necessity for dismissing all the Militia, whose immediate services could be dispensed with, to lessen our consumption;7 notwithstanding which the Troops now in the Field are severely suffering for want of provision.

That the Army at this Post, and in the vicinity, in operating force, consists of 10,400 Continental Troops, and about 400 Militia; besides which is a Regiment of Continental Troops of about 500 at Rhode Island left there for the assistance of our Allies against any attempt of the Enemy that way, and two Connecticut State Regiments amounting to 800 at North Castle—That the times of service for which the levies are engaged will expire by the 1st of January,8 which, if not replaced, allowing for the usual casualties, will reduce the Continental Army to less than 6,000 Men.

That since the state to the Council above referred to, the Enemy have brought a detachment of about 3,000 from Charles Town to New York, which makes the present operating force in this quarter between Ten and eleven thousand men.

That the Enemy’s force now in the Southern States has not been lately ascertained by any distinct accounts but the General supposes it cannot be less than 7,000 (of which about 2,000 are probably at Savannah)—in this estimate the diminution by the casualties of the climate is supposed to be equal to the increase of force derived from the disaffected.9

That, added to the loss of Charles Town and its Garrison, accounts of a recent misfortune are just arrived from Major General Gates, giving advice of a general action which happened on the 16th of August near Campden, in which the Army under his command met with a total defeat, and in all probability the whole of the Continental Troops and a considerable part of the Militia would be cut off.10

That the State of Virginia has been some time exerting itself to raise a body of 3,000 Troops to serve till the end of December 1781, but how far it has succeeded is not known.11

That Maryland had Resolved to raise 2,000 Men, of which a sufficient number to compose one Battalion was to have come to this Army—the remainder to recruit the Maryland line—but in consequence of the late advices an order has been sent to march the whole Southward.12

That the Enemy’s force in Canada Hallifax, St Augustine and at Penobscot remains much the same as stated to the preceding Council.

That there is still every reason to believe the Court of France will prosecute its original intention of giving effectual succour to this Country, as soon as circumstances will permit; and it is hoped the second division will certainly arrive in the course of the fall.

That a Fleet greatly superior to that of the Enemy in the West Indies and a formidable Land force had sailed some time since from Martinique to make a combined attack upon the Island of Jamaica—That there is a possibility of a reinforcement from this quarter also to the fleet of our Ally at Rhode Island.13

The Commander in Chief, having thus given the Council a full view of our present situation and future prospects, requests the opinion of each Member in writing, what plan it will be adviseable for us to pursue—to what objects our attention ought to be directed, in the course of this fall and winter, taking into consideration the alternative of having or not having a naval superiority—whether any offensive operation can immediately be undertaken and against what point—what ought to be our immediate preparations and dispositions, particularly whether we can afford, or ought, to send any reinforcement from this Army to the Southern States, and to what amount. The General requests to be favored with these opinions by the 10th instant at furthest.14

D, in Richard Kidder Meade’s writing, DLC:GW; copy (docketed “found among Genl Arnold’s papers”), probably enclosed with GW to Benedict Arnold, 11 Sept., DLC:GW (see Arnold to GW, 14 Sept., n.1); copy, NHi: Gates Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1GW’s aide-de-camp David Humphreys wrote Brig. Gen. William Irvine on this date: “His Excellency requests you will be pleased to attend at Head Quarters, at half past five O’Clock this afternoon” (PHi: William Irvine Papers).

4For this fleet, see William Heath to GW, 19 Sept., n.2.

5See GW to James Bowdoin, 28 Aug., and n.2 to that document.

7See GW to William Greene, 28 Aug., and n.2 to that document.

9British general Henry Clinton left over 8,000 troops when he sailed from Charleston in May (see Johann Kalb to GW, 20 June, source note).

14For replies to GW, see letters from Edward Hand and John Stark on 8 Sept.; from James Clinton, John Glover, Robert Howe, Jedediah Huntington, Irvine, Henry Knox, Arthur St. Clair, and Stirling on 9 Sept.; from Lafayette, Steuben, and Anthony Wayne on 10 Sept.; from John Paterson on 11 Sept.; from Nathanael Greene on 12 Sept.; and from Arnold on 14 September.

Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons also wrote GW from camp in Bergen County on 16 Sept.: “The total Derangment of our Affairs arising from a Variety of Causes & the inadequate Supplies made by the public for any important Offensive Operation against the Enemy renders any Attempt of Consequence hazardous & to be undertaken with Caution; yet the Crisis to which our Affairs are reduc’d renders every Exertion to close the War necessary & will, in my Opinion, justify almost every Hazard.

“it appears to me that our Character as a Nation will be exceedingly lessen’d in the Eyes of the People of Europe, if the Enemy are sufferd to hold the Country they have conquerd without gaining any important Advantages over them this Campaign; the Spirit of Oposition to the common Enemy will decrease in the Country and our Prospects to a new Campaign the coming Year are gloomy & aford us but very faint Hopes of being in better Circumstances than at present.

