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General Washington to President of Congress



[Read February 22—Referred to a Committee of the Whole.]

Cambridge, February 9, 1776.

SIR: The purport of this letter will be directed to a single object. Through you I mean to lay it before Congress, and at the same time that I beg their serious attention to the subject, to ask pardon for intruding an opinion, not only unasked, but in some measure repugnant to their resolves. The disadvantages attending the limited inlistment of troops is too apparent to those who are eye-witnesses of them, to render any animadversions necessary; but to gentlemen at a distance, whose attention is engrossed by a thousand important objects, the case may be otherwise. That this cause precipitated the fate of the brave and much to be lamented General Montgomery, and brought on the defeat which followed thereupon, I have not the most distant doubt of, for had he not been apprehensive of the


troops leaving him at so important a crisis, but continued the blockade of Quebeck, a capitulation, from the best account I have been able to collect, must inevitably have followed; and that we were not obliged at one time to dispute these lines, under disadvantageous circumstances, (proceeding from the same cause, to wit: the troops disbanding of themselves before the Militia could be got in,) is to me a matter of wonder and astonishment, and proves that General Howe was either unacquainted with our situation, or restrained by his instructions from putting any thing to a hazard till his reinforcements should arrive. The instance of General Montgomery, I mention it because it is a striking one — for a number of others might be adduced — -proves that instead of having men to take advantage of circumstances, you are in a manner compelled, right or wrong, to make circumstances yield to a secondary consideration.

Since the 1st of December, I have been devising every means in my power to secure these encampments, and though I am sensible that we never have, since that period, been able to act upon the offensive, and at times not in a condition to defend, yet the cost of marching home one set of men, bringing in another, the havock and waste occasioned by the first, the repairs necessary for the second, with a thousand incidental charges and inconveniences which have arisen, and which it is scarce possible either to recollect or describe, amounts to near as much as the keeping up a respectable body of troops the whole time, ready for any emergency, would have done. To this may be added that you never can have a well disciplined army. To bring men well acquainted with the duties of a soldier, requires time; to bring them under proper discipline and subordination, not only requires time, but is a work of great difficulty, and in this Army, where there is so little distinction between the officers and soldiers, requires an uncommon degree of attention. To expect then, the same service from raw and undisciplined recruits, as from veteran soldiers, is to expect what never did, and perhaps never will happen; men who are familiarized to danger meet it without shrinking; whereas, those who have never seen service often apprehend danger where no danger is. Three things prompt men to a regular discharge of their duty in time of action: natural bravery, hope of reward, and fear of punishment; the two first are common to the untutored and disciplined soldier, but the latter most obviously distinguishes the one from the other. A coward, when taught to believe that if he breaks his ranks, and abandons his colours, will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy; but the man who thinks little of the one, and is fearful of the other, acts from present feelings, regardless of consequences. Again, men of a day' s standing will not look forward; and from experience we find, that as the time approaches for their discharge, they grow careless of their arms, ammunition, camp utensils, &c˙, nay, even the barracks themselves have felt uncommon marks of wanton depredation, and lays us under fresh trouble and additional expense, in providing for every fresh set, when we find it next to impossible to procure such articles as are absolutely necessary in the first instance. To this may be added the seasoning which new recruits must have to a camp, and the loss consequent thereupon. But this is not all; men engaged for a short, limited time only, have the officers too much in their power; for, to obtain a degree of popularity, in order to induce a second inlistment, a kind of familiarity takes place, which brings on a relaxation of discipline, unlicensed furloughs, and other indulgences, incompatible with order and good government, by which means the latter part of the time for which the soldier was engaged is spent in undoing what you were aiming to inculcate in the first.

To go into an enumeration of all the evils we have experienced in this late great change of the Army, and the expense incidental to it, to say nothing of the hazard we have run, and must run, between the discharging of one army and inlistment of another, (unless an enormous expense of Militia is incurred,) would greatly exceed the bounds of a letter.

What I have already taken the liberty of saying, will serve to convey a general idea of the matter, and, therefore, I shall, with all due deference, take the freedom to give it as my opinion; that if the Congress have any reason


to believe that there will be occasion for troops another year, and, consequently, of another inlistment, they would save money, and have infinitely better troops if they were, even at a bounty of twenty, thirty, or more dollars, to engage the men already inlisted, (till January next,) and such others as may be wanted to complete to the establishment, for and during the war. I will not undertake to say that the men can be had upon these terms, but I am satisfied that it will never do to let the matter alone as it was last year, till the time of service was near expiring. The hazard is too great in the first place; in the next, the trouble and perplexity of disbanding one army, and raising another at the same instant, and in such a critical situation as the last was, is scarcely in the power of words to describe, and such as no man, who has experienced it once, will ever undergo again. If Congress should differ from me in sentiment upon this point, I have only to beg that they will do me the justice to believe, that I have nothing more in view than what to me appears necessary to advance the publick weal, although, in the first instance, it will be attended with a capital expense, and that I have the honour to be, with all due deference and respect, their and your most obedient and faithful, humble servant,


To the Honourable John Hancock, Esq˙, &c.