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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: Northern Front, 1775-1777
The Results of the Battle of Long Island

The Battle of Long Island was a disaster for the Continental Army. Matters could have been even worse had British General Sir William Howe continued his assault rather than deciding to undertake siege operations. In the following two letters from George Washington to the Continental Congress, how does Washington describe the effects of the battle? What major problems does he now face? Why does Washington believe that militias are ineffective and the Congress must establish a permanent standing army?

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George Washington to Continental Congress, August 31, 1776.

Sir: Inclination as well as duty, would have induced me to give Congress, the earliest information of my removal of the Troops from Long Island and its dependencies to this City, the night before last; but the extreme fatigue, which myself and family have undergone (as much from the Weather as any thing else) since the incampment of the 27th. rendered me entirely unfit to take a pen in hand. Since Monday, we have scarce any of us been out of the Lines, till our passage across the East River was effected yesterday Morning, and for the 48 hours preceeding that; I had hardly been off my horse and had never closed my Eyes, so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate till this Morning.

Our Retreat was made without any loss of Men or Ammunition and in better order than I expected, from Troops in the Situation ours were; we brought off all our Cannon and Stores, except a few heavy pieces, (which in the condition the Earth was, by a long continued rain) we found upon tryal impracticable; the Wheels of the Carriages sunk up to the Hobbs, and rendered it impossible for our whole force to drag them; We left but little Provisions on the Island, except some Cattle, which had been driven within our Lines and which after many attempts to force across the Water, we found impossible to effect. I have inclosed a Copy of the Council of War held previous to the Retreat, to which I beg leave to refer Congress for the reasons or many of them that led to the adoption of that measure.

In the Engagement on the 27th. Generals Sullivan and Stirling were made prisoners; The former has been permitted on his parole to return for a little time. From Lord Stirling I had a Letter by General Sullivan, a Copy of which I have the honor to transmit. It contains his Information of the Engagement with his Brigade. It is not so full and certain as I could wish, he was hurried most probably, as his Letter was unfinished. Nor have I been yet able to obtain an exact amount of our Loss, we suppose it from 700 to a 1000 killed and taken. General Sullivan says Lord Howe is extremely desirous of seeing some of the Members of Congress, for which purpose he was allowed to come out and to communicate to them what has passed between him and his Lordship. I have consented to his going to Philadelphia, as I do not mean or conceive it right to withhold or prevent him from giving such Information as he possesses, in this Instance.

I am much hurried and engaged in arranging and making new Dispositions of our Forces, the movements of the Enemy requiring them to be immediately had, and therefore have only time to add that I am, with my best regards to Congress, and to you. Their and your &ca.

George Washington to Continental Congress, September 2, 1776.

Sir: As my Intelligence of late has been rather unfavorable and would be received with anxiety and concern, peculiarly happy should I esteem myself, were it in my power at this Time, to transmit such Information to Congress, as would be more pleasing and agreeable to their wishes: But unfortunately for me, unfortunately for them, It is not.

Our situation is truly distressing. The Check our Detachment sustained on the 27th. Ulto. has dispirited too great a proportion of our Troops and filled their minds with apprehension and dispair. The Militia, instead of calling forth their utmost efforts to a brave and manly opposition, in order to repair our Losses, are dismayed, Intractable and Impatient to return. Great numbers of them have gone off, in some instances almost by whole Regiments, by half ones and by Companies at a Time. This circumstance of itself, Independent of others, when fronted by a well appointed Enemy, superior in number to our whole collected force, would be sufficiently disagreeable, but when their example has Infected another part of the Army, When their want of discipline and refusal, of almost every kind of restraint and Government, have produced a like conduct but too common to the whole, and an entire disregard of that order and Subordination necessary to the well doing of an Army, and which had been inculcated before, as well as the nature of our Military establishment would admit of, our Condition is still more Alarming, and with the deepest concern I am obliged to confess my want of confidence, in the generality of the Troops. All these circumstances fully confirm the Opinion I ever entertained, and which I more than once in my letters took the Liberty of mentioning to Congress, That no dependence could be in a Militia or other Troops than those enlisted and embodied for a longer period than our regulations heretofore have prescribed. I am persuaded and as fully convinced, as I am of any one fact that has happened, that our Liberties must of necessity be greatly hazarded, If not entirely lost, If their defence is left to any but a permanent standing Army, I mean one to exist during the War. Nor would the expence incident to the support of such a body of Troops as would be competent almost to every exigency, far exceed that which is daily incurred, by calling in Succour and new Inlistments, and which when effected are not attended with any good consequences. Men who have been free and subject to no controul, cannot be reduced to order in an Instant, and the Priviledges and exemptions they claim and will have, Influence the Conduct of others, and the aid derived from them is nearly counterbalanced by the disorder, irregularity and confusion they Occasion. I can not find that the Bounty of Ten Dollars is likely to produce the desired effect. When men can get double that sum to engage for a month or two in the Militia and that Militia frequently called out,--It can hardly be expected. The addition of Land might have a considerable Influence on a permanent Inlistment Our number of men at present fit for duty are under 20,000. They were so by the last return and best accounts I could get, after the Engagement on Long Island, since which numbers have deserted.
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View the original documents by clicking on the links above. The documents are from the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.