“I am therefore of Opinion, that if a naval Strength sufficient to command the Seas should arrive by the 10th of October, and we are provided with military Stores for the Purpose, that our Operations ought to be directed against New York; if we succeed in my Opinion the War ends with the fall of that City—if a Fleet does not arrive by that Time but should afterward arrive; I am of Opinion our Force can be applied in no better Manner than in regaining the two States now in Possession of the Enemy, leaving a Sufficient Strength to keep Possession of the passes in the Highlands.

“Should a naval Force sufficient arrive in Season, and our Numbers or other Preparations not render an Attempt upon New York probable to Succeed I am of Opinion the Reduction of Nova Scotia Penobscott & Bermuda will be easily effected & probably not interfere with a winter Campaign to the Southward; And many very important Advantages will result from our Success—however I think this Object should not interfere with a Southern Expedition.

“But should not such additional naval Strength arrive as to render these Objects practicable; to give such Protection to the Country against the Ravages of the Enemy as our Strength will admit is the Object which next presents itself. to effect which I beleive we ought to detach 2500 or 3000 Men to Virginia or Carolina & with the Remainder take some secure post from which we can give the greatest Protection to the Country we shall be able, and should there be a remaining Force sufficient an Expedition may be formd against the upper Canada which may promise Success & considerable Advantages in the Result” (ALS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW).

GW wrote an undated digest of responses, except the one from Arnold:

“Majr Genl Greene

“Is, under present appearances, for discontinuing our preparations against New York and givg up the Enterprize, unless a considerable reinforcement should arrive immediately from the West Indies. In that case, tho’ he has no sanguine hopes of success he thinks a co-operation should be attempted with our Allies agt New York.

“Keeping the Continental force (now in this Quarter) together, for the purpose of securing the Posts & Magazines—& covering the Country, seems to be his first object—unless a junction with part or the whole of the French force at Rhode Island cd be formed—& proper measures taken to recruit this Army for the War—in that case detachments might be made to the Southward while the enemy retain their present strength at New york. But without this he is not for detaching (except it be Majr Lees Legion) till their is a superior Naval force & we are in a condition to reduce Chas Town with the assistance of the force which may be raised upon a permanent footing for the Southern Army.

“In case no offensive operations are carried on against New York or to the Southward, he thinks an Expedition might be made into Canada in the Winter—& recommends the laying up of Magazines at Albany & Co’os.

“Recommends the levying a compact Army for the War in the Southern States to give cover & Protection to great objects & wait the favourable moment to co-operate with other Troops wch may be sent there.

“Majr Genl Lord Stirling

“Is clearly for pursuing the original plan of co-operation against New York before any thing else is attempted, as there is a high probability of the Secd division of French force arriving.

“Is clearly of opinion, considering the composition of our Army, that no detachment can be made to the Southern States without hazarding the Middle & Eastern ones to the Mercy of the Enemy.

“Majr Genl St Clair

“Was always doubtful of the success of an Attack upon New York—hesitates still more, although we should obtain a decisive Naval Superiority, with respect to the propriety of undertaking it as the Season is so far advanced.

“Thinks a detachment should be made from this Army immediately by Land to reinforce the Southern Army. Check Lord Cornwallis’s advances—& be ready to co-operate with a force which may be sent against Charles Town—but this detachment he thinks cannot be large—& seems to be very apprehensive of the consequence of weakness here if the Enemy should change their defensive plan into offensive measures in this quarter.

“Majr General Howe.

“Despairs with respect to the probability of an attempt upon the enemy at New York—thinks the Season too late for Canada—but recommends a Southern Expedition, and that it be undertaken immediately—at least that every thing be prepared for action against the moment we are superior at Sea. Not less he thinks than Eight or ten thousand regular Troops will suffice to regain the Southern States if they have 7,000 there. Maryld Virga and No. Carolina to be called upon to raise Men.

“Majr Genl The Marqs De la Fayette

“Is entirely of opinion that we should bend our thoughts to the Southward—& from this momt provide every thing for it (against the arrival of a naval reinforcement) viz. Provisions—Transports—Stores &ca.

“He is against sending Men to the Southern States by a Land March—but recomds an Army observation to the Southward for the purpose of keeping the Enemy in Check till they can be aided.

“He is for attempting an Action with the enemy in this quarter—and to Surprize New York if the Enemy should make a detachment.

“Majr Genl Baron De Steuben.

“Is for keeping the Army together, & for forming a junction with the French Troops if it is consistent with the safety of their shipping & we can support the whole in a body.& upon the arrival of the Second division to act with vigor as the Season & the Strength of the Enemy shall point out. In the mean while to send an Officer or two to establish the Rules & regulations practiced in this Army to the Southward.

“He is against hazarding a genl action in this quarter till the succour we expect arrives—and is against detaching Troops at present to the southward, but seems to yield to the propriety of Marching two or 3,000 thither when the French can operate in Force on the Seaboard—The rest of the Army in this quarter to take a position in the Neighbourhood of West point.

“Brigr Genl Knox

“Thinks it is not in our power to carry on an operation againt the Enemy in New York at this advanced Season & with the prest means.

