George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Edward Hand, 2 July 1781

2 July 1781


You will take the Command of [the detachment] which is intended to Surprise the Enemy’s Pos[ts on the] end of York Island.

I entertain too high an opinion [of your di]ligence abilities & judgment as an Officer, [to restrict you] by Instructions. In the execution of this pr[oject] you will consider what follows as hints whic[h may be] improved upon, or departed from, as circum[stances] warrant.

On the concealment of your movement [pre]vious to the Night destined for the enterpr[ize the] precautions, spirit, & celerity of [your march by] Land, depends your success.

It will be no difficult matter to [keep the de]tachment under your orders ignorant of [the ob]ject till you have passed the Post at King[sbridge on] which you would do well to confide the m[anoeuvre to the] Field Officers, & use every possible preca[ution to prevent] desertion, and to conceal the Boats, that [they may not] be discovered from the East shore; and if p[ossible by any] passage Boats on the River. To effect the[se purposes] no Boat under any pretence whatever to L[and or] arrive at the first place of concealment [before dark. The] detachment be preceeded by a Van-gua[rd of] Men, who shall take possession of the gro[und the detachment is] to halt at, and form a close chain of Sent[ries before] the detachment arrives, with orders to [forbid any one] under pain of instant death go withou[t the lines.] To effect the Second, i.e. the concealmen[t of the boats] Let there be Bows cut and struck without them, them as circumstances will admit. No [fire to] be kindled, or admitted on any Acct. The [men] not be permitted to be walk about, not even [the sentries] (who should have Bayonets only in their ha[nds during the] day, lest the glittering of their Arms should [discover] them).

You ought not to pass the Island [or] Fort Montgomery and the Dunderberg till it [is dark] lest you should be discovered by the light [   ] or the Inhabitants of Peekskill. It is most [desira]ble to pass the Posts at Kings-ferry undiscovered, b[ut] unless the night should be exceedingly dark, and the Sentries remiss, it is scarcely to be expected. It will be [nece]ssary therefore that a confidential person [be] near the Sentry on each side the river to [say to him] if he should challenge that they are Boa[ts with provi]sion and stores, and a relief for the Post at D[obbs Ferry. If] contrary to expectation the Boats by keeping [in the middl]e of the River, and in compact order, should [pass] undiscovered, then let these confidential [persons a]lso go off unnoticed.

The Boats should keep the middle of the River [until they] have passed the Docks by Noels, and then hug the [Jersey] shore for fear of missing their Halting place, [which] will be on the West side nearly opposite to, but [   ] below Tellers point, and just round the Verdri[eteges] hook, where there is a small spot (notwithstanding [   ] high and craggy Bank) where the detachment [may lye] concealed. This place as far as my memory [serves m]e is between a quarter & half a mile below the [landing] (Slaughters) from whence a road leads up to [   ] by [   ]. Here the detachment and [   ] to remain concealed all the succeeding day. [   ] must be discovered by the Vanguard previ[ous to the] arrival of the detachment to prevent delay, [and] the chain of Sentries may be formed before [   ] [tr]oops are debarked for the purposes already [mentio]ned.

After dark the detachment will embark and [then] proceed down the River, keeping the middle there-[of until] they pass the Post at Dobbs’s ferry, when they [must at once] get under the Jersey shore and keep it close [until they] come to the Vineyard, where they are to Land [and re]main concealed all the next day, observing the [same] precautions as before, till night. Captn [Pray] will have Instructions previous to this for [his con]duct, that his guard Boats may not give an [alarm] & discover the design, but made to subserve [to it as] much as possible. At this place the Officers & [men sho]uld divest themselves of every kind of Baggage [also the]ir Blankets, which may all be deposited under [the cha]rge of an Officer with such men as may be judged [least capa]ble of the enterprise—the Officer is to be instru[cted to] move up the River with the Baggage an hour be[fore] day if he does not see and hear the signals of success, and [for t]his purpose he is to have Boats left with him, of the [hea]viest kind.

It is at this place that the design is to be fully unfolded, & every Officer made perfectly master of the part he is to act; and too much pains cannot be taken to impress it upon the Minds of all, that surprises if well concerted seldom or never fail [except] through misconception of orders, blunders [in the executi]on of them, intemperate zeal, or want [of courage;] the one they are going upon will be br[ight and glori]ous, or disgraceful and ruinous, as it m[ay be well or ill] executed; & that most important good [effects will] result from the former.

