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Sept 8, Letter from General Washington to the President of Congress: On the line of conduct to be pursued at this important crisis



[Read 10th September.]

New-York, Head-Quarters, September 8, 1776.

SIR: Since I had the honour of addressing you on the 6th, I have called a council of the General Officers, in order to take a full and comprehensive view of our situation, and thereupon form such a plan of future defence as may be immediately pursued, and subject to no other alteration than a change of operations on the enemy' s side may occasion. Before the landing of the enemy on Long-Island, the point of attack could not be known, or any satisfactory judgment formed of their intentions. It might be on Long-Island, on Bergen, or directly on the city. This made it necessary to be prepared for each, and has occasioned an expense of labour which now seems useless, and is regretted by those who form a judgment from after-knowledge. But I trust men of discernment will think differently, and see that by such works and preparations we have not only delayed the operations of the campaign till it is too late to effect any capital invasion into the country, but have drawn the enemy' s forces to one point, and obliged them to decline their plan, so as to enable us to form our defence on some certainty.

It is now extremely obvious from all intelligence, from their movements, and every other circumstance, that, having landed their whole army on Long-Island, (except about four thousand on Staten-Island,) they mean to enclose us on the Island of New-York, by taking post in our rear, while the shipping effectually secure the front; and thus, either by cutting off our communication with the country, oblige us to fight them on their own terms or surrender at discretion, or, by a brilliant stroke, endeavour to cut this army in pieces, and secure the collection of arms and stores, which they well know we shall not be able soon to replace.

Having therefore their system unfolded to us, it became an important consideration how it could be most successfully opposed. On every side there is a choice of difficulties, and every measure on our part (however painful the reflection is from experience) to be formed with some apprehension that all our troops will not do their duty. In deliberating on this great question, it was impossible to forget that history, our own experience, the advice of our ablest friends in Europe, the fears of the enemy, and even the declarations of Congress, demonstrate that, on our side, the war should be defensive (it has been even called a war of posts;) that we should, on all occasions, avoid a general action, or put anything to the risk, unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn. The arguments upon which such a system was founded were deemed unanswerable; and experience has given her sanction. With these views, and being fully persuaded that it would be presumption to draw out our young troops into open ground, against their superiours, both in number and discipline, I have never spared the spade and pick-axe. I confess I have not found that readiness to defend even strong posts, at all hazards, which is necessary to derive the greatest benefit from them. The honour of making a brave defence does not seem to be a sufficient stimulus when the success is very doubtful, and the falling into the enemy' s hands probable; but I doubt not this will be gradually attained.

We are now in a strong post, but not an impregnable one; nay, acknowledged by every man of judgment to be untenable, unless the enemy will make the attack upon our lines when they can avoid it; and their movements indicate that they mean to do so. To draw the whole army together, in order to arrange the defence proportionate to the extent of lines and works, would leave the country open for an approach, and put the fate of this army and its stores on the hazard of making a successful defence in the city, or the issue of an engagement out of it. On the other hand, to abandon a city which has been by some deemed defensible, and on whose works much labour has been bestowed, has a tendency to dispirit the troops and enfeeble our cause. It


has also been considered as the key to the northern country; but, as to that, I am fully of opinion that the establishing strong posts at Mount Washington, on the upper part of this Island, and on the Jersey side opposite to it, with the assistance of the obstructions already made, and which may be improved, in the water, that not only the navigation of Hudson' s River, but an easier and better communication, may be more effectually secured between the northern and southern States. This I believe every one acquainted with the situation of the country will readily agree to, and will appear evident to those who have an opportunity of recurring to good maps. These, and many other consequences which will be involved in the determination of our next measure, have given our men full employ, and led every one to form a judgment of the various objects presenting themselves to his view.

