Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS. - The Writings of George Washington, vol. IV (1776)
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TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS. - George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. IV (1776) 
The Writings of George Washington, collected and edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889). Vol. IV (1776).
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TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS.
Head-Quarters,New York, 8 September, 1776.
Since I had the honor of addressing you on the 6th Inst. 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 in Long Island, the point of attack could not be known, nor 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 labor, which now seems useless, and is regretted by those, who form a judgment from after-knowledge. But I trust, that 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 incursion 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 protects 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 endeavor 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, is 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 even been called a war of posts), that we should on all occasions avoid a general action, nor put any thing to risk, unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn.
The arguments on 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 superiors both in number and discipline, I have never spared the spade and pickaxe. I confess I have not found that readiness to defend even strong posts at all hazards, which is necessary to derive the greatest benefits from them. The honor of making a brave defence does not seem to be a sufficient stimulus, when 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 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 labor 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 by the establishing of 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 it 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 minds full employ, and led every one to form a judgment as the various objects presented themselves to his view.
The post at Kingsbridge is naturally strong, and is pretty 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, by the returns, forms at least one-fourth of the army. Policy and humanity require that 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 that 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 concentring 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.1 It was concluded to arrange the army under three divisions; five thousand to remain for the defence of the city; nine thousand at Kingsbridge 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 be prepared at Kingsbridge 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 inferior 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 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 little longer.1
I am sensible a retreating army is encircled with difficulties; that 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 stake on the 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 to 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 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, that it answered no purpose to oppose it. Though I would not discharge them, I have been obliged to acquiesce; and it affords one more melancholy proof, how delusive such dependences are.
Inclosed I have the honor to transmit a general return, the first that 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, &c.
P. S. The inclosed information this minute came to hand. I am in hopes we shall henceforth get regular intelligence of the Enemies movements.1
[1 ]Congress explained that it was by no means the sense of their resolve of the 3d, that “the army, or any part of it, should remain in that city a moment longer than he shall think it proper for the public service that troops be continued there.” Journals of Congress, 10 September, 1776.
[1 ]General Greene strenuously urged an immediate evacuation of the city. Two days before the council of war assembled, he wrote to General Washington a letter, giving it as his opinion “that a general and speedy retreat is absolutely necessary, and that the honor and interest of America require it.” This letter is printed in Force, American Archives, Fifth Series, ii., 182, and extracts from it in Sparks’ Washington, iv., 85, 86. John Jay was also of opinion that the entire region of New York should be laid desolate. Reed, Life of Reed, i., 235, note.
[1 ]Read in Congress September 10th.