George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel David Humphreys, 23 December 1780

To Lieutenant Colonel David Humphreys

Head Quarters New Windsor Decr 23. 1780


You will take command of such of the Detachments of Water Guards, now on the River, as you may think necessary; and with them attempt to surprize & bring off, Genl Knyphausen from Morris’s House on York Island,1 or Sir Henry Clinton from Kennedys House in the City;2 if from the Tide, Weather, & other Circumstances you shall judge the Enterprize to be practicable. In the execution of it, you will be guided by Your Own discretion, and I have only to suggest, that secrecy, rapidity, & prudence in making good Your retreat will be indispensibly necessary to insure the success. Given &c. 23d Decr

G. W——n

Colonel Humphreys is directed to visit the Post at Dobbs’ Ferry, to reconnoitre & report the state of Matters below—He will take such of the Guards Boats with him as he thinks necessary.

Df, in David Humphreys’s writing, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

In an undated document, Humphreys prepared a “Memorandum of a Plan, for surprizing, and bringing off Genl Knyphausen or the Commanding Officer of the Posts on the North End of York Island, from Morris’s House.

“1. The Detachment for this Enterprize ought to consist of nearly 100 Men, to be transported in 10 Whale Boats, but a less number of both may possibly do.

“2. In order to prevent suspicion of the real object, a Capt. & 50 Oarsmen might be immediately furnished from the Connecticut Line (N.B. which does no Garrison or extra fatigue duty) to reinforce the Water Guards; to prevent the surprize, and assist in defending the Post at Dobbs’ ferry in case of an attack. four of the lightest Boats, at the Point to be fitted for this service.

“3. With this Detachment, the Guard Boats, and some occasional ones: I would attempt the execution, after the full Moon—about Christmas or New Year—choosing a dark, or stormy night, for the purpose, to elude the guards, and render the success more certain.

“4. Should the River become impassable with ice, the Enterprize must be posponed ’till it opens, when the guard Ships will probably be out of the way, but I would not loose sight of it—And the preparation of Boats &c. under the above pretext, cannot do any injury to the scheme.

“5. When the Boats for the expedition are collected at Kings Ferry, or below, and every thing is in readiness—the Ebb Tide must be so improved, as to fall down with it, on the West side of the River, to the landing nearest to Morris’s House—from whence the Party must proceed with the utmost silence & rapidity to execute the design, and make good their retreat: having left a guard to secure the Boats.

“6. The principal obstacles, that are to be apprehended, will arise from our ignorance of the disposition of the Enemy’s Guards, and the want of good Guides to carry the Party directly to the House—the latter are indispensably necessary, and must if possible be provided, without giving any occasion for suspicion.

“7. If there are Ships in the River, the Detachment on its return, must be disembarked at Fort Lee, & marched by land—otherwise the Boats may proceed up the River.

The success depends so entirely on a total surprize, and consequently on the most perfect secresy; that the object should not be communicated to a single Person, till the moment the expedition is ripe for execution. As the Plan is simple, and does not rest on a complication of co-operating circumstances; it is to [be] hoped the prosecution of it, would be attended with the less embarrassment, and that even the want of success would not involve such disagreeable consequences, as might otherwise follow” (DLC:GW).

For mission preliminaries, see General Orders, 11 Dec.; GW to Roger Welles, 13 Dec.; and William Heath to GW, 20 Dec.; see also Humphreys, Life and Times of David Humphreys description begins Francis Landon Humphreys. Life and Times of David Humphreys: Soldier—Statesman—Poet, “Belov’d of Washington.” 2 vols. New York and London, 1917. description ends , 1:194–97. Maj. Gen. William Heath later wrote that Humphreys “went towards New York” on 25 Dec. with Capt. Roger Welles, two other line officers, two staff officers, “and twenty-four non-commissioned officers and privates, in one barge and two whale-boats. The wind was very fresh at northwest in the night” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 282). Heath described the operation’s failure in the postscript of his letter to Lt. Col. William Hull written at West Point on 2 Jan. 1781: “Colo. Humphries and all his party are Safely returned, By the violence of the winds they were driven down past New York, one Boat as far as Sandy hook the others past between Staten Island and the main, The whole finally landed at [New] Brunswick, One Boat was lost but no person” (MHi: Heath Papers; see also Bernard Hubley, Jr., to GW, 28 Dec.).

An informant reported the “most daring enterprise” to British general Henry Clinton in a copy of a letter sent in cipher from Connecticut and received on 4 Feb.: “It was no less than an attempt to take the Commander-in-Chief in his quarters in the city. A certain Coll Humphry one of the Chief’s Aids de Camp was to have gone down the river with a party, and land behind Kennedy’s house, thence proceed up through the garden and secrete themselves behind the house, whilst some were to advance on each side of it, and seize the Sentries in the street, upon which a signal was to be given, those on the back of the house to crush in with crowbars, and take his Excellency with all his papers. Some traitors in the city were to know the night and hour of attack and were likewise to seize on the adjacent sentries on receiving the signal. To facilitate this mad project a Captain’s command was to land at Greenwich and march to Knyphausen’s quarters as well for the purpose of making an alarm as to take him. However romantic this may seem, yet I can assure you that it has been attempted to be put in execution. This Humphry is quite sanguine in his expectations of succeeding at some convenient season. My authority is good from no less than a General Officer” (“Clinton’s Secret Record,” description begins “Sir Henry Clinton’s Original Secret Record of Private Daily Intelligence.” Contributed by Thomas Addis Emmett, with an Introduction and Notes by Edward F. DeLancey. Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries 10 (1883): 327–42, 409–19, 497–507; 11 (1884): 53–70, 156–67, 247–57, 342–52, 433–44, 533–44. description ends 10:413–14).

1Lieutenant General Knyphausen placed his headquarters in Jumel Mansion, the home of Roger Morris on northern Manhattan Island, in spring 1779 (see Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs . . . of William Smith, Historian of the Province of New York. 2 vols. New York, 1956–58. description ends [1971], 108).

2British general Henry Clinton kept his headquarters at the home of British naval officer Archibald Kennedy, Jr., located at No. 1 Broadway in New York City.

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