George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Timothy Pickering, 31 January 1783

Newburgh Jany 31. 1783.


To-day major Campbell handed me a letter from General Knox relative to the collecting of timber for bomb proofs in the four redoubts back of West-Point. I beg leave to inclose a copy of it, and of my answer.

In reading Genl Knox’s letter, two things very naturally occurred: One, That if all the other works so materially depended on those redoubts, and they were not tenable for half an hour, the principal engineers of the army, who for five years past have had the inspection and direction of the defences of that important post, must have been most essentially deficient, in judgment or duty, to have neglected them so long: The other—That the strength of those redoubts was in fact too lightly estimated: for if several days united attack with shells, by the French & American armies, on the enemy’s contemptible redoubts at York Town, did them so little injury; it was inconceivable that works so difficult to approach as the four redoubts in question, would necessarily fall so soon.

But I should not have attempted to reason on the subject, if I did not know there were engineers who entertain an opinion very different from that of major Villefranche; and who, indeed, think the proposed bomb proofs to be very immaterial. This opinion, tho’ expressed in confidence, I thought it my duty not to conceal, when I laid before your Excellency general Knox’s requisition on the subject. I have the honour to be, with the greatest respect your Excellency’s most obedt servant

Tim: Pickering Q.M.G.

DLC: Papers of George Washington.


West Point 29th Jany 1783

Dear Sir,

When the Minister at War was at Head quarters last month, I stated to him, with the approbation of his Excellency the Commander in Chief, the importance of having timber collected this winter for the bomb proofs in the four redoubts upon the superiour heights of this garrison, which business was practicable only when there should be Snow sufficient to cover the rocks and other uneveness of the mountains. As the timber was to be obtained at different distances, no very accurate estimate could be made of the strength of teams and time necessary to perform the service, but I mentioned forty eight yoke of oxen for 45 or 50 days, which I requested of him that the Qr Mr General might be empowered to furnish. The minister was impressed with the necessity of having it performed, and wrote to his assistant in Philadelphia to make a special application to Mr Morris for the purpose. I have received a letter from Major Jackson, of the first instant, in which he says, "The superintendant of finance thinks there are several matters of more pressing necessity. But he says that monies were furnished the Q. M. General before he left Philadelphia, the appropriation of which is with him, and he will allot them to the most urgent public purposes"—As the matter by this Letter appears to be refered to you, it is necessary I should address you, & request the assistance above specified. It may not be improper to mention, that the redoubts alluded to are Number 1. 2. 3 & 4, upon which all the other works materially depend; that they are open, and would be untenable in half an hour provided any shells were thrown into them. I know not the reason why they have not been finished. Possibly, if they never are perfected, no injury may happen from that cause. But assuredly, if ever they are attacked in form, they will prove a wretched deception to America. This also is the decided opinion of Major Villefranche the commanding engineer. It becomes therefore my duty to endeavor to prevent so great a misfortune, and to request the means which may avert it. I shall be much obliged for a particular answer to this request by Major Campbell, pointing out, how much assistance, if any, you can afford for this purpose. I am, Dear Sir, Your humble Servant

H. Knox M. General, commandant


New Burgh Jany 31st 1783


To day Major Campbell handed me your letter of the 29th instant, relative to the collecting, this winter, timber for bomb proofs in the redoubts back of West Point.

However important the work may be, yet it appears to me utterly impracticable.

You state the number of oxen requisite to effect the business, in 45 or 50 days, to be forty eight yoke; and that it must be accomplished, if at all, while the mountains are covered with snow. But snow cannot from this time be expected to continue fifty days; tho’ if this were the only difficulty, it might be remedied by increasing the number of teams. But if the snow in the mountains must be deep enough "to cover the rocks and other unevenesses," it will be too deep for the oxen to move with even light loads. Paths therefore must be previously trodden to every stick of timber that is to be hauled; unless it can be procured on more practicable ground on the opposite side of the river, brought to West Point & from thence in one track carried to the several redoubts. But the ox teams sufficient for this work could not probably be collected at West Point, by the utmost diligence in procuring them, earlier than the tenth or fifteenth of february; nor at all without a certainty to their owners of receiving for their services prompt pay in cash; which I have not to give, nor can venture to promise. All the money delivered me at Philadelphia last December, and more since received, is already expended in payment of part of the public debts contracted in 1782, and procuring some recent supplies. Considering the nature of the service now called for, and the great distance (probably forty miles) from whence forage must be brought for the support of these teams, I must doubt if they can be procured at four dollars a day, the owners finding themselves; even if any were adventurous enough to engage at all; for as the labour would be severe, the ground covered with snow, and their cattle totally without shelter, they might well reckon on their destruction in thirty days; but if four dollars a day would procure them, then their hire would amount to upwards of four thousand dollars, only for 36 teams of two yoke of oxen each; a number, I suspect, by far too few; But would not half that money distributed amongst a company of masons and the soldierly next June, when the few teams requisite could subsist by pasturage on the spot, produce bomb proofs at least as substantial and much more durable? Those mountains, tho’ destitute of timber, abound in stone.

After making these observations, I need not remark, that I cannot encourage you to expect, for the service in question, the smallest assistance from me. I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedt servant

Tim. Pickering Q.M.G.

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