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Letter from Henry Knox, May 23, 1780

TRANSCRIPT GLC  2437.05.046

Henry Knox.  Letter signed:  Morristown, New Jersey, to George Washington, 1780 May 23. 23 p. + doc.


Morris Town 23d May 1780.


[inserted - different hand: HK to W.] [inserted - different hand: plan of Operation <?> 1790]




To digest a perfect plan of operations, of the magnitude of those propos’d by your Excellency demands a much greater extent of abilities, and military experience, than I can pretend to have – It requires a mind, able to comprehend, and to provide, for every possible exigence, so that in case of success, we might be ready, to urge it to the utmost; or of misfortune, to render it, as little distressing as the event could admit, however, Zeal, and duty, induce me, chearfully to comply with your Excellencys request, in the best manner I can, and I shall be happy, if any ideas of mine, will in the least assist, <your Excellency> in the arduous business before you. –


In the first instance, as a preliminary step, to every other exertion, the departments of the Quarter master [inserted: Genl.] and commissary of provision, must be plac’d on such a footing, as to answer the end and design of their institutions.  – those are the main springs of an army, and unless they are in perfect order, every movement depending [2] on them, must be wrong, and will in the end, produce destruction.


There must be many things [inserted: in the Qmg’s depatmnt,] essentially necessary to be done, previous to the intended operations, but what they are, and whether they can be effected, will better be determind by the Q.M.G.  Forage, is included in that department – it is essential, that a very large collection of dry forage be made, with the utmost expedition, and deposited, in the places that shall be agreed on hereafter. –


Magazines of provision ought to be establish’d at proper places, antecedant, to any important expedition, being undertaken. [strike-out] [inserted: It [struck: will] [inserted: would] be superlative fully] to enter upon an enterprize, which will require much time [struck: in its execution] [inserted: to execute], without an adequate supply of provision, for a certain time, and [inserted: an] assurance of the supplies being continued.


[struck: The supplies] The provisions wil I presume, be principally furnish’d by the States of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and in some degree New-York.  I suppose Jersey, to be almost exhausted, and that Maryland, have already furnished a very large proportion, of the Quotas [3] assign’d by Congress.  Virginia perhaps is too remote, to expect much assistance from, in the present case. – [inserted at margin:  besides beef and Pork, bread & flour, Rum is too material an article, to be omitted. no exertions ought to be spar’d to provide ample quanties of [struck: that article] [inserted: it.]]


I think it a very material arangnt, that the Governors, or presidents, of those States, on which the main stress will lay, should be call’d togethr at Head Quarters, or to whoever, shall have the principal direction of affairs – This step is necessary as well [inserted: to infuse into them, a proper degree of energy] as to determine the supplies to be furnish’d the Quarter Master, and Commissarys departments and the number of men, each state shall respectively raise. – if this is not eligible, or practicable, persons of influence, ought to be dispatch’d to the different States, to press the requisitions, and Expedite the supplies.


If the different states will not or cannot, grant the means to supply the [inserted: deficiencies of the] two great departments of QM, and Commisary, I do not see how any expedition of importance, can be attempted consistent with reason, or military principles. – But I flatter myself, that the country possess ample resources [4] for the occasion, and that as soon, as a prospect of great success shall be held out, to the public there will be found vigor, to draw them out for the good of the service.


The two departments, upon which the existence of the army depend, [inserted: being properly establish’d] the next object will be to enquire, what expedition shall be undertaken?  This will be necessary to determine what force [inserted: to call upon the states be] in aid of the french army and continental troops. [struck: to call]


To adjust this point properly, we we must suppose



That the Enemy have taken Charlestown, and garrison’d it, with with 3000 of the troops, who went to the southward, and that the remainder of the force, of perhaps between 4, and 5000, men effective men, influencd, by the intelligence of the designs of the French, have return’d to New-York



That they have not succeeded at Charlestown, but rais’d the siege, in consequence of the above intelligence, and with their whole force, except the diminition of kill’d, wounded, dead and sick, [5] amounting perhaps to 1200, have returnd to New York.



That the french fleet, and army arrive safely, previous to the supposd junction, of the troops under General Clinton, with those in New-York


It is likely, that one of these suppos’d events, will happen, and considering the importance of New York; to the enemy and its being their primary object, of all smaller ones, will be oblig'd, to yield to it - therefore I am inclin’d to believe, that Sir Harry Clinton, upon the first intelligence he received, of the intentions of the French rais’d the siege of Charlestown, if he had not reduc’d it, or had a moral certainty of reducing it, in two, or three days – he will not stay there, upon the uncertain or even certain favorable isue of the seige, if it must be protracted, and suffer, the power of Britain, in America, to be torn up by the roots.


