WASHINGTON, George. Letter signed ("G:o Washington") as Commander-in-Chief, to Major General William Alexander, Lord Stirling (1726-1783), text in the hand of Tench Tilghman, "Mr. Lotts" [near Ramapo, N.J.], 26 July 1777. 1 2/3 pages, 4to, (9 1/8 x 7½ in.), light stain along one horizontal fold, obscuring a few words in two lines, one edge trimmed catching the final "n" in signature, three small holes neatly patched, verso with recipient's docket.
PREPARING TO DEFEND PHILADELPHIA, WASHINGTON PLANS A SUDDEN ATTACK ON BRITISH OUTPOSTS ON STATEN ISLAND
A fine wartime letter, revealing much about Washington's careful planning and flexible commmand style. Here, the commander-in-chief gives Stirling (recently named Brigadier General) precise instructions regarding his army's march, describes a plan he has formulated for a surprise attack on Staten Island--if intelligence indicates the wisdom of such an attack--but pointedly leaves the decision whether to attack at Sterling's sole discretion. Washington explains his detailed plan, gives Stirling responsibility for the attack, and cautions him not to take undue risks, since the American army is still too weak "to put anything to the hazard." Washington had waited months for an indication of the offensive intentions of the British force based in New York but on July 24th received word that the fleet, with General Howe's 15,000 men, had sailed for points unknown. Whether they would make a move up the Hudson River, against Philadelphia, Boston, or Charleston remained tantalizingly unclear. Once the British had cleared Sandy Hook, Washington decided that Philadelphia was the most likely target, and ordered several American units to proceed southward, as noted in this letter. But, with the British camps on Staten Island much depleted after Howe's departure, he sensed a significant opportunity for a surprise raid, plans for which are discussed here:
"Yours of the 24th overtook me at this place. Genl. [Nathanael] Greene's division will reach Morris Town this evening. Genl. [Adam] Stephen's and Genl. [Benjamin] Lincoln's march through Chester...I have no objection to your Lordship's taking the Rout[e] you mention, and as it will bring you near New Ark [Newark] and Elizabeth Town [New Jersey], I have sent orders to Colo. [Elias] Dayton to endeavour to procure certain intelligence of the Number of the Enemy left upon Staten Island and where they are posted. If they only consist of the Green Regiments amounting to about 1000 men, as a Deserter says, a descent [surprise attack] may be made to great Advantage. Colo. Dayton will procure all the Boats thereabouts previous to your coming and if upon your arrival you think the attempt practicable, you may make the tryal. That you may not go needlessly out of your Way, Colo. Dayton is to send an Officer to meet you, to acquaint you with his intelligence, from which you may judge whether it will be prudent to make an attack."
"Your Lordship is not by any means to understand the above as a positive order, but a matter left intirely to your own discretion, I would not have it undertaken if there is the smallest Risque, for I do not think we are at this time entitled to put any thing to the hazard."
In the end, Sterling's planned raid on Staten Island was aborted. Washington's flexible command style was at least partly dictated by the fact that his army was, by necessity, scattered in different posts and enemy intentions difficult to read. On some occasions, such as the battle of Monmouth, his confidence in subordinate officers like Charles Lee had nearly disastrous consequences. Published (from a retained draft, with minor differences), in Fitzpatrick 8:477.