George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Brigadier General Henry Knox, 3 November 1780

From Brigadier General Henry Knox

Bergen County New-Jersey, 3d Novr 1780


In the council of war held on the 31 ulto, Your Excellency did your general officers the honor to state to them the force which the enemy had detatched from New York, and the reinforcements they had received since the council of the 6 Sepr last, and the probability that the detatchment was destined for the Southern States. Also, the number of men that will remain of this Army for the war, on the first of January next, at which period the engagements of the new levies will expire. That you had detatched Major Lee with his corps of horse and foot to the Army at the Southward, and requested the opinions of the council, individually, whether, under these circumstances, it would be proper to make any further detatchments from this to the Southern Army.

Your Excellency also requested an opinion, where would be the most proper position for winter quarters, and the time when to move to it.1

The situation of winter quarters being decided, and the points which must necessarily be guarded, will also decide, whether it will be practicable to send any more troops from this Army to the assistance of the Southern States.

The infinite importance of West Point and its dependences appears to be pretty well understood, by ourselves as well as the enemy. We shall be as careful to secure our possession as they may be industrious to deprive us of it. This being established the capital object of our attention, all inferior ones must give way to it. To render its safety indisputable, with our small force, I think it would be necessary that the Army, at present in this camp, should take post between New Windsor and Chester; but much nearer to the former than the latter on account of the benefits that may be derived from the transportation of the river; and yet not so near to it, as, in case of a possible surprize, to be in a disadvantageous situation.2 A regiment of about two hundred Might be stationed at Ringwood and its vicinity, to secure the passes; and another of three hundred at Morris Town, to give some security and assistance to the country. These regiments would be preferable to larger corps, for two reasons. The first of which is, that we cannot spare them; and the other, that the disgrace of a regiment being dislodged, or obliged to remove by the enemy, will be in no degree proportioned to a retreat of a brigade or line. Another corps might be stationed on the East of Hudson’s River, somewhere to the left of Peekskill hollow, advanced near to Crompond. This corps, besides being a kind of reserve to four or five block houses which should be erected on Croton River, and which should be picketed and sufficient to contain each an officer or two and forty men, should send patroles below them towards King’s bridge.3

The supplies of flour, for the main body in the neighbourhood of New Windsor, should be brou’t from Pennsylvania, by the route of Hackets Town and sussex Court House, at both of which places it would be necessary to have forty or fifty men properly officered.

This is the most prudent disposition of our small Army that occurs to me. The country about Chester, Goshen, and between Esopus and New Windsor, could afford much hay, which, in addition to what might be brought down the river by water, would be sufficient for the horses necessary to be kept in camp. Corn and oats, in any position, must be brought a great distance.

I am sensible a position in Jersey would be more eligible, and that by it we should be able to protect a State which in cases of the most pressing exigence has been our magazine, and to preserve the supplies, with which it so liberally abounds at present, from falling into the enemy’s hands. Our taking a remote position, above the mountains, must unavoidably involve that disagreeable consequence. For the enemy will certainly, this winter or in the spring, when we shall be at so considerable a distance, collect large supplies of grain from Essex Somerset and Monmouth Counties, and probably invade Morris.

But if we reverse the matter, we shall find West Point equally liable to danger, should we take post in Jersey, without our being able to support it. Or if the attack should be directed against the Army, we should be obliged to fly, and probably with the loss of our baggage and cannon; for we cannot maintain a sufficient number of horses in the camp to draw them off on all occasions.

If we had five thousand men that we could depend on through the course of the winter, and three thousand to garrison the highlands, I should for many reasons prefer a position in Jersey. But that number cannot be obtained unless some new levies are called for, to be put into the Continental battalions in the same manner as at present. It is true, many would not be required to make up the number I mention; and the inconveniences and expence of the measure are to be contrasted with the injury Jersey might receive, and the danger to which Philadelphia will be exposed. Probably the inconveniences and expence would be amply counterbalanced by the advantages. And, it may be observed that, in addition to the above number of five thousand, we might, under all circumstances, depend on at least two thousand good militia of this State. At any rate, I think West Point ought not to be left with less than eighteen hundred or two thousand old troops.4

If it should be thought proper to adopt the latter idea, I think the position should be somewhere on the hills from Morris Town to Veal Town, or about Baskenridge, or even near the ground where we encamped in 1777, but upon no principle to go below the mountains,5 and there the whole ought to hut together if possible. In this case, we might go into winter quarters immediately; but if we should go above the Highlands, it is difficult to say when. Because the evils enumerated would be constantly impending, and might take place this fall, if we should move to winter quarters whilst the good weather lasts. And yet to continue in the field until winter shall be fixed, will be productive of many hardships and difficulties to our brave soldiers, who must then have to make their habitations.6

In either case, it is imposible at present to send any of this Army to the Southward, without subjecting America to the most dreadful calamities. If the respective states take decided Measures this winter, and fill up their battalions, agreeable to the late acts of Congress, Your Excellency in the spring will be able to afford ample relief to all parts that shall be invaded.7

At the same time, Your Excellency desired an opinion, Whether any thing could be undertaken against the enemy, at present, or before we should go into Winter quarters.

The enemy, secured on fortified islands, are inaccessible unless by a superior Navy, and they have observed such extreme caution this campaign as sufficiently indicates them determined not to risque any thing in this quarter on a scale of equality. This being their temper and situation, I do not see a possibility that any thing can be attempted which will promise success. I have the honor With great respect to be Your Excellencys most Obedient Servant

H. Knox.

LS, DLC:GW; ADfS, MHi: Knox Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Knox wrote the dateline and complimentary close on the LS.

The weather had changed at the start of November, which apparently prompted GW to seek views on winter quarters. Sgt. Ebenezer Parkman, Jr., who served with the artificers, had written in his diary entry for 1 Nov.: “A great Snow Storm begins the Month” (MWA: Parkman Family Papers). Capt. Henry Sewall wrote in his diary for the same date: “Near three inches of snow fell last night. Storm with rain continued with severe inclemency” (Maine Farmer [Augusta], 5 Oct. 1872; see also General Orders, 1 Nov., source note, and William Heath to GW, same date, n.1).

1See Council of War, 31 Oct., and n.6 to that document.

2Roughly sixteen miles separated Chester and New Windsor in New York.

3Crom Pond, N.Y., was no more than three miles above Croton River. King’s Bridge, N.Y., was over twenty miles below Croton River.

4Knox favored veteran troops on long enlistments.

5Knox refers to the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey. About eight miles separated Morristown to the northeast from Vealtown (now Bernardsville). Basking Ridge was something over two miles southeast of Vealtown. GW’s army camped at Middlebrook, N.J., between May and July 1777 (see Nathanael Greene to GW, 24 May 1777, n.4, and General Orders, 29 May 1777, n.1). For a subsequent winter encampment at Middlebrook, see General Orders, 6 Feb. 1779, source note.

6For the Continental army’s winter encampment, see GW to Samuel Huntington, 28 Nov. 1780, and n.12.

7Congressional resolutions to reorganize the army called upon the state governments to fill their regiments by 1 Jan. 1781 (see General Orders, 1 Nov. 1780).

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