The British ministry, knowing the [6] designs of France, would not content themselves with sending one frigate only, to New-York, which was liable to many accidents, of the Seas and enemies.  [strike-out] [inserted: probably] besides that, they sent one to New-foundland [inserted: and Hallifax] and a third, directly to Charlestown.  if so, we may conclude, that Sir Harry received the information, nearly as soon as they had it in New York and that by the time, of montagues arrival at South Carolina, the preparations for raising the siege, and returning to New-York, were pretty mature. – But even if this should not have happen’d, yet from the time the Iris sail’d from New York, it is probable, that Sir Harry, at this period, is on his return, and that he will arrive, on [inserted: or] before the 10th of June.-


I am afraid that the french fleet will not arrive, or the condition [inserted: of our army] be such, as to be ready in all respects, to commence on operations by that time.


From the circumstances thus stated, it is rational to suppose, that Genl Clinton, will have [7] form’d a junction of a certain portion of his force, with the garrison of New-York, before it will be possible for us, to be in readiness to act with vigor.


But, it may be possible for the french to arrive, previous to the suppos’d junction and take their station, [struck: and take their station] off sandy hook, with a force, superior to the british naval power, in these seas. in that case, New-York ought decidedly to be our object, because the chances of success will be greater than of a failure and more beneficial, than than the latter will probably be distressing.


But even under those circumstances, our force ought to be as respectable, as if General Clinton had form’d the junction, for his inducement to it, will be so great, that we ought to believe, that he will leave no exertion untried, to effect a measure of such infinite importance to him – our force indubitably ought to be proportion’d to probable events.


From the popularity of an attempt on New-York, I am induc’d firmly to believe that any [8] number of men might be obtaind, for that purpose, on such terms, as we could wish indeed some have doubted whether we could subsist them, but I should suppose, that it would be easy to procure provisions, if the respective Governments will exert themselves.


But I do not conceive this to be the first part of the military plan. – for if a General shall receive orders to beseige a place, the first thing he requests, will certainly be an adequate force to reduce it. – if the Country, or his employers, are unable, or decline, to furnish subsistence of men, indespensably necessary for the purpose, is it his fault, if the seige shall not be undertaken? most certainly not, provided he has requested the necessary means.


In the divided state of the enemy New-York is clearly our object, – let us then suppose their force join’d, and examine whether that event, ought to make any change in our measures.  The number of the enemy that went from New-York last winter in both <?> divisions, [9] might have been about 8500, – suppose 1200 of these, to have been wasted in the campaign, the remainder will be about 7000. – again, suppose Genl Clinton, has taken Charlestown and garrison’d it with 3000 - the number that will be to return may amount to about 4000, which number, added to those in New-York, are not in my opinion sufficient to divert us, from attempting the siege of that place.


But if that should not be the case, and that Sir Harry Clinton sent no troops to Pensacola, (which is rather improbable considering the serious demonstrations the Spaniards were making against it,) he will be able, to bring back about 7000 men.  this is, undoubtedly a respectable body of troops, especially when added to the Garrison of at least equal numbers:  yet under this event, if we could obtain an army proportnd to the attempt, and provisions to subsist them, together with a decided naval superiority I should perfer a siege, or if that is not practicable, a blockade of New-York to any other enterprize whatever. – a succesful [10] operation, against New-York, would totally annihilate, the British power in america, and terminate the War which would not be the case with any other object we should undertake – however, if it should be thought upon a more critical investigation, having a proper, and full knowledge of all circumstances, an attempt superior to the combin’d exertions of the French and American force, an Expedition to the southward after the sickly season be past, might be form’d, to be pointed against Charlestown (if in the enemies possession) Georgia, or <?> Florida. – the composition of the troops to be principally french, aided by a few continental battalions and officers. – Halifax, to people in our circumstances, without a navy, I think would be an improper object for us to attempt. – much might be said upon the propriety of an expedition to Canada, supported by a french fleet, and army – of the facility with which the conquest might be made, by a Double Invasion, by the St. Laurence, and the Lakes. – of the utility, and importance of it, but [11] as the matter does not appear to have been in contemplation, I shall only say, that in my opinion, <?> next to New-York, Canada is, the most important object that can claim our attention. – this however, to be understood, upon the principles of the enemy having rais’d the siege of Charlestown, and form’d a junction, of their force at New York, so as to render it unattainable by us.


