George Washington Papers

Editorial Note

Editorial Note

The unwillingness of the French expeditionary force to leave Rhode Island to combine with the Continental army for a concerted effort to oust the British from New York City frustrated both Major General Lafayette and GW.1 The two men again felt frustration when logistical failures foiled an opportunity to overwhelm an enemy force on Staten Island, New York.2 Not wanting to see the entire campaign season pass without some meaningful action against the British, GW watched for a chance to strike. Besides appeasing his aggressive inclination, a successful thrust might deter the British from sending troops to strengthen their southern army and solidify recent gains in that theater.

Before he could devise an attack on New York City that involved river crossings and rapid movements across water, GW needed to establish the availability of boats. An apparent query on the subject to Q.M. Gen. Timothy Pickering resulted in the latter’s detailed report on 6 November.3 With this generally favorable information, GW proceeded with more concrete plans.

While he crystallized his thinking, GW learned that Maj. Gen. William Heath wanted to send a powerful foraging party into Westchester County, N.Y., to obtain provisions for the troops in the New York Highlands, where he commanded. GW incorporated Heath’s forage into his own plans and advised his subordinate to delay its execution until further directions.4 Conducting distinct maneuvers at a distance added significant tactical complexities as well as command and control complications.

GW’s basic idea was to surprise the British fortifications on northern Manhattan, which he believed from intelligence were undermanned and vulnerable. To deceive the British of his real intention, prevent rapid redeployment of enemy troops to meet the main threat, and perhaps launch a supplemental attack if the situation became propitious, GW directed elements of his army to points in New Jersey that threatened Staten Island.5 The entire operation exhibited a scale and boldness that approached rashness for an army chronically short on supplies of every sort. It is likely that GW came to this realization.6

While it is impossible to know his mental calculations for certain, circumstances conspired against GW’s eagerness to launch an attack. Dr. James Thacher accompanied the detachment that moved south from the vicinity of West Point on the foraging expedition, which also would be positioned to aid the offensive. Thacher describes “a severe storm of rain” on the night of 21 Nov. that became “more violent the next day” and “rendered the roads extremely bad.” Arriving near Westchester, N.Y., “within eight miles of the enemy’s works at King’s-bridge,” on 23 Nov., the troops “kindled numerous fires in open view of the enemy, and in the evening the troops were ordered to leave the fires and retire back about two miles, and remain under arms prepared for battle.” A “severe storm of rain” on 24 Nov. “continued through the day.” The detachment withdrew to “near White Plains” and took “comfortless” shelter as the storm persisted. Withdrawal to the starting point occurred on 26 and 27 November.7

Lt. Enos Reeves related events on 24 Nov. and offered his surmise on the motivation for the army’s recent maneuvers when he wrote an undated letter to an unidentified friend from Totowa: “About ten o’clock we were passed in Review by his Excellency Genl Washington. … The morning being wet the orders of march were countermanded. Our baggage was to have been left on the ground with the tents standing. Where our destination was I cannot inform you. But there was fresh horses order’d for the artillery and ammunition wagons, and a large number of boats on wheels, with good teams to move them were waiting to attend us. The left wing of our Army, which is on the other side the North river have marched down as low as White Plains, waiting further orders. … It appears to me that the present movement and disposition of our Army is only a manœuvre in order to prevent the enemy from sending a reinforcement to South Carolina.”8

In his journal entry for 30 Nov., Thacher described GW’s overarching design and the demise of the operation: “It is now well understood that our detachment, under the pretext of a foraging expedition, was intended by the commander-in-chief to cöoperate with the main army in an attempt against the enemy’s post on York island. Boats, mounted on travelling carriages, have been kept with the army all the campaign. The Marquis de la Fayette, at the head of his beautiful corps of light-infantry, constantly advancing in front, was to have commenced the attack in the night, and the whole army was prepared to make a general attack on the enemy’s works. By some movement of the British vessels, or other cause, known only to the commander-in-chief and his confidential officers, this noble enterprise was unfortunately defeated. The campaign is now brought to a close, without effecting any very important object.”9 Curt instructions ended all activities related to the offensive.10 GW then promptly ordered his army into winter quarters.11 He subsequently shared his disappointment with at least one correspondent.12

2See Timothy Pickering to GW, 28 Oct.; see also Lafayette’s two letters to GW on 27 October [letter 1; letter 2].