The post at King' s Bridge is naturally strong, and is well fortified. The heights about it are commanding, and might soon be made more so. These are important objects, and I have attended to them accordingly, I have also removed from the city all the stores and ammunition, except what was absolutely necessary for its defence, and made every other disposition that did not essentially interfere with that object — carefully keeping in view, until it should be absolutely determined, on full consideration, how far the city was to be defended at all events. In resolving points of such importance, many circumstances peculiar to our own army also occur. Being only provided for a Summer' s campaign, their clothes, shoes, and blankets will soon be unfit for the change of weather which we every day feel. At present we have not tents for more than two-thirds many of them old and worn-out; but if we had a plentiful supply, the season will not admit of continuing in them long. The case of our sick is also worthy of much consideration. Their number, in the returns, forms at least one-fourth of the army. Policy and humanity require they should be made as comfortable as possible.

With these and many other circumstances before them, the whole council of General Officers met yesterday, in order to adopt some general line of conduct to be pursued at this important crisis. I intended to have procured their separate opinions on each point, but time would not admit. I was therefore obliged to collect their sense more generally than I could have wished. All agreed the town would not be tenable if the enemy resolved to bombard and cannonade it; but the difficulty attending a removal operated so strongly, that a course was taken between abandoning it totally and concentrating our whole strength for its defence. Nor were some a little influenced in their opinion, to whom the determination of Congress was known, against an evacuation totally, as they were led to suspect Congress wished it to be maintained at every hazard. It was concluded to arrange the army under three divisions: five thousand to remain for the defence of the city; nine thousand to King' s Bridge and its dependencies, as well to possess and secure those posts as to be ready to attack the enemy, who are moving eastward on Long-Island, if they should attempt to land on this side; the remainder to occupy the intermediate space, and support either. That the sick should be immediately removed to Orangetown, and barracks prepared at King' s Bridge, with all expedition, to cover the troops.

There were some General Officers, in whose judgment and opinion much confidence is to be reposed, that were for a total and immediate removal from the city, urging the great danger of one part of the army being cut off before the other can support it — the extremities being at least sixteen miles apart; that our army, when collected, is inferiour to the enemy; that they can move, with their whole force, to any point of attack, and, consequently, must succeed by weight of numbers if they have only a part to oppose them; that by removing from hence we deprive the enemy of the advantage of their ships, which will make at least one-half of the force to attack the town; that we should keep the enemy at bay put nothing to the hazard, but, at all events, keep the army together, which may be recruited another year; that the unspent stores will also be preserved; and In this case, the heavy artillery can also be secured. But they were overruled by a majority, who thought, for the present a part of our force might be kept here, and attempt to maintain the city a while longer.

I am sensible a retreating army is encircled with difficulties;


that the declining an engagement subjects a General to reproach; and that the common cause may be affected by the discouragement it may throw over the minds of many. Nor am I insensible of the contrary effects, if a brilliant stroke could be made with any probability of success, especially after our loss upon Long-Island. But when the fate of America may be at an issue — when the wisdom of cooler moments and experienced men have decided that we should protract the war, if possible — I cannot think it safe or wise to adopt a different system, when the season for action draws so near a close. That the enemy mean to winter in New- York, there can be no doubt; that with such an armament they can drive us out, is equally clear. The Congress having resolved that it should not be destroyed, nothing seems to remain but to determine the time of their taking possession. It is our interest and wish to prolong it as much as possible, provided the delay does not affect our future measures.

The Militia of Connecticut is reduced from six thousand to less than two thousand, and in a few days will be merely nominal. The arrival of some Maryland troops, &c˙, from the Flying-Camp, has, in a great degree, supplied the loss of men; but the ammunition they have carried away will be a loss sensibly felt˙ The impulse for going home was so irresistible, it answered no purpose to oppose it. Though I would not discharge, I have been obliged to acquiesce; and it affords one more melancholy proof, how delusive such dependencies are.

Enclosed I have the honour to transmit a general return, the first I have been able to procure for some time; also, a report of Captain Newell, from our works at Horn' s Hook or Hell-Gate. Their situation is extremely low, and the Sound so very narrow, that the enemy have ' em much within their command.

I have the honour to be, with great respect, sir, your most obedient servant,


To the President of Congress.

P˙ S˙ The enclosed information this moment came to hand. I am in hopes we shall henceforth get regular Intelligence of the enemy' s movements.