Here the parties for the differe[nt assults,] the reserve, & for the Van-guard of each [storming par]ty (which will become the forlorn hope af[ter the main body] be told of; & not only the first, but the se[cond officer in] the command of each, be informed in the m[ost exact] terms what he is to do. the Van guard or for[lorn hope] should be composed of choice Officers, and m[en of known] Bravery, & known fidility. such as will p[romptly enter ac]tion in the first place, & will not be impe[ded by trifles] when they come to the assault. & who will [be able by stratagy] and resolution to decoy & seize Sentries, [   ] parties which may fall in their way as [well;] in a word, it is at this place that all you[r attention] for embarking, debarking, and advancing [to the attack by] Land should be made; in doing which, [certain] contingencies which may happen should [be thought] of & provided for as far as possible.

That you may be certain of arr[iving at the] place of debarkation in season (which at f[   ] think should be by two o’clock or, perhaps would be [   ]) you should [be ready] soon as it is sufficiently dark, especially [if the] Wind should be adverse (for it is better t[o have] hours to spare than to be two minutes after [the] time for the attack), keep close under the [high] banks of the Jersey shore, with a light Boat [on your] Flank, but not far distant, and a Boat a he[ad which] instructed what to do in case it should me[et a] Boat of the Enemy. It may not be amiss for [this advance] Boat to halt before it comes into view of the Hou[se be]low Fort Lee, till the whole Line comes up. or [if it] be judged improper to delay a moment so direc[tly opposite] to the enemy’s works then to keep slowly on to [   ] from whence they will strike directly across [   ] setting a drift softly & slyly, every vessel along [   ] to prevent intelligence getting over.

The place which, in my opinion, is [most fa]vorable for landing the detachment, is directly [   ] to the large White house belonging to Colo. Morris, in [which] it is said Genl Musgrove Quarters. The place I mean i[s] a hollow, a little above the redoubts we built upon the eminences, or little Knowles West and Southerly of the abo[ve House, about] five or 600 yards above the only house wch [   ] the heights on the bank of the No. River in all [   ] part of the Island when we were upon it, [which I beli]eve to be the case at this day.

[Fro]m hence I would proceed up that hollow if [   ] Barracks or Washing Womens Hutts in them, [   ]ft of them if there are, till you gain the height; then proceed, leaving the common Post road on your [   ] [y]ou come within sight of what formerly was [   ] blue Bell tavern on which General Fox Quarters which is about 200 yards [from Fort] Knyhausen, and at least 6 or 700 from Fort George [on Laure]l hill. Fort Tryon in your then position, lyes [   ] [yards] back of the first work (Knyphausen) [which] the assaulting party must pass, as they will also [have] to do Barracks which lye between the two Forts [Knyphaus]en and Tryon.

Here it is, i.e. near the Bell Tavern the party [for Fort G]eorge Breaks of; and as it is the most impor[tant point] to us, and to which all others should in a manner [lead. Suffi]cient time should be allowed for the party desti[ned for the] attack of it, to advance; this being done, the [different p]arties move together in one Column with a [sufficient inter]val between, to mark distinctly the seperation, [that for] Fort Knyphausen (which is to be in Front) com[mencing the] attack, at which moment the other column [   ] off, leaves the Fort upon their right, and hastens [with as m]uch speed as is consistent with order, to Fort [George un]der the character of fugitives flying for Shel[ter being] cut off (they are to declare) from the other [fort,] for the alarm must reach the Troops in this [fort] before the party can get to it. stratagem there[fore ma]y be practiced, but is not to be relied on, to get [admitt]ance in the first instance. I am of opinion [if no a]larm is given before the Troops get to the point [of debark]ation, that the enemy will have so little suspicion [of our] Troops being in their rear, that the Parties for [Forts] Knyphausen & Tryon may creep (first feeling [their w]ay by single Officers) within one hundred yards [of the f]ormer, if the night is dark, and lay concealed till [the att]ack begins seriously at Fort George, when both [parti]es are to rush forward to their respective objects. [The]se parties are to leave the blue Bell on their right.