3Pickering wrote GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton from “Camp” on the morning of 6 Nov.: “I beg you will inform the General that the day he called at my quarters I sent a gentleman to the slote to see what boats were there. I also directed him to go to Dobbs’s ferry to search for any that might be in that neighbourhood. The same day I went to Dodds, & found the boats wanted some, & the carriages many repairs. I ordered six more hands to work on them (for Colo. Baldwin had sent but three with an officer on my previous order) who were sent up the next day. I have an expectation that the whole may be repaired by this evening: but I will again see them, and on my return this evening or to-morrow morning inform you.

“Yesterday the messenger returned from the slote. He found one boat there, but a good deal shattered. He proceeded to Dobbs’s ferry, where Captain Alden, who commands at the block-house, shewed him two that were fit for service. He found pieces of two others which had been destroyed by the inhabitants. If his Excellency woud chuse these two should be brought to the army I will order carriages to be prepared immediately; Otherwise I would send them to King’s ferry. … P.S. There are sixty good oars at Dodds” (DLC:GW). GW’s aide-de-camp David Humphreys replied to Pickering from headquarters on the same date: “In the absence of Colonel Hamilton, His Excellency opened your Letter of this day, and directs me to request you will have Carriages prepared to transport the two Boats you mention—but that you will not send for them until you receive further Orders from him” (DNA: RG 93, manuscript file no. 26387; “acted upon” is written on the docket).

5See Documents II, III, IV, VI, VIII, IX, X, XV, XVI, XVII; see also GW to James Parr, 21 November.

The British reacted to the threat against Staten Island. British captain John Peebles, then on Long Island, N.Y., wrote in his diary entry for 24 Nov.: “The Light Infantry march’d to Denys’s in order to cross over to Staten Island we hear the Marquis La Fayette is about Elizabeth Town with the Rebel light Infantry &ca. with some design upon Staten Island—it was a false alarm occasion’d by some of the Refugees on Bergen point” (Gruber, Peebles’ American War description begins Ira D. Gruber, ed. John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776–1782. Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1998. description ends , 420–21; see also the entry for 23 Nov. in Döohla, Hessian Diary, 141).

6The plan, however, should not be deemed implausible, or GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton probably would not have appealed so vigorously for a role in its execution (see Document XI).

7Thacher, Military Journal description begins James Thacher. Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Comprising a detailed account of the principal events and Battles of the Revolution, with their exact dates, And a Biographical Sketch of the most Prominent Generals. Hartford, 1862. description ends , 237; see also Document XII and William Heath to GW, 17–18 Nov., and n.8 to that document.

8Reeves, “Letter-Books,” description begins John B. Reeves, contributor. “Extracts from the Letter-Books of Lieutenant Enos Reeves, of the Pennsylvania Line.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 20 (1896): 302–14, 456–72; 21 (1897): 72–85, 235–56, 376–91, 466–76. description ends 20:468–69. Massachusetts soldier Nathaniel Cowdrey, then at Totowa, wrote in his diary entry for 24 Nov.: “this Day the March was to be Performed in this manner the general was to Beat at ten oClock and the hol army was to March Persisly at Eleven oClock in the Morning.”

“But it was foul weather, So the army did not March” (Moulton, “Cowdrey,” description begins Mary A. Stimpson Moulton. “Sketch of the Life of My Great-Grandfather, Nathaniel Cowdrey, of Reading, Mass.” The American Monthly Magazine 4 (January–July 1894): 409–16. description ends 416; see also General Orders, 23 Nov.). Capt. Henry Sewall wrote in his diary entry for the same date: “Rained. The march of the army postponed till further orders” (Maine Farmer [Augusta], 12 Oct. 1872).

9Thacher, Military Journal description begins James Thacher. Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Comprising a detailed account of the principal events and Battles of the Revolution, with their exact dates, And a Biographical Sketch of the most Prominent Generals. Hartford, 1862. description ends , 239.

Heath later wrote in his memoirs that the “grand forage was to mask an enterprise, which was to have been attempted by Gen. Washington, from the main army. … The enterprise, for some reasons, was not attempted” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 279).

10See Documents XVIII and XIX; see also Documents II, n.3, and XVI, n.7.

Information from Lieutenant Colonel Gouvion’s reconnaisance evidently prompted GW to cancel the operation (see Document V and Lafayette to GW, 28 Nov.; see also John Mercereau to GW, 27 Nov., and n.1 to that document).

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