If we undertake the siege of New-York which has or probably will have a garrison of nearly 14000 men, we ought to have double that number for the purposes of York, and Long Islands and their communications, exclusive of [struck:  4,000] 5000, which must be in Jersey – The force in Jersey will be necessary, to beseige the posts, which the enemy have, or may have, on the West side Hudsons river, to cover the communication from Pensylvania, to prevent the enemy making any excursion into Jersey, previous to the reduction of <?> Hook, and [struck: to] [inserted: they must] be provided with proper [12]  means of throwing themselves, on York or Staten Islands, or wherever they may be orderd – upon the whole, I should suppose that the siege ought not to be undertaken without [struck: less than] [inserted: we have] 31 or 32000 [inserted: effective] men. [struck:  and] [inserted: exclusive] of which number, a garrison of a thousand, or 1200 will be wanted for west point –


It is presum’d that Congress, will direct the Maryland line, to return to this army, with the utmost expedition. – the propriety of such a direction, is as clearly evident as any axiom whatever, and if they do not give it, I confess, I shall conceive it, to be a bad omen of our success, & of the vigor, and decision, which ought to animate that body, upon whom so much, according to the constitution, must depend.


If the Maryland line returns, we may estimate the continental troops at 8000, and the french at 6000, – the deficiency there according to my estimate will be about 19000 men, which the states must be calld upon for.


If the quotas of men assign’d by Congress [13] last winter, upon the different states, to serve during the War, cannot be obtaind, as I believe they cannot, at least so speedily, as to be of any service in the intended operations, then, for the men to be draughted to serve during the campaign, to end the first of January, or sooner, as circumstances shall permit. – These men to be incorporated into the continental battalions. – <loss>When we consider the great number of veteran soldiers, which have been discharg’d in the past winter and at other periods, who would perfer this union, to serving under the militia officers, there can be but little doubt, that the requisite number of men might be easily obtaind, and generally of those, who organiz’d as above, would render essential service to their Country.


To depend principally on militia, form’d into battalions, under their own officers, for the arduous service, we are about to engage in, will be to deceive ourselves most wretched to accumulate a monstrous debt, ruin [14] the hopes, and entirely prevent the future exertions of the Country, disgust our allies, and perhaps annihilate us as a nation.  this plan, besides being infinitely more energetic, then any other formation of the Militia, will strictly be the most oeconomical, that can be devis’d, as it will save, [strike-out] the vast expences, of an army of Militia officers.


I have as high a veneration, and respect, for the militia, as any person can have.  I know them to be individually brave, and in many instances to behave in such a manner, as to reflect the highest honor on themselves, as well as their country, but a siege, requires troops of an essentially [strike-out]  [inserted: different] composition.  We must be explicit, the object in view is too great, and its consequenses too infinite, to be enterd upon, without the means shall be such, as rationally to promise, an happy termination, – without such principles, no success can justify to a thinking mind, an enterprize voluntarily and deliberately undertaken.  the glare of victory, may for some time produce an eclat, but the [15] judgement of sensible men, will effectually prevent its being perpetuated; whilst on the other hand, a failure under such circumstances, will instantly, and forever, merit the folly of the attempt.


I would with due deference, propose that the states be colld upon for the men wanted, for the Campaign, in some degree proportiond to the following seale –



New Hampshire   1000
Massachusetts      5000
Rhode Island        1000
Connecticut          3500
New York            2500
New Jersey          2500
Pennsylvania         4000


The force being obtaind, and every necessary arrangement [strike-out] [inserted: made], I would propose that we should commence our operations by the way of Morrissania, and its vicinity. – that, appears to me to be the most proper place for many reasons. – The french transports can come into the sound, guarded by a proper force, and land their troops, as near as [16] may be thought necessary. whether the principal part of the heavy ships, are endevoring to force a passage by the Hook, & narrows, into the harbour of new-York, the transports after having landed the troops, and stores, may either ride in the sound, or put into New-London harbour if it should be necessary.


Being at Morrissania with our boats or pontoons, we shall be in a situation to distract the enemy, by making points to land, on York Island, by the North, or East river, which will oblige them, to withdraw their out posts from the upper part of the Island, or so to divide their force, as to leave us an easy passage over to it.


By commencing our operations that way, we may procure a safe passage over to long Island, establish our communication with, and secure a retreat from it, by fortifying the Islands which will also prevent the passage of any of the enemies Vessells through Hell-Gate:  these are material points, to be attended to, for long Island is essential to the reduction of New-[17]York.


As many of our manoeuvres will be by water, it will be of the first importance that an hundred boats be provided, each to carry 50 or 60 men, besides the rowers, and for the mangegement of them, there ought to be a body of 1000, or 12 hundred sailors, obtain’d from the eastern States. – each boat, must have a sea officer. –  a certain number of boats, to constitute a division, under its proper officers and the whole, to be [inserted: under] the direction of the most intelligent, docile, brave, sea officer, that can be found, who must be perfectly skill’d, in the doctrine of tides, and currents, in the places where he shall act. – these sailors and officers, must be taught to place, their point of Glory, in the perfect management, and care of their boats, and obedience to orders. –


[struck:  The]

The detachment in Jersey, to have a number of these boats, [struck: as well for bridges] as well for bridges, as for transportation.


