Description

    Washington writes to John Hancock after the American loss at Brandywine Creek

    George Washington Letter Signed "Go: Washington," as Commander-in-Chief, two pages, 7.5" x 9.75", Reading Furnace, [Pennsylvania], September 18, 1777, to Continental Congress President John Hancock concerning the deteriorating situation around Philadelphia following the American loss at Brandywine Creek. With integral address leaf bearing Washington's franking signature. Docket bears an Autograph Endorsement in the hand of John Hancock.

    An important letter written in the midst of the Philadelphia campaign, Washington opens by informing Hancock that he had received his letter of the 17th "last night with Governor Livingston and Genl. Dickinson's Letters..." but conceding that "It is out of my power to do more than I already have for checking the Enemies progress in Jersey, and I should hope, that will be the case as soon as the Troops ordered from Peekskill arrive to reinforce the militia assembling under General Dickinson." Washington was losing men quickly. Eleven days following Brandywine, Washington's army, having marched over 150 miles in miserable weather with scant provisions, was reduced by 50% to a mere 6,000 men. In response, he ordered Israel Putnam in Peekskill, New York, to send 2,500 reinforcements together with the New Jersey militia under General Dickinson. (See Mark M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, 1966 ed., p. 860).

    Washington, faced with a superior British army to his south, was already attempting two contradictory things at once: protect the army's supply sources in the Pennsylvania interior while attempting to block Howe from capturing the American capital at Philadelphia. Following the loss at Brandywine, panic set in at Philadelphia. The day Washington wrote this letter, Hancock and the Continental Congress were preparing to flee the city. The army's supplies in the city had been removed. Washington observed "that all the Continental Stores which have been removed from Philadelphia were at Trenton on the 16h according to Genl. Dickinsons Letter. That place, in the first instance, was fixed on thro' necessity and conveying 'em there was better than to leave them where they were; But I am clear in opinion, that they should not be suffer'd to remain there a moment longer than can be avoided, and I would beg leave to recommend that the earliest and most vigorous measures should be adopted for removing 'em to Allen Town in North Hampton County." Moving the stores further north placed them safely out of reach of British raiding parties.

    On September 26, British forces marched into Philadelphia unopposed. Congress reassembled in Lancaster and soon afterward, York, Pennsylvania. John C. Fitzpatrick, in the Writings of George Washington, notes that the next day Washington received advice from Congress: "The necessity of a speedy removal of Congress from Philadelphia, and the uncertainty as to the time of the next meeting, moved Congress to confer powers upon Washington which practically made him a dictator." (John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Vol. 9, p. 235-237.)

    Following Brandywine, Washington had first moved eastward to Germantown, and then doubled back toward Lancaster where he chose to make a stand at Warren's Tavern. On September 16, two days before the date of this letter, Howe obliged Washington and advanced on the American position. However, just as British forces began flanking movements, a sudden downpour soaked the gunpowder on both sides rendering battle impossible. Washington ordered his forces northward to Reading Furnace in order to regroup, carry out vital repairs, and replenish their powder supply. Save for a contingent under the command of Anthony Wayne at Paoli, Philadelphia, lay exposed to the British. In this letter to Hancock, Washington notes the British movement against Swede's Ford, where Washington had placed Wayne's two brigades: "From advices receiv'd yes[ter]day morning & last Night, It apprear'd that [the] Enemy we[re] [p]ushing being a considerable force to the white Horse Tavern with a view it was proposed to fall on our right flank. This induced us to proceed this morning to this place where we are cleaning our arms with the utmost assiduity & replacing our cartridges, which unfortunately were mostly spoil'd by the heavy rain on Tuesday [September 16]. By Some of our Light Horsemen, this moment com in, It is said, the Enemy are advancing on the road toward Swedes Ford. As soon, as possible, the Troops will be put in motion, but I am doubtful whether that can be done before tomorrow morning for want of Provisions, which has impeded our movements very considerably, since we pass'd Schuylkill last."

    Wayne's force would suffer a terrible catastrophe the following night (September 20-21) when a British detachment surprised them in camp resulting in a mêlée that killed 50 Continentals. Washington was too far off to come to his assistance. The Continental Army would have one more chance to attack Howe on October 4 at Germantown. Though the battle was a loss and the Americans suffered high casualties, the action was considered a morale booster in light of the boldness of the action. Washington was powerless to dislodge Howe from Philadelphia, and with the fall of the Delaware River Forts later in the autumn, Howe settled in for the winter. Washington moved his army into winter quarters at Valley Forge in December 1777.

    Fitzpatrick notes a draft of this letter in the hand of Robert Hanson Harrison, although this draft appears to be in the hand of Richard Kidder Meade. Meade, a Virginia native, served as one of Washington's aides-de-camp from March 1777 to 1780. As aide to Washington, he supervised the construction of huts at Valley Forge. He later served under General von Steuben in Virginia. Letter published in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 9, p. 235-237. John Hancock dockets the letter "General Washington Dated Read[in]g Furnace Sep. 18, 1777"

    Usual fold;, small loss to first leaf repaired on verso affects three words. Losses to address