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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: Northern Front, 1775-1777
Defending Manhattan Island, September 1776

Often in war--as in other human activities--what one assumes is just as important in one's decision-making as verifiable "facts" of the matter. In addition, most decisions have to be made before necessary information is at hand. A case in point was Washington's attempt to defend New York City from Sir William Howe's army. As a result, the Army found itself nearly trapped by British forces on Manhattan Island. In the following documents, how did Washington and his advisors arrive at a decision to defend Manhattan Island in the face of British land and naval forces? What factors contributed to the decision to evacuate New York City?

View the original documents by clicking on the links below. The documents are from the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

Washington to Continental Congress, September 6, 1776.

Since my letter of the 4th, nothing very material has occurred, unless it is, that the [British] Fleet are drawing more together and all getting close in with Governor's Island. Their designs we cannot learn, nor have we been able to procure the least information lately, of any of their plans or intended operations.

As the Enemy's movements are very different from what we expected and from their large Encampments a considerable way up the Sound, there is reason to believe they intend to make a landing above or below Kings bridge and thereby to hem in our Army and cut off the communication with the Country; I mean to call a Council of General Officers to day or to morrow and endeavour to digest and fix on some regular and certain System of Conduct to be pursued, in order to baffle their efforts and counteract their Schemes and also to determine on the expediency of evacuating or attempting to maintain the City and the several posts on this Island.

Washington to Continental Congress, September 8, 1776.

. . . With these and many other circumstances before them, the whole Council of General Officers, met Yesterday, in order to adopt some general line of Conduct to be pursued at this important crisis; I intended to have procured their seperate opinions on each point, but time would not admit I was Obliged to collect their sense more generally than I could have wished; We all agreed that the Town was not tenable if the Enemy was resolved to bombard and Cannonade it: But the difficulties attending a removal operated so strongly, that a Course was taken between abandoning it totally and concentring our whole strength for its defence; nor were some a little influenced in their Opinion, to whom the determination of Congress was known, against an Evacuation totally; suspecting that Congress wished it to be maintained at every hazard, It was concluded to arrange the Army under three Divisions 5000 to remain for the defence of the City, 9000 to remove to Kingsbridge, as well to Possess and secure those Posts, as to be ready to Attack the Enemy, who are moving Eastward on long Island, if they should attempt to land on this side; The remainder to occupy the intermediate space and support either, that the sick should be immediately removed to Orange Town--and Barracks prepared at Kingsbridge with all expedition, to cover the Troops; there were some Generals in whose Judgments great confidence is to be reposed, that were for an immediate removal from the City, urging the great danger of one part of our Army being cut off, before the other can support it, The extremities being at least 16 Miles apart; that our Army when collected is inferior to the Enemy; that they can move with their whole force to any point of Attack and consequently must succeed, by weight of numbers, if they have only a part to oppose them; that by removing from hence we deprive the Enemy of the Advantage of their Ships, which will make at least one half of the force to attack the Town; that we keep them at bay, but put nothing to the hazard and at all events keep an Army together, which can be recruited another Year; that the unspent Stores will also be preserved, and in this case the heavy Artillery can be secured.--

But they were overruled by a Majority, who thought for the present a part of our force might be kept here and attempt to maintain the City a while longer. I am sensible a retreating Army is incircled with difficulties, that the declining an Engagement subjects a General to reproach and that the common Cause may be in some measure affected by the discouragements which it throws over the minds of many; nor am I insensible of the contrary effects, if a brilliant stroke could be made with any Probability of success, especially after our loss upon Long Island: but when the fate of America may be at stake on the Issue; when the Wisdom of cooler moments and experienced Men have decided that we should protract the War if Possible; I cannot think it safe or wise to adopt a different System, when the season for Action draws so near a close. That the Enemy mean to Winter in New York there can be no doubt; that with such an Armament they can drive us out is equally clear. The Congress having resolved, that it should not be destroyed, nothing seems to remain but to determine the time of their taking Possession It is our Interest and wish to prolong it, as much as possible, provided the delay does not affect our further measures. . . .

Washington to Continental Congress, September 14, 1776.

Sir: I have been duly honored with your favor of the 10th. with the Resolution of Congress which accompanied it, and thank them for the confidence they repose in my Judgment, respecting the evacuation of the City. I could wish to maintain it, Because It is known to be of importance, But I am fully convinced that it cannot be done, and that an attempt for that purpose, if persevered in, might and most certainly would be attended with consequences the most fatal and alarming in their nature.

Sensible of this, several of the General Officers since the determination of the Council mentioned in my last, petitioned that a second Council might be called to reconsider the propositions which had been before them upon the Subject. Accordingly I called one on the 12th.; when a large Majority not only determined a removal of the Army, prudent but absolutely necessary, declaring, they were entirely convinced from a full and minute inquiry into our situation, that it was extremely perilous and from every movement of the Enemy and the Intelligence received, their plan of Operations was to get in our Rear, and by cutting of the Communication with the Main, Oblige us to force a passage thro' them, on the Terms they wish, or to become prisoners in some short time for want of necessary Supplies of Provisions. We are now taking every Method in our Power to remove the Stores &ca. in which we find almost insuperable difficulties; They are so great and so numerous, that I fear we shall not effect the whole before we meet with some Interruption. I fully expected that an Attack some where, would have been made last night.

In that I was disappointed and happy shall I be, If my apprehension of one to Night or in a day or two, are not confirmed by the event. If it is deferred a while longer, I flatter myself all will be got away and our Force be more concentred and of course more likely to resist them with success.

Yesterday Afternoon Four Ships of War two of 40 and 2 of 28 Guns, went up the East River, passing between Governor's and Long Island and Anchored about a Mile above the City opposite Mr. Stivansents and where the Rose Man of War was laying before. The design of their going not being certainly known, gives rise to various conjectures; some supposing they are to cover the Landing of a part of the Enemy above the City: others that they are to assist in destroying our Battery on Horn's Hook, that they may have a free and uninterrupted navigation in the Sound. It is an object of great Importance to them, and what they are industriously trying to effect, by a pretty constant Cannonade and Bombardment.
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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.