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Letter from General Washington to the Massachusetts Assembly: Giving an account of the most material events from the battle on Long- Island to the time of writing



Head-Quarters, Colonel Roger Morris' s House, ten miles from New-York, September 19, 1776.

GENTLEMEN: I was honoured the night before last with your favour of the 13th instant, and at the same time that I conceive your anxiety to have been great, by reason of the value and uncertain accounts you received respecting the attack on Long-Island, give me leave to assure you that the situation of our affairs, and the important concerns which have surrounded me, and which are daily pressing on me, have prevented me from transmitting, in many instances, the intelligence I otherwise should have conveyed.

In respect to the attack and retreat from Long-Island, the publick papers will furnish you with accounts nearly true. I shall only add, that in the former we lost about eight hundred men; more than three-fourths of which were taken prisoners. This misfortune happened, in great measure, by two detachments of our people who were posted in two roads leading through a wood, in order to intercept the enemy in their march, suffering a surprise, and making a precipitate retreat, which enabled the enemy to lead a great part of their force against the troops commanded by Lord Stirling, which formed a third detachment, who behaved with great bravery and resolution, charging the enemy and maintaining their posts from about seven or eight o' clock in the morning till two in the afternoon, when they were obliged to attempt a retreat, being surrounded and overpowered by numbers on all sides, and in which many of them were taken. One battalion (Smallwood' s of Maryland) lost two hundred and fifty-nine men, and the general damage fell upon the regiments from Pennsylvania, Delaware


and Maryland, and Colonel Huntington' s, of Connecticut.

As to the retreat from the Island, it was effected without loss of men, and with but very little baggage. A few heavy cannon were left, not being moveable on account of the ground' s being soft and miry through the rains that had fallen.

The enemy' s loss in killed we could never ascertain; but have many reasons to believe that it was pretty considerable, and exceeded ours a good deal. The retreat from thence was absolutely necessary, the enemy having landed the main body of their army there to attack us in front, while their ships of war were to cut off the communication with the city, from whence resources of men, provisions, &c˙, were to be drawn.

Having made this retreat, not long after we discovered by their movement and the information we received from deserters and others, that they declined attacking our lines in the city, and were forming a plan to get in our rear with their land army, by crossing the Sound above us, and thereby cut off all intercourse with the country, and every necessary supply. The ships of war were to cooperate; possess the North River, and prevent succour from the Jerseys, &c. This plan appearing probable, and but too practicable in its execution, it became necessary to guard against the fatal consequences that must follow, if their scheme was effected; for which purpose I caused a removal of a part of our stores, troops, &c˙, from the city; and a council of General Officers determined on Thursday last that it must be entirely abandoned; holding up, however, every show and appearance of defence, till our sick and all our stores could be brought away. The evacuation being resolved on, every exertion in our power Was made to baffle their design and effect our own. The sick were numerous, and an object of great importance; happily we got them away; but before we could bring off all our stores, on Sunday morning, six or seven ships of war, which had gone up the East River some few days before, began a most severe and heavy cannonade, to scour the ground and effect a landing of their troops. Three ships of war ran up the North River that morning above the city, to prevent our boats and small craft carrying away our baggage, &c.

I had gone the evening before to the main body of our army, which was posted about the Heights and Plains of Harlem, where it seemed probable, from the movements and dispositions of the enemy, they meant to land and make an attack the next morning. However, the event did not happen. Immediately on hearing the cannonade, I rode with all possible expedition towards the place of landing, where breastworks had been thrown up to secure our men, and found the troops that had been posted there, to my great surprise and mortification, and those ordered to their support, (Parsons' s and Fellows' s brigades,) notwithstanding the exertions of the Generals to form them, running away in the most shameful and disgraceful manner. I used every possible effort to rally them, but to no purpose; and, on the appearance of a small party of the enemy, not more than sixty or seventy in number, they ran off without firing a single shot. Many of our heavy cannon would have inevitably fallen into the enemy' s hands, as they landed so soon; but this scandalous conduct occasioned a loss of many tents, baggage, and camp-equipage, which would have been easily secured had they made the least opposition. The retreat was effected with the loss of three or four men only. We encamped, and still are, on the Heights of Harlem, which are well calculated for defence against their approaches. On Monday morning they advanced in sight in several large bodies, but attempted nothing of a general nature, though there were smart skirmishes between their advanced parties and some detachments from our lines, which I sent out. In these our troops behaved with great resolution and bravery, putting them to flight in open ground, and forcing them from posts they had seized, two or three times. A Sergeant who deserted from them says, the report was they had eightynine missing and wounded, and eight killed; in the last instance his account is too small, because our people have buried more than twice as many. In number our loss was very inconsiderable; but in the fall of Lieutenant-Colonel Knowlton, of Connecticut, I consider it as great, being a brave and good officer. Major Leitch, who commanded a detachment from the Virginia regiment, unfortunately


received three balls through his side; he still supports his spirits, and seems as if he would do well. Colonel Knowlton was interred with every honour due to his merit, and that the situation of things would admit of Since this affair, nothing has happened. The enemy, it is said, are bringing forward several heavy cannon to force us from the Heights. At the same time that they open their batteries in front, their ships of war, seven or eight of which are in the North River, are to cannonade our right flank.

Thus have I run over, in a cursory, rough way, an account of the most material events from the battle on Long-Island to the present moment. I have not time to study order or elegance. This, however, I do not so much mind, and only wish my narrative was more agreeable; but we must set down things as they are. I hope they will be better; nothing on my part shall be wanting to bring about the most favourable events.

I am now to make my most grateful acknowledgments to your honourable body for the succour they meant to afford me in the Militia lately ordered to march, and have only to lament that they should be so unprovided with tents and other camp necessaries. Our distresses in these instances are extremely great, having by no means a sufficiency for the troops already here; nor do I know how they can be procured. I am at a loss for the officers names who command this reinforcement, as they are not mentioned; however, I have wrote by Fessenden that they should lead the men on as fast as possible, sending before them, when they get within one or two days' march of King' s Bridge, an officer to receive orders from me how they are to be disposed of Instructions given now might become improper, by the intervention of a variety of circumstances.

I have the honour to be, &c˙,


To the Hon˙ Jeremiah Powell, Esq˙, President, &c.