“He is clear for a Southern Expedition the Moment the second division of French force arrives—or we obtain a naval superiority, so as the Troops can be sent safely by Water.

“The whole of the French force, & as many of the American Troops as will make 10,000 Men including the regular force now to the Southward belonging to the States of Maryland &ca are to be employed.

“The Middle & Eastern States to exert themselves in the meantime for self defence this Winter & to prepare vigorously for the Siege of New York next Campaign.

“He is of opinion that the Southern States should be succoured at all events—even if it should be to be done by a Land March of the French Troops.

“Brigr Genl Clinton

“Thinks no offensive operation can take place previous to the arrival of the 2d Division of French Force.

“Is against sending any re-inforcement from this Army to the Southward—But is for taking a proper position with the Army as it is for covering the Country &ca.

“Brigr Genl Glover.

“Thinks if the Second division of French Force arrives before the middle of November that an attempt may yet be made with a probability of success against New York, if no detachmt is made from this Army before—and If it should arrive between that and the Middle of December Charlestown should be the object—he thinks no detachment can be made from this Army while it remains in its present position.

“Brigr Genl Wayne

“Advises, that during the absence of the British fleet from Rhode Island (but by the way the Fleet is returned thither)—& undr the presumption that the French Land & Naval force is under my direction that the Fleet be ordered to Boston & the Troops to join this Army.

“This is also done with an eye to an Enterprize on New York, in case of the arrival of the 2d Divn against Charles-Town—or generally to take advantage of any Faupas of the Enemy—or it may enable us to detach Troops to the Southward—or if we should be disappointed in all these—untill the States have an opportunity of recruitg their Army for the War—It may moreover put it in our power to take advantage of any favourable opening which may present itself for carrying an Expedition into Canada by the way of lake Champlain—upon the whole he is agt any considerable detachmt before the junction mentioned.

“Brigr Genl Huntington

“Is of opinion that if the 2d divn of French force arrives by the first of Octr—The Naval superiority decisive in our favr—Our force double that of the Enemy—& prospect of Provn good—the Siege of New York shd be undertaken.

“As soon as Offensive measures are laid aside in this Quarter—A part of this Army equal to the Pensa divn to March Southerly and that in preference.

“In case of a Mastery at Sea, & the attack of New York is out of the question, an enterprize Should be undertaken against the enemy in some other quarter, As the French Genl & Adml may seem best disposed towards upon a consultation with them.

“Brigr Genl Hand.

“Is for supporting the Southern States at all events. whether the 2d divn arrives or not—but thinks no detachment should be made till we know what to expect from the Division.

“Sees No prospect of operating against New York agreeably to the original plan.

“Brigr Genl Patterson

“Seems to approve an Expedition to Charles Town in the Winter, with the French Troops, and the Army to the Southward; aided if necessary, with part of this Army, provided a Naval superiority can be obtained.

“At present, our Army to be kept together in such a position as to have the choice of fighting or not, should the enemy come out.

“Against any attempt on Hallifax or Canada on acct of the severity of the Season, and the consequent loss of Men.

“Upon the whole, thinks the Middle and Eastern States ought to exert themselves to recruit their Army this Winter, and to prepare for an enterprize against New York next Campaign, & as early as possible in the Spring.

“Brigr Genl Stark

“Is against detaching any part of the Army to the Southward. But is for recruiting it, and keeping as near as possible to the Enemy at New York; and pushing at them in case the 2d divn of french Force should arrive.

“Brigadr Genl Irvine

“Fears any efforts against New York will be ineffectual—and sees no prospect of any other offensive operation unless a decided Naval superiority is obtained—or the enemy change their position.

“He is against detaching from this Army till the Superiority at Sea is obtained; and till we can send a force capable of acting upon the offensive with a strong probability of success.

“When this is the case, he recommends a detachment of French Troops & from of our Army, to be sent by Water—He thinks 8000 Men, including 3000 which he supposes Maryland & Virginia can send will be sufficient—The remaining Army in the meantime to be recruited—& every preparation to be made for acting vigorously in this quarter in the Spring.

“Brigr Genl Parsons

“Is of opinion that if a superior Navl Force arrives before the 10th of October—that New York should yet be our object if we are provided with Military stores for the purpose.

“If a Command of the Water is not had by that time, but should be obtained afterwards, he is of opinion that our attention should be directed to the regaining of the Southern States.

“He suggests—if a Naval force should arrive in season, and our numbers, or other preparations not render an Attempt upon New York practicable, or probable—Whether Nova Scotia—Penobscot—& Burmuda—may not claim attention—but is not for suffering it to interrupt, or imped⟨e⟩ a Southern Expedition.

“If we should not obtain a Naval superiority he is for detaching 2500 or 300⟨0⟩ Men to the Southward & covering the Country with the rest.

“Canada—if practicable is also to be attempted if other expeditions fail and we have Men to spare for it after giving protection to the Country” (AD, DLC:GW; GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton wrote “Sep. 6. 1780” at the top of the document, presumably to indicate the council’s date; GW wrote on the docket: “Summary of the Opinions of the Genl Officers on a State of Matters, 6th Sep: 1780”).

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