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Knox, Henry (1750-1806) [Henry Knox's replies to questions posed by George Washington]

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC02437.00723 Author/Creator: Knox, Henry (1750-1806) Place Written: White Plains, New York Type: Manuscript document Date: 2 September 1778 Pagination: 5 p. : docket ; 30.5 x 18.3 cm.

In Shaw's hand, and signed for Knox by Shaw. Knox replies in detail to Washington's question, whether an eastward movement of the greater part of the Continental Army would be feasible. Knox writes, "I cannot see the propriety of such a measure at present, or that it would be warranted from the state of information which your Excellency gave to the Council last evening." Discusses the factors involved, including the strength of the French and British fleets near Newport, Rhode Island, and the status of American General John Sullivan's operation in Rhode Island. Considers the likelihood of British movement toward Boston. Supposes the British may conduct operations against Providence, Rhode Island. Suggests that a relatively strong force be left in the Hudson River Highlands if the Continental Army should move east. Advises against an attack on New York City, noting that the British have sufficient strength to successfully defend themselves. Argues that obtaining bread will be the greatest difficulty in supplying provisions to the Continental Army during an eastward movement. Duplicate of GLC02437.00724.

Similar in content to GLC02437.00722.

I shall give my opinion on the subjects proposed by your Excellency to your general officers with as much brevity as the matter will admit. The first of which is
"Whether a movement of the greater part of this Army to the Eastward, under the present information and circumstances will be eligible"?
I cannot see the propriety of such a measure at present, or that it would be warranted from the state of information which your Excellency gave to the Council last evening. Suppose the enemy's force at Rhode Island, including the reinforcements they may receive from New York to amount to ten thousand men. To what enterprize will this force be adequate, or what will be its object? Surely with 10,000 men, at this season of the year, they will not attempt to penetrate the country to Boston. If so, from what quarter will they probably procure the carriages and assistance necessary for such a project? I confess I know not. It will take a great number of carriages and horses, which cannot be procured from the country contiguous to Newport. Boston will be of little value to them supposing them to be possessed of it. Every person acquainted with the Country there will know that the force I have supposed will be unequal to the possession of Boston and the neighbouring country. Perhaps it may be urged, that the fleet of Count D' Estaing at Boston is an object of sufficient magnitude to warrant the supposition of [inserted: a] combined operation of the British fleet and army that way, to get possession [struck: of] or effect the destruction of this [2] this considerable armament, and thereby give England the ascendancy on the ocean during the war with France.
The probability of this supposition is founded on the existance of two circumstances, viz, The inferiority of the British to the French fleet and the destruction or capture of Sullivan's army - either of which being taken away or not existing must render the supposition not well grounded. If the troops under Gen. Sullivan get off from the Island without much injury they will be a sufficient stamina to collect the force of the country. The experience we have had of the militia when combined with continental troops will warrant the supposition, that if they "are not equal to totally stop the march of the British Army to Boston, it will retard them so much as to give time to this Army, or a great part of it, to arrive to their assistance. It is my opinion they would be able to totally stop the enemy, considering the roughness of the country, the difficulty of the enemy's obtaining intelligence and the want of the necessary carriages to transport provision &ca.
But suppose they should overcome all difficulties and arrive at Boston. The British fleet allowing it to be inferior to the french on a broad sea, where the whole force could be brought to act, would not be so in the channel leading to Boston by the castle, where, from its narrowness, it's not possible for two ships to lead abreast; and where a few hulks sunk (which are ready prepared) would make the approach above the castle impossible. The reduction of the castle island would be an arduous and extensive task, too unequal to the strength of 10,000 men, who [3] who would besides Boston be obliged to occupy a number of islands in the harbour. Boston, or either of the islands, being carried by the American Army, (which by this time it must be allowed would have arrived there) the whole enterprize would be frustrated, and the troops at the other ports, in all probability, made prisoners.
For these, and other reasons which might be urged, I am of opinion that the enemy have not extended their views so far as the reduction of Boston and the French fleet there. But should Gen. Sullivan's troops be captured, the event would be so great a misfortune to us and such a prodigious advantage to the enemy as to induce them to undertake enterprizes of which before they did not dream. A calamity so dreadful, even in supposition, would demand the immediate march of the greater part of this Army, to endeavor by its exertions to counteract the consequences which may be supposed to arrise from so unexpected an accident.
There is another expedition which the enemy may probably undertake, and that is against the town of Providence. The reinforcement will perhaps arrive at the period that Gen. Sullivan has effected his retreat from the island. He then will be at two or three days march from Providence, encumbered with his heavy cannon, which came from and [inserted: are] almost the only defence of Providence, and all his baggage and stores. The enemy in full possession of the waters, flushed with our retreat, having a formidable force, their troops ready embarked and only three or four hours sail from Providence, a rich, defenceless and [4] and obnoxious town, with a considerable quantity of shipping and stores. Under these circumstances, I think they would push and by a coup d' main destroy that town and its stores, which might be effected without any loss in 24 hours, or even risque. The army under your Excellency can have no possible agency in preventing an enterpize of this kind.

"2d - Supposing the Army to move to the eastward, what number of troops would be necessary to secure the passes in the highlands and the forts on the Hudson's river?"

The force to be left for the security of the forts and ports in the highlands I conceive should be relatively strong to those that the enemy may leave in New York. I suppose the question cannot be determined with precision until that circumstance be tollerably well ascertained.

"3d - Can any attack be made on New York, on the present information and circumstances, with probability of success.?"

The situation of the island of New York, surrounded by waters, is such as gives the party possessing the navigation a great superiority. The enemy having nine thousand men have force fully adequate to its defence against our Army. To batter their redoubts on this side Kingsbridge would require cannon and an apparatus of which we are destitute, and which would take time to procure. To attempt the redoubts by surprize would re -
[5] require a most perfect knowledge of their number, construction, strength and situation. Upon the acquisition of this knowledge, and the matter of risque on our part being fully weighed against the advantage of success, and the balance preponderating in favor of the latter, I should be for such an attempt. But I believe, on a trial, the reasons would be more powerful against the attempt than for it.
"4th - Supposing this Army to move Eastward, how shall it be supplied with provisions?"

Forage for the horses could be procured with ease. - meat, fresh and salt, for the troops - the difficulty would be in procuring bread. This perhaps can be done no otherways than by the QM Gen. making a proper arrangement of a large number of waggons to transport it from the Southern States. But it may be had, though it will require a judicious disposition and much pains and trouble to obtain it.

I am, with great respect,
Your Excellency's most obedient
humb Servt

Camp at White Plains,
2 Sept1778.

His Excellency General Washington.
Queries and Answers.
2 Sept1778.

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