The boats must be plac’d on cariags, and move with the troops when necessary. – besides being properly fixd with oars, to transport the troops, [18] there must be plank, timber, cables, anchors and every other material to fix them as bridges, – also artificers, to repair or arrange them upon every occasion – This department appears to be the pivot  upon which our manoeuvers by water will depend, and I cannot help repeating that no pains, or expence ought be omitted to put it in perfect order – it may possibly be alledg’d that, the french, and our own vessells, may provide us with sailors for such purposes, as shall be necessary, – to this it may be answer’d, that altho it is possible they may, yet they cannot execute the critical business of the minute water matters, so well, as persons who will place their reputation upon the right execution of what shall be entrusted to them – and besides, the sailors [strike-out] [inserted: may] be otherways wanted, at the same time our demands for them, may be the most pressing –


Our supplies, could be convey’d to us through the sound, and in some measure down Hudsons river, to a certain distance and from thenc by land carriage to Morrissania.  A [19] magazine must be establish’d at Morris Town, to receive flour, and other articles what may be brought from Pennsylvania and from thence [inserted: transported] to such parts, of the North River, as shall be safe, and most convenient to our army – to transport flour from Philadelphia, and the various parts of Pennsylvania, a holling by water, would be tedious and uncertain if not hazardous – our existence will depend so much on bread which I presume will mostly be expected from that State, that the conveyance ought to be safe and regular, altho’ the expences, and trouble, thereby should be exceedingly extended.


The point [strike-out] [inserted: from which] to commence on operations being determind, the intention [strike-out] [inserted: must] [struck: to] be kept a profound secret, and not a single demonstration of it, untill all things shall be ready, for forming a junction of the french, and continental troops, and then our movements, ought to be as rapid as lightening, to prevent the enemy from strengthening [20] himself in the places where we intend to strike – But if any previous movements could be made by which the enemy would be deceivd it might amply compensate for the trouble.


Providence in Rhode Island on many accounts of convenience of buildings, and security from the Enemy, would be a proper place for the french to establish, their Hospitals, and deposit their heavy stores.  But I should perfer Norwich, in Connecticut on account of its being nearer to the seat of action – it would be as secure but not quite so convenient as Providence, But whever the hospitals are establish’d, there must be every kind of produce the coin affords, procured, for the refreshment of the sick, and all kinds of live stock and vegetables, at the place where the troops shall land, – it will be necessary to have large quanties of these articles, in first instance, as a means to conciliate the affections of our allies.


The principal [21] article, of ordnance stores, of which we are deficient, is powder, and we shall not have a sufficiency of that article, even if the quantity expected by the alliance, should arrive safe and except we can borrow some, of the different states, we shall have rather a small allowance, for the contingencies of a siege.


[struck:  The] The shot, and shells, in this state, must be transported, to such parts of the North [inserted: River as shall] be proper relatively, to their safety, and the situation of our army – The shot, and shells in Pennsylvania, to be brought round by water, if there should be no probable danger from the enemy, - The military stores that shall be procur’d in Massachusetts and Rhode-Island, to be also brought round by water, under the same circumstances, and deposited at New-London, except such, as may be wanted, for immediate service.  those, which shall be obtaind from Connecticut, and Springfield, to be brought down the river; and deposited in some plaice, near its mouth untill they shall [22] be call’d for.


An Estimate of the material articles, wanted in the ordinance department, and necessary for a siege, [strike-out] together, with what we have on our possession, shall be made out, as speedily as possible, and [strike-out] [inserted: laid] before your Excellency.


Your Excellency asks, how far with safety to both Armies, could the french troop act seperately, or with a few continental troops? – In an operation against the Enemy in New-York, I do not conceive it would be prudent, either for the french, or us, to act separately. – The perfect knowledge of the Country, character, language, genius, and temper of the people which most of our officers possess, are circumstances, of infinite importance in favor of a junction of forces, and cannot possibly be gain’d by the french troops, in any considerable degree, in the course of a Campaign and the want of which, might [inserted: be] of the most fatal consequences both to us, and them –


I would propose that the french [23] troops as auxiliaries form the left wings of the first & second line and Corps of Repose commanded throughout by their own officers, and that all their out pickets have some continental soldiers mix’d with them, whose fidelity can be relied upon, and a continental officer, subordinate to the french officer commandg the picket. – There might be some reasons, adduced to support an opinion; for the troops to act seperately, but they are trivials when compared with the safety of the armies.


These are the outlines of the general plan of operations, which in my opinion, would be most proper for us to prosecute, – if my sentiments should in any considerate degree accord with your Excellencys Ideas on the subject, and you should wish to have any part explain’d or enlarg’d I shall [strike-out] [inserted: do it willingly]


I have the honor
to be with [inserted: the most perfect] respect and
Your Excellencys
Humble servant
H Knox


His Excellency
General Washington.


an opinion deliverd
23rd May 1780.
to His Excellency
General Washington