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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: Northern Front, 1775-1777
At Trenton Falls, December 20, 1776

After chasing and harrassing the Continental Army through New Jersey for two months, General Howe rather inexplicably decided to go into winter quarters. He stationed British troops at seven camps (cantonments) from the Hudson to the Delaware Rivers. In the following letter from George Washington to the Continental Congress, how does Washington describe the situation he now faced? What evidence can you find that Washington was about to take the initiative?

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. . . The pay of our Artillerests bearing no proportion with that in the English or French Service, the Murmering and dissatisfaction thereby occasioned, and the absolute impossibility, as I am told, of getting them upon the old terms, and the unavoidable necessity of obtaining them at all events, have Induced me (also by advice) to promise Officers, and Men that their pay should be augmented 25 pr. Ct., or that their ingagements shall become null and void; this may appear to Congress premature, and unwarrantable; but Sir, if they view our Situation in the light it strikes their officers, they will be convinced of the Utility of the Measure, and that the Execution could not be delayed till after their Meeting at Baltimore; In short, the present exigency of our Affairs will not admit of delay, either in Council or the Field, for well convinc'd I am, that if the Enemy go into Quarters at all, it will be for a short Season; but I rather think the design of Genl. Howe is to possess himself of Phila. this winter, if possible (and in truth I do not see what is to hinder [prevent] him, as 10 days more will put an end to the existence of our Army [here Washington is referring to the fact that many soldiers' enlistments would expire at the end of the year]); that one great point, is to keep us as much harrassed as possible, with a view to injure the Recruiting Service, and prevent a Collection of Stores, and other necessaries for the next Campaign, I am as clear in as I am of my existence; if therefore in the short Interval we have to provide, and make these great and arduous preparations, every matter that in its nature is self evident, is to be refer'd to Congress, at the distance of 130 or 140 Miles, so much time must necessarily elapse, as to defeat the end in view.

It may be said that this is an application for powers that are too dangerous to be Intrusted. I can only add, that desperate diseases require desperate Remedies; and with truth declare, that I have no lust after power but wish with as much fervency as any Man upon this wide extended Continent, for an oppertunity of turning the Sword into a plow share. But my feelings as an Officer and a Man, have been such as to force me to say that no person ever had a greater choice of difficulties to contend with than I have; it is needless to add that short Inlistments, and a mistaken dependance upon Militia, have been the Origin of all our Misfortunes and the great accumulation of our Debt.

We find Sir, that the Enemy are daily gathering strength from the disaffected; this Strength like a Snow ball by rolling, will Increase, unless some means can be devised to check, effectually, the progress of the Enemy's Arms; Militia may, possibly, do it for a little while; but in a little while also, the Militia of those States which have been frequently called upon will not turn out at all or with so much reluctance and sloth as to amount to the same thing. Instance New Jersey! Witness Pennsylvania! Could any thing but the River Delaware have sav'd Philadelphia? Can any thing (the exigency of the case indeed may justify it), be more destructive to the recruiting Service than giving 10 Dollars Bounty for Six Weeks Service of the Militia; who come in you cannot tell how, go, you cannot tell when; and act, you cannot tell where; consume your Provisions, exhaust your Stores, and leave you at last in a critical moment. These Sir are the Men I am to depend upon Ten days hence,--this is the Basis on which your Cause will and must for ever depend, till you get a large standing Army, sufficient of itself to oppose the Enemy. I therefore beg leave to give it as my humble opinion that 88 Battalions are by no means equal to the opposition you are to make, and that not a Moment's time is to be lost in raising a greater number; not less in my opinion, and the opinion of my Officers than 110; it may be urged, that it will be found difficult enough to compleat the first Number, this may be true, and yet the Officers of 110 Battalions will recruit many more Men than those of 88. In my judgment this is not a time to stand upon expence; our funds are the only objects of Consideration. The State of New York have added one (I wish they had made it two) Battalions to their quota. If any good Officers offer to raise Men upon Continental pay and establishment in this Quarter, I shall encourage them to do so, and Regiment them when they have done it. If Congress disapprove of this proceeding, they will please to signify it, as I mean it for the best.

It may be thought that, I am going a good deal out of the line of my duty to adopt these Measures, or advise thus freely; A Character to loose, an Estate to forfeit, the inestimable Blessing of liberty at Stake, and a life devoted, must be my excuse.
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View the original document from the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.