Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Letters from the Front: Prologue to the Retreat Across the Jerseys

"We are now, thank God, and the inertness of the Enemy, in a very tolerable secure condition"

General Charles Lee's November 2, 1776, letter came at the breathing point between the Battle of White Plains and the total collapse of American efforts to keep the British Army contained in the vicinity of New York. Following the Battle of Pell's Point, Washington withdrew the Continental Army to the small village of White Plains, near which he fought General William Howe's redcoated forces on October 28th. The British succeeded in driving Washington off the high ground near White Plains, but did not destroy or seriously maul his forces. In the aftermath of that engagement, Washington held a council of war to determine the best strategy for the upcoming winter season. As a result of that meeting, Washington divided his forces into three parts. One, under Lee's command, took post on the eastern shore of the Hudson to prevent at British attempts to invade New England. General William Heath took another detachment further up the river to guard against any attack on Albany. The final portion of the army, under Washington's personal command, took post at Fort Lee, across the North River from Fort Washington. From this relative point of security, the Continentals waited to see what the British forces would do next. As Lee's letter below demonstrates, the general lost no time in writing to Pennsylvanian Dr. Benjamin Rush, waxing eloquent on the past campaign and lodging a series of complaints about various shortcomings. See the full text of the letter below, as painstakingly transcribed by Library volunteer Andrew Dauphinee. The entire staff can attest to the difficulty of reading the good general's handwriting!


Sol Feinstone Collection No. 791
Charles Lee to Benjamin Rush, Camp at Philipsburg 2 November 1776                       
Transcribed by Andrew Dauphinee September 2011
                                                                                    Camp at Philipsburg Nov. ye 2d 1776
Dr Rush
            A Dragoon Deserter from Burgoyn’s Regt will deliver you this – He is a very intelligent fellow and, I believe very honest. He is by trade a Weaver and I recommend him to your protection, by which I mean that you will put him in the best way to avail himself of his weaving talents. We are now, thank God, and the inertness of the Enemy, in a very tolerable secure condition – Mr Howe has but two moves by which he can distress us, and I flatter myself We shall be able to check-mate him in both – the various Skirmishes We have had with him have been rather favorable to us than the reverse – three of the four have fallen on my division – Glover, an admirable officer & acting Brigadier fairly beat ‘em – a shooting match betwixt the Riflemen [&] Hessian Chesseurs demonstrated our superiority at this game – the Parties were good in numbers, and We won the match We lost but one Man, buryed ten of theirs and took three. M’c Dougal, it is true, in the last affair was oblig’d to retreat by the superiority of their Artillery: but He lost no credit: the loss on their side was very considerable in short He is a sensible brave Officer [pg. 1]
            When We are once fairly out of this damnd culdesac I think you will hear good accounts of us; We shall I am persuaded, harass em most damnably – our only distressess Seem to me to arise from a total want of method and a little narrow dirty oeconomy in all things relating to the hospital and Quarter Master General departments – thrice since my arrival have We been in the jaws of perdition from a scarcity of teams – for Gods sake get some Military Men into your Senate, for inter nos [entre nous*] all the resolves of Congress relative to Military affairs are absurd ridiculous and ruinous. They raise the laughter and provoke the indignation of evry Man of common sense – Where is the cloathing so long promised for the Army – Why do you not make an handsome establishment for Engineers? We have three very able Foreigners in my family and you put New-England Carpenters at the head of this important Department. Why have you not magazines establishd in evry various Provinces It woud be curious oeconomy in a Master of a Family who kept a constant table to send evry day to the tavern for bottles of Wine rather than lay in a few pipes in his cellar. & Just so, You act [pg. 2] as it is most probable that the operations in this part of the world will cease in three weeks or a month, I must intreat your High Mightiness to let me return to my southern district, as I dread the podagraferous quality of this freezing Climate. dont you think it possible the Enemy may direct their course towards Philadelphia when They find themselves baffled here? a Corps of observation should in my opinion be stationd at Trenton or Bristol – It is late-- God bless you
                                                                                    Good night My Love to the Lee’s
                                                                                    and Bob Morris – yours, dr Rush
                                                                                                most sincerely –
                                                                                                            Charles Lee
P S.
            I wish you woud desire little Bass to send me the bottle of Panacea [pg 3]”

*French for “between us”

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