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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: The Turning Point, 1777-1778
Washington Speculates About General Howe's Intentions, August 21, 1777

By the end of August 1777, British General William Howe had embarked his army onto British ships. Howe's destination, however, was uncertain. According to the following letter from Washington to the Continental Congress, what does Washington think Howe will do? What does Washington say his army can do to counter Howe's presumed movement?

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Sir: From the time which has elapsed, since Genl. Howe departed from the Capes of Delaware, there is the strongest reason to conclude, that he is gone either to the Eastward or Southward, and with a design to execute some determined plan. The danger of the Sea, the injury his Troops and Horses must sustain from being so long confined, the loss of time so late in the Campaign, will scarcely admit the supposition, that he is merely making a feint and still intends to return either to Delaware or the North River, without performing some enterprize first, in another Quarter. The probability is in favor of a Southern Expedition; because he has been seen, since his departure from the Capes, off Sinapuxent, steering a Southern course; and because, had his destination been to the Eastward, his arrival there from the general State of the Winds must have announced It before this, or his Fleet would have been discovered by some of the Cruisers on that Coast. If he is gone to the Southward, he must be gone far that way; For had Chesapeak Bay been his Object, he would have been there long since, and the Fact well established. Beyond that, there is no place short of Charles Town, of Sufficient importance to engage his attention. The extensive commerce, the vast accumulation of Military and other Stores in that Town, and its dependencies, with the eclat it would give his Arms, if he should unfortunately take it, afford him stronger inducements to direct his Operations there, than he could possibly have elsewhere.

Matters being thus circumstanced, an Important Question arises, How this Army is to be employed. If his Intentions are such, as I have supposed them, It appears to me, that an attempt to follow him, would not only be fruitless, but would be attended with ruinous consequences. The distance is so immense, that Genl. Howe might accomplish every purpose he had in view, before we could possibly arrive to oppose him, and so long a march, through an unhealthy climate at this season would debilitate and waste a principal part of our Force. Added to this, after we had made a considerable progress, he might easily reimbark his Troops, and turn his Arms against Philadelphia or elsewhere, as he should think proper, without our being in a Condition to give the least aid.

As these, and many Other reasons, which will readily occur to Congress, will shew the impracticability of our counteracting Genl Howe in that Quarter, with any good effect, we have no other alternative left, than to remain here idle and inactive, on the remote probability of his returning this way, or to proceed towards Hudson's River, with a view of opposing Genl Burgoyne [with the greater part of our force,] or making an attempt on York Island, as the Situation of affairs shall point out. A successful Stroke, with respect to either, would be attended with the most signal advantages, and would be the best compensation we could make, for any losses we may sustain to the Southward. Besides these considerations, if after all our conjectures and reasoning upon the Subject, Genl. Howe should be gone to the Eastward, to co-operate with Mr. Burgoyne, the Army will be, by the movement proposed, so far on its way to prevent, I hope, the success of his Enterprize.

As the Northern department has been all along considered as separate and in some measure distinct; and there are special Resolves, vesting the Command in particular persons; in case it should hereafter appear eligible to unite the Two Armies, it may perhaps be necessary that Congress should place the Matter upon such a footing, as to remove all scruples or difficulties about the Command that could possibly arise on my arrival there. This I request, from a disposition to harmony, and from my knowing the ill and fatal consequences, that have often arisen from such controversies, and not from the most distant apprehension that one would take place upon such an Event. The Thing, However, is possible and to guard against it can do no injury. I have the honor &ca.
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View the original document from the George Washington Papers. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.