It appears to me that a proper disposition [of] our force will be—one third for the attack of Fort George—another third for Forts Knyphausen & Tryon, (of which 2/3 for the former) and the remaining third to be held as reserve, to support, bring off, or make prisoners, according to circumstances, or as near this as circumstances will admit.

To say decidely what ought [to be done in] case of partial success, is very d[ifficult and would] be equally imprudent, because the ci[rcumstances at] the moment—on the spot—might ful[ly alter a] distant previous view of matters [   ] but from my present conception of [   ]of opinion, that nothing less than fu[ll pos]session of the two principal works, [Fort George and Fort] Knyphausen, can justify an attempt [on New York] or keep Troops on the Island, lest the[y] be cut off; unless Fort George should [   ] is a moral certainty of possessing [   ] case the danger cannot be great as [   ] there are Boats, may be secured by [   ] with the main.

If the two principal Works shou[ld be taken] not a moment should be lost in attempt[ing] Fort Charles at the bridge, by a stratagem [like] the one before mentioned—by a resolut[e push or] even assault, as it may be effected much [the same way when] the enemy are confused, and under the [influence of] a panic, than afterwards, & may be of the [same im]portance to us.

The Artillery men are to be provided [with] Rockets, one of which, and no more, is to be fire[d, at the] Work that is carried, as the signal of success [   ] these, after the conflict is over, & order resto[red] as a further signal is to be fired distinctly [at minute] Intervals, to announce what Works are [carried.] Let Eight be the signal for Fort Knyphausen— [four for] Fort George—two for Fort Tryon—and one for each of the smaller Works—these several s[ignal guns] must be fired at an Interval of ten minutes each, that is between the Eight—the four—[and the two] and if all these Works are carried, or the [princi]pal ones, with either of the small ones, namely [that] at the bridge, or No. 8, as a means to announce [   ] an hour after firing the signal guns before [mentioned] Thirteen Cannon are to be discharged in regul[ar succes]sion, and after day light, every work in ou[r posses]ion is to hoist any other coloured handkerchief [   ] white, on a staff fixed in the Parapet; and upon the [firing] of three muskets regularly by any party on the [   ] each work so possessed, is to answer then by five muskets [   ] these are to be the Signals of recognizance on, and off, the Island.

You must leave a guard with the Boats wch must [not be brought] from the place of debarkation till the [   ]n, & authentic orders can be conveyed to [   ]rly movement up the River may give an [   ] guard on, or near the Water—and will [afford a] Retreat in case of disappointment much [   ]ous than it would be to the point of de[barkation wh]ich is known to every Officer & Soldier of [the detachme]nt, & easier attained, altho the distance [   ] far it may be thought expedient to at[   ]ture of the Commanding Officer at Mor[ris’ Whi]te House) you will consider; never for [   ] secondary objects are to yield to the pri[ncipal] and that it too often happens that by at[tempting a g]reat deal, little is performed, from the [   ] unforeseen obstacles that interrupt com[munic]ations; which depend upon time—nice dis[   ] in the executive Officers, and oftentimes upon [matters] which no human foresight can guard agt.

If you should be discovered by the Ships, or [have] Reason to suppose the Forts are apprised of [your move]ents, and in consequence, the enterprise [is relinq]uished without attempting to pass the Ships [   ] to delay no time in Landing a Party on the [east] side of the River at Dobbs’ ferry (Philips’s wd [   ] till better) and order them to proceed immediately up [the low]er Road towards Peekskill and Halt the supporting [column] which will be marching on that Road to Kings [Ferry.] In case you should pass the Ships undiscovered, [but be] disappointed of your object with the loss of [your] Boats (which in that event are to be stove to [pieces] or Burnt) you are to send an Express (upon an [   ]sed horse) with as much expedition as possible [to Do]bbs’s Ferry, thereto cross, that the supporting Troops [may] be halted and Counter marched—besides the no[tice th]us given, if the enemy should not cross over to [Fort] Lee, which is exceedingly improbable, a party [shoul]d March along the Margin of the River from [Fort] Lee, and make a large smoak at some prominent [poin]t, nearly opposite to Philips’s.

DLC: Papers of George Washington.

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