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 Excellencys reputation
would suffer. I freely confess an idea of this kind pains
me exceedingly, and were I to believe it fully I  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 Excellencys 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 depreciated
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
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  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 Enemys 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  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
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
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  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 Excellencys most
obedt. huml. Servt.
Artillery Park Camp. Whitemack 26th
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 Lanzes
Ferry 16 miles above the City.
An opinion on certain
and given to His
Washington 26. Nov