Front Page Titles (by Subject) TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS. 1 - The Writings of George Washington, vol. IV (1776)
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TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS. 1 - 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.1
Colo. Morris’s, on the Heights of Haerlem,
From the hours allotted to sleep, I will borrow a few moments to convey my thoughts on sundry important matters to Congress. I shall offer them with the sincerity, which ought to characterize a man of candor, and with the freedom, which may be used in giving useful information without incurring the imputation of presumption.
We are now, as it were, upon the eve of another dissolution of our army.1 The remembrance of the difficulties, which happened upon that occasion last year, and the consequences, which might have followed the change if proper advantages had been taken by the enemy, added to a knowledge of the present temper and situation of the troops, reflect but a very gloomy prospect in the appearances of things now, and satisfy me beyond the possibility of doubt, that, unless some speedy and effectual measures are adopted by Congress, our cause will be lost. It is in vain to expect, that any more than a trifling part of this army will again engage in the service on the encouragement offered by Congress. When men find that their townsmen and companions are receiving twenty, thirty, and more dollars for a few months’ service, which is truly the case, it cannot be expected, without using compulsion; and to force them into the service would answer no valuable purpose. When men are irritated, and their passions inflamed, they fly hastily and cheerfully to arms; but, after the first emotions are over, to expect among such people as compose the bulk of an army, that they are influenced by any other principles than those of interest, is to look for what never did, and I fear never will happen; the Congress will deceive themselves, therefore, if they expect it. A soldier, reasoned with upon the goodness of the cause he is engaged in, and the inestimable rights he is contending for, hears you with patience, and acknowledges the truth of your observations, but adds that it is of no more importance to him than to others. The officer makes you the same reply, with this further remark, that his pay will not support him, and he cannot ruin himself and family to serve his country, when every member of the community is equally interested, and benefitted by his labors. The few, therefore, who act upon principles of disinterestedness, comparatively speaking, are no more than a drop in the ocean.
It becomes evident to me then, that, as this contest is not likely to be the work of a day, as the war must be carried on systematically, and to do it you must have good officers, there are in my judgment no other possible means to obtain them but by establishing your army upon a permanent footing, and giving your officers good pay. This will induce gentlemen and men of character to engage; and, till the bulk of your officers is composed of such persons as are actuated by principles of honor and a spirit of enterprise, you have little to expect from them. They ought to have such allowances, as will enable them to live like and support the character of gentlemen, and not be driven by a scanty pittance to the low and dirty arts, which many of them practise, to filch from the public more than the difference of pay would amount to, upon an ample allowance. Besides, something is due to the man, who puts his life in your hands, hazards his health, and forsakes the sweets of domestic enjoyment. Why a captain in the Continental service should receive no more than five shillings currency per day for performing the same duties, that an officer of the same rank in the British service receives ten shillings for, I never could conceive; especially when the latter is provided with every necessary he requires upon the best terms, and the former can scarce procure them at any rate. There is nothing that gives a man consequence and renders him fit for command, like a support that renders him independent of every body but the state he serves.1
With respect to the men, nothing but a good bounty can obtain them upon a permanent establishment; and for no shorter time, than the continuance of the war, ought they to be engaged; as facts incontestably prove, that the difficulty and cost of enlistments increase with time. When the army was first raised at Cambridge, I am persuaded the men might have been got, without a bounty, for the war. After this, they began to see that the contest was not likely to end so speedily as was imagined, and to feel their consequence by remarking, that, to get in their militia in the course of the last year, many towns were induced to give them a bounty. Foreseeing the evils resulting from this, and the destructive consequences, which unavoidably would follow short enlistments, I took the liberty in a long letter written by myself (date not now recollected as my Letter Book is not here1 ) to recommend the enlistments for and during the war, assigning such reasons for it as experience has since convinced me were well founded. At that time, twenty dollars would, I am persuaded, have engaged the men for this term. But it will not do to look back; and, if the present opportunity is slipped, I am persuaded that twelve months more will increase our difficulties fourfold. I shall therefore take the freedom of giving it as my opinion, that a good bounty should be immediately offered, aided by the proffer of at least a hundred or a hundred and fifty acres of land, and a suit of clothes and blanket to each non-comissioned officer and soldier; as I have good authority for saying, that, however high the men’s pay may appear, it is barely sufficient, in the present scarcity and dearness of all kinds of goods, to keep them in clothes, much less afford support to their families.
If this encouragement then is given to the men, and such pay allowed the officers as will induce gentlemen of character and liberal sentiments to engage, and proper care and precaution are used in the nomination, (having more regard to the characters of persons, than to the number of men they can enlist,) we should in a little time have an army able to cope with any that can be opposed to it, as there are excellent materials to form one out of. But while the only merit an officer possesses is his ability to raise men, while those men consider and treat him as an equal, and, in the character of an officer, regard him no more than a broomstick, being mixed together as one common herd, no order nor discipline can prevail; nor will the officer ever meet with that respect, which is essentially necessary to due subordination.1
To place any dependence upon militia is assuredly resting upon a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestic life, unaccustomed to the din of arms, totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, (which being followed by want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to troops regularly trained, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge and superior in arms,) makes them timid and ready to fly from their own shadows. Besides the sudden change in their manner of living, (particularly in the lodging,) brings on sickness in many, impatience in all, and such an unconquerable desire of returning to their respective homes, that it not only produces shameful and scandalous desertions among themselves, but infuses the like spirit in others. Again, men accustomed to unbounded freedom and no control cannot brooke the restraint, which is indispensably necessary to the good order and government of an army; without which, licentiousness and every kind of disorder triumphantly reign. To bring men to a proper degree of subordination is not the work of a day, a month, or even a year; and, unhappily for us and the cause we are engaged in, the little discipline I have been laboring to establish in the army under my immediate command is in a manner done away, by having such a mixture of troops, as have been called together within these few months.
Relaxed and as unfit as our rules and regulations of war are for the government of an army, the militia (those properly so called, for of these we have two sorts, the six-months’ men, and those sent in as a temporary aid) do not think themselves subject to them, and therefore take liberties, which the soldier is punished for. This creates jealousy; jealousy begets dissatisfaction; and these by degrees ripen into mutiny, keeping the whole army in a confused and disordered state, rendering the time of those, who wish to see regularity and good order prevail, more unhappy than words can describe. Besides this, such repeated changes take place, that all arrangement is set at nought, and the constant fluctuation of things deranges every plan as fast as adopted.
These, Sir, Congress may be assured, are but a small part of the inconveniences, which might be enumerated, and attributed to militia; but there is one, that merits particular attention, and that is the expense. Certain I am, that it would be cheaper to keep fifty or a hundred thousand in constant pay, than to depend upon half the number and supply the other half occasionally by militia. The time the latter are in pay before and after they are in camp, assembling and marching, the waste of ammunition, the consumption of stores, which, in spite of every resolution or requisition of Congress, they must be furnished with, or sent home, added to other incidental expenses consequent upon their coming and conduct in camp, surpasses all idea, and destroys every kind of regularity and economy, which you could establish among fixed and settled troops, and will, in my opinion, prove, if the scheme is adhered to, the ruin of our cause.
The jealousy of a standing army, and the evils to be apprehended from one, are remote, and, in my judgment, situated and circumstanced as we are, not at all to be dreaded; but the consequence of wanting one, according to my ideas formed from the present view of things, is certain and inevitable ruin. For, if I was called upon to declare upon oath, whether the militia have been most serviceable or hurtful upon the whole, I should subscribe to the latter. I do not mean by this, however, to arraign the conduct of Congress; in so doing I should equally condemn my own measures, if I did not my judgment; but experience, which is the best criterion to work by, so fully, clearly, and decisively reprobates the practice of trusting to militia, that no man, who regards order, regularity, and economy, or who has any regard for his own honor, character, or peace of mind, will risk them upon this issue.1
No less attention should be paid to the choice of surgeons, than of other officers of the army. They should undergo a regular examination, and, if not appointed by the director-general and surgeons of the hospital, they ought to be subordiate to and governed by his directions. The regimental surgeons I am speaking of, many of whom are very great rascals, countenancing the men in sham complaints to exempt them from duty, and often receiving bribes to certify indispositions, with a view to procure discharges or furloughs; but, independent of these practices, while they are considered as unconnected with the general hospital, there will be nothing but continual complaints of each other; the director of the hospital charging them with enormity in their drafts for the sick, and they him with the same for denying such things as are necessary. In short, there is a constant bickering among them, which tends greatly to the injury of the sick, and will always subsist till the regimental surgeons are made to look up to the director-general of the hospital as a superior. Whether this is the case in regular armies or not, I cannot undertake to say; but certain I am, there is a necessity for it in this, or the sick will suffer. The regimental surgeons are aiming, I am persuaded, to break up the general hospital, and have, in numberless instances, drawn for medicines and stores in the most profuse and extravagant manner for private purposes.1
Another matter highly worthy of attention is, that other rules and regulations may be adopted for the government of the army, than those now in existence; otherwise the army, but for the name, might as well be disbanded. For the most atrocious offences, one or two instances only excepted, a man receives no more than thirty-nine lashes; and these, perhaps, through the collusion of the officer, who is to see it inflicted, are given in such a manner as to become rather a matter of sport than punishment; but, when inflicted as they ought, many hardened fellows, who have been the subjects, have declared that, for a bottle of rum, they would undergo a second operation. It is evident, therefore, that this punishment is inadequate to many crimes it is assigned to. As a proof of it, thirty or forty soldiers will desert at a time, and of late a practice prevails (as you will see by my letter of the 22d) of the most alarming nature and which will, if it cannot be checked, prove fatal both to the country and army; I mean the infamous practice of plundering. For, under the idea of Tory property, or property that may fall into the hands of the enemy, no man is secure in his effects, and scarcely in his person. In order to get at them, we have several instances of people being frightened out of their houses, under pretence of those houses being ordered to be burnt, and this is done with a view of seizing the goods; nay, in order that the villany may be more effectually concealed, some houses have actually been burnt, to cover the theft. I have, with some others, used my utmost endeavors to stop this horrid practice; but under the present lust after plunder, and want of laws to punish offenders, I might almost as well attempt to remove Mount Atlas. I have ordered instant corporal punishment upon every man, who passes our lines, or is seen with plunder, that the offenders might be punished for disobedience of orders; and enclose to you the proceedings of a court-martial held upon an officer [Ensign Matthew McCumber] who, with a party of men, had robbed a house a little beyond our lines of a number of valuable goods, among which (to show that nothing escapes) were four large pier looking-glasses, women’s clothes, and other articles, which, one would think, could be of no earthly use to him. He was met by a major of brigade, [Box] who ordered him to return the goods, as taken contrary to general orders, which he not only peremptorily refused to do, but drew up his party, and swore he would defend them at the hazard of his life; on which I ordered him to be arrested and tried for plundering, disobedience of orders, and mutiny. For the result, I refer to the proceedings of the court, whose judgment appeared so exceedingly extraordinary,1 that I ordered a reconsideration of the matter, upon which, and with the assistance of a fresh evidence, they made a shift to cashier him. I adduce this instance, to give some idea to Congress of the current sentiments and general run of the officers, which compose the present army; and to show how exceedingly necessary it is to be careful in the choice of the new set, even if it should take double the time to complete the levies.1
An army formed of good officers moves like clockwork; but there is no situation upon earth less enviable, nor more distressing, than that person’s, who is at the head of troops which are regardless of order and discipline, and who are unprovided with almost every necessary. In a word, the difficulties, which have for ever surrounded me since I have been in the service, and kept my mind constantly upon the stretch, the wounds, which my feelings as an officer have received by a thousand things, which have happened contrary to my expectation and wishes; the effect of my own conduct, and present appearance of things, so little pleasing to myself, as to render it a matter of no surprise to me if I should stand capitally censured by Congress; added to a consciousness of my inability to govern an army composed of such discordant parts, and under such a variety of intricate and perplexing circumstances;—induces not only a belief, but a thorough conviction in my mind, that it will be impossible, unless there is a thorough change in our military system, for me to conduct matters in such a manner as to give satisfaction to the public, which is all the recompense I aim at, or ever wished for.
Before I conclude, I must apologize for the liberties taken in this letter, and for the blots and scratchings therein, not having time to give it more correctly. With truth I can add, that, with every sentiment of respect and esteem, I am yours and the Congress’s most obedient, &c.1
[1 ]In his journey to Staten Island John Adams noted the straggling and loitering soldiers on the road and in the public houses, and conceived “but a poor opinion of the discipline of our forces, and excited as much indignation as anxiety.” Upon his return to Congress, at his instance, and through the Board of War, a resolution for enforcing and perfecting discipline in the army was adopted. “That the Commander in Chief of the forces of these States in the several departments, be directed to give positive orders to the brigadier-generals and colonels, and all other officers in their several armies, that the troops under their command may every day be called together and trained in arms, in order that officers and men may be perfected in the manual exercise and manœuvers, and inured to the most exemplary discipline, and that all officers be assured that the Congress will consider activity and success in introducing discipline into the army, among the best recommendations for promotion.” Journals of Congress, 19 September, 1776. This officious resolution must have reached Washington before the 22d, and was the cause of the letter of the 24th, which was written by his own hand, and shows no sign of resentment at the criticism thus levelled against him by Adams and the Congress. The extreme difficulties to be overcome in obtaining even the semblance of discipline in such an army as Congress gave to Washington, are described in the letters of Reed, now Adjutant-General, who soon after sent in his resignation. John Sloss Hobart saw Washington on the evening of the 24th, and spoke of him as “much indisposed.”
[1 ]The term of service for almost the whole army was to expire at or before the end of the year.
[1 ]“We want nothing but good officers to constitute as good an army as ever marched into the field. Our men are much better than the officers.”—General Greene, 3 October, 1776. “The success of the cause, the defeat of the enemy, the honor of the state, and the reputation of the army, altogether depends upon the establishing of a good core, or corps of officers. My little experience has fully convinced me that without more attention is paid by the different states in the appointment of the officers, the troops never will answer their expectations. . . . There has been, it must be confessed, some shameful conduct in this army this campaign, in a great measure owing to the bad conduct of the officers.”—General Greene to Governor Cooke, 11 October, 1776.
[1 ]Vol. III., 106.
[1 ]“To attempt to introduce discipline and subordination into a new army must always be a work of much difficulty, but where the principles of democracy so universally prevail, where so great an equality and so thorough a levelling spirit predominates, either no discipline can be established, or he who attempts it must become odious and detestable, a position which no one will choose. It is impossible for any one to have an idea of the complete equality which exists between the officers and men who compose the greater part of our troops.”—Reed to his wife, 11 October, 1776.
[1 ]General Greene was more outspoken in his opinion of where the blame should rest: “The policy of Congress has been the most absurd and ridiculous imaginable, pouring in militia-men who come and go every month. A military force established upon such principles defeats itself. . . . The Congress goes upon a penurious plan. The present pay of the officers will not support them, and it is generally determined by the best officers to quit the service, unless a more adequate provision is made for their support. The present establishment is not thought reputable. The Congress has never furnished the men voted by near one half, certainly by above a third. Had we numbers we need not have retreated from Long Island or New York. . . . We must have an army to meet the enemy everywhere, to act offensively as well as defensively. Our soldiers are as good as ever were; and were the officers half as good as the men, they would beat any army on the globe of equal numbers.”—28 September, 1776.
[1 ]A resolution was passed by Congress, on receiving this letter, requesting the several States to appoint skilful surgeons and physicians to examine the surgeons and surgeons’ mates, who offered themselves to serve in the army or navy, and declaring that no commission should be issued to any, who should not produce a certificate from such examiners, that they were qualified for the duties of their office. Journals, 30 September, 1776.
[1 ]The court decided that the prisoner was “not guilty of plundering or of robbery, nor of mutiny, but that he is guilty of offering violence to and disobeying Major Box, his superior officer.” He was sentenced to ask pardon of Major Box, and to be severely reprimanded at the head of his regiment. Washington had added “Note. It is to be observed that the men who were to share the plunder became the evidences for the prisoner.”
[1 ]“The General thanks, the Colonels and commanding Officers of Regiments, for their care in examining the Tents and knapsacks, of the Soldiers after plunder, he directs that what has been found, be sent to the house on the Road below Head Quarters, and that Regimental Courts Martial immediately sit, to try every one who cannot prove that he came honestly by what is found in his possession—The offenders to be punished as soon as the sentence is approved by the Colonel or Commanding Officer—As a little wholesome severity may put a stop to such ruinous practices in future, the General hopes a very strict Inquiry will be made, and no Favor shown. The General does not admit of any pretence for plundering; whether it is Tory property taken beyond the lines, or not, it is equally a breach of Orders, and to be punished in the Officer who gives orders, or the Soldier who goes without.”—Orderly Book, 24 September, 1776.
[1 ]Read in Congress 27 September, 1776, and referred to a committee of five: Wythe, Hopkinson, Rutledge, J. Adams, and Stone.