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Letter from Henry Knox, November 26, 1777

TRANSCRIPT GLC 2437.04.074
Henry Knox. Letter: [s.1], to George Washington, 1777 November 26. 7 p. + doc.

26. Nov. 1777

[inserted - different hand: H.K. to Washington in answer to his Question as to storming the enemies, works & Philadelphia]


I exceedingly lament my want of ability and experience to fill properly the important station in which I am, and am more particularly distressed when such important questions are refered to my decision as those which your Excellency gave us in charge the last evening. The happiness or misery of the People of America may be the consequence of a right or erroneous judgement.

Much lately has been urged concerning the reputation of our arms; as if we had long been a warlike nation, whose existence, like the ancient Romans, depended on their military fame. I confess I view the matter differently, and cannot bring myself to believe (how much soever I may wish it) that we are upon a par in military knowledge and Skill with our enemies. Indeed it is not possible, and the sensible part of mankind well know it.

We set out in the contest with notions and sentiments very different from these, – we then considered we were contending for our all, for everything dear to humanity. But it now seems otherwise with many persons, whose anxiety for military fame seems to absorb every other consideration.

I have also heard it urged that your Excellency’s reputation would suffer. I freely confess an idea of this kind pains me exceedingly, and were I to believe it fully I [2] should be impelled to give my opinion for measures as desperate as I conceive the attempt to Storm the enemies works and Philadelphia. I am not of opinion that your Excellency’s character suffers in the least with the well affected part of the People of America. I know to the contrary. The People of America look up to you as their Father, and into your hands they entrust their all, fully confident of every exertion on your part for their Security and happiness; – and I do not believe there is any man on earth for whose welfare there are more Sollicitations at the Court of Heaven than for yours.

I believe perfectly there are some people who speak disrespectfully of your Excellency; but I as perfectly believe that those are people who have never given any unequivocal evidence of their attatchments to our rights, or whose boundless ambition has been checked by your well-tried patriotism.

The State of the depreciation of our Currency has also been urged as a pri[inserted: n]cipal inducement to some desperate attack; and that its value diminishes every day. It is but too true that the large emissions and some other causes have effected a diminution of the value of our paper currency. Had the Same enormous emissions taken place, in a time of profound peace and flourishing commerce, as have taken place during the war without sinking any part of them by taxes, I do assert that the Currency would be equally depre[3]ciated as at present.

The circumstances of the respective States would not permit them, ‘till lately, to endeavor to sink their proportions of the paper currency; but now almost every State on the Continent are making large strides toward it. The Currency in the Eastern States, from their large taxes, will increase in its value every day. I cannot therefore perceive the force of the argument urged, derived from the consideration of the failure of the currency.

The Gentlemen who urge the desperate measure of attacking the enemies lines, redoubts, and the City of Philadelphia, seem to forget the many principles laid down by people experienced in the art of war, against our engaging in general actions upon equal terms, – against our risquing our all on the event of single battles. In the beginning of the contest our friends in England urged the impropriety of such conduct, giving instances of numbers of States who lost their liberties by means of them. It is an invariable principle in war, that it cannot be the interest, at the same time, of both parties to engage. It is also another fixed principle, that the invad<ers> of a Country ought to bring the Defenders of it to action as soon as possible. But I believe there is not a single maxim in war that will justify a number of undisciplined Troops attacking an equal number of disciplined Troops, strongly posted in redoubts, and having a strong City in their rear, such as Philadelphia.

It is proposed to attack the enemies, redoubts, without being perfectly acquainted with [4] their number, strength, or situation, with Troops of whom we have had the experience of two capital actions that it was impossible to rally them after they were broken. By the mode of attack proposed we are to stake the Liberties of America on a single attempt, in which the probability of success is against us, and if defeated, of sacrificing the happiness of posterity, to what is called the reputation of our arms.

It has been agreed that the Enemy’s force consists of 10-000, rank & file, fit for duty. It is said Lord Cornwallis has taken with him from 1500 to 3000 – suppose the number 2500, which is 500 more than I believe he has – there remains 7500 rank & file fit for duty. Our Returns are 8000. I say 8000, because I hold the Militia, in case of an attack of this kind, useless entirely; for we know they will not stand within the range of a cannon ball. We are to attack 7500, strongly posted in redoubts, having batteries and a strong city in their rear. In this instance, the idea that is necessary among disciplined troops of having 3 to one to storm works is laid aside; not because our troops are better disciplined than their enemies, but because, from a concurrence of circumstances, our affairs are in a desperate situation, and we must retrieve them or perish.

Marshal Sase says redoubts are the strongest and most excellent kind of Field Fortifications, and infinitely preferable to extended lines; because each redoubt requires a separate attack, one of which succeeding does not facilitate [5] the reduction of the others. – Charles the 12th. with the best troops in the world was totally ruined in the attack of Seven redoubts at Pultowa, altho’ he succeeded in taking three of them.

The character of the British Troops in Europe is far above mediocrity and the experience we have had of their discipline and valor by no means proves them contemptible. In the commencement of this war they stormed an unfinished work on Bunkers Hill, but the experience gained there has entirely prevented them from making any similar attempts. Indeed the Germans lately made an attempt on Red Bank, the event of which will hardly give them a favorable opinion of the attack of redoubts by storm.

The situation of the American Army on Long Island after the battle of the 27th August was exceedingly ineligible and the enemy must have known it, but they did not attempt to carry our redoubts by Storm. Although, had they have succeeded in one instance, and made a sufficient opening for the introduction of a large column of troops, the greatest part of our Army then on the Island must have fallen a sacrifice or have been taken prisoners.

From the experience derived from reading, and some little service, and the knowledge of the strength of the enemies works, my opinion is clearly, pointedly, and positively, against an attack on the enemies redoubts, because I am [6] fully convinced a defeat would be certain and inevitable.

My opinion is, to draw our whole force together, take post and fortify Germantown, considering it as our Winter Quarters. When the works there are in a tolerable state of defence, I should be for taking our whole force (except one Brigade to guard the works) and proceed [struck: as] near the enemies lines, offering them battle, which, if they declined, would in the opinion of every national man, fully evince our superiority in point of strength. If they should come out, fight, and defeat us, we have a secure retreat and Winter Quarters.

I have thus offered my sentiments to your Excellency with freedom, – but if a contrary disposition should take place, and an attack be resolved upon, I shall endeavor to execute the part that be assigned me to the utmost of my ability.

I am, with the most profound
respect, your Excellency’s most
obedt. huml. Servt.
H Knox
MG Artillery

Artillery Park Camp. Whitemack 26th
Novr. 1777
His Excellency
Genl. Washington

The Question was whether it would be advisable to attack the enemies redoubts, and the City of Philadelphia by way of storm – & throw [strike-out]1200 troops into City by the way of the Delaware embarking them in boats at Lanze’s Ferry 16 miles above the City.

An opinion on certain
Subjects demanded
and given to His
Excellency General
Washington 26. Nov