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Letter from Henry Knox, March 29, 1780

TRANSCRIPT GLC 2437.05.039
Henry Knox. Letter (copy): Morris Town, to George Washington, 1780 March 29. 3 p. + doc.

Morris Town, 29 March 1780

[inserted - different hand: Opinion for Genl Washington]


I have endeavored to consider in every point of view the important information which your Excellency gave your general officers yesterday, and the question arising from it, viz. Whether any troops should be detatched from this army to the Southward, with a view of forming a force to cover the country, supposing the event at Charlestown to prove unfortunate?

An addition of continental troops to the Southward would certainly be a matter devoutly to be wished. The great number of negroes and disaffected people in North & South Carolina will always render the conquest of the country comparatively easy with the more northern parts of the continent, and are circumstances, added to others which might be named, that loudly demand assistance from the neighbouring States. But however forcible the demands are on these States, I cannot think it obligatory on Your Excellency to detach any troops at present from your finale army; especially as you will be necissitated to garrison West Point with parts of it, and will lose a very large proportion by the expiration of the mens engagements before the first of June. The present prospects of recruits or levies made, on the expaitation of having it speedily replaced by them.

The posts on Hudson’s river have hitherto been regarded, by every person of judgement as the object of the greatest magnitude on the continent, and the maintanence of which every thing else ought to give place. Were the garrison at West Point and its dependences complete, and left to rely upon itself and the support it could derive from the assistance of the militia, without the possibility of aid from the continental army, I do think its safety would be extremely precarious, if besieged by ten thousand regular troops. It appears by your Excellency’s estimates, the enemy at [2] New York would bring that number against it in 12 hours, had they nothing to apprehend from the continental army. The defence of New York could be entrusted to a very few regular troops and the militia of the islands in their possession, assisted by the shipping.

The grounds in the vicinity of our works at West Point are such, that should they be suddenly seized on by the enemy, it would require more vigourous exertions to dispossess them than are commonly made by militia. Probably the place and its stores are incapable of sustaining more than twenty five or thirty days [inserted: close] siege. If so, and the object is of the first consequence on the continent it follows that a body of disciplined troops ought to be so near as to afford it relief in the above mentioned time, or the place would fall into the enemy’s hands, – an event to be feared, in proportion to its importance and the difficulties of recovering it again.

From the information which your Excellency gives us, it is probable that your army by the first of June will be scarcely sufficient for the purposes [struck: of] for the garrison of Hudson’s river, and to curb the incursions [inserted: of parties] of the enemy. The importance of the operations to the Southward is so great, that were we certain of receiving as many new recruits and new levies by the first of June as would supply the place of the Maryland line, I should be for that line or a body of troops equal to it, marching to the Southward, but not until the designs of the enemy were more unfolded than at present – such as, whether they intend to send more troops from New York to Charleston, whether they intend to undertake the conquest of that place only as a desirable object to obtain a favorable peace – or, whether they intend [struck: intend] it as a preliminary step to an attempt to subjugate the Southern States. Their intentions in these respects being fully known would enable me to be much more decisive in my opinion than I can be at present. The enemy, by being in possession of the water, have it amply in their power to distress and harrass us; but it would be highly imprudent and unwise in us to divide our force so as to be incapable of making opposition in [3] any place.

Were a body of troops today to be ordered to be in readiness to march, it would be ten or fifteen days at least before they could comply and begin their march. The distance from here to Charleston is reputed to be 900 miles. Were the troops to march 12 miles one day with another including the halting days, bad weather, crossing ferries and other contingencies, they would not perform the march in less than 75 days, which would bring it to the latter end of June, a season in which it is said to be almost impracticable for troops to act in that climate.

I think therefore it would be rather improper at present to detatch any troops, because the situation of the force under Your Excellency relative to that of the enemy in New York would not permit it – that the designs of the enemy are not sufficiently known with respect to transfering the principal stress of the war to the Southward, and because, that were any troops to be ordered immediately, they would not arrive in time to operate before the hot months would come on.

I have said nothing of the comparative strength of the Southern militia with that of the Northern, because Your Excellency cannot rely for a certainty on having any but continental troops. There have been times when the militia have been obliged by the distresses of war to turn out – and the time now is when the Militia of North & South Carolina and Virginia ought to exert themselves. And if the different States will compleate their respective quotas of continental troops according to the direction of Congress, Your Excellency may find it possible to detatch to the Southward a respectible force – : but under the present circumstances, I think disgrace, and perhaps ruin, would attend such a measure.

I have the honor to be with the
highest respect
Your Excellencys most
obedt Servt.
H Knox

His Excellency
Gen. Washington

An opinion
delivered to his Excly
Genl Washington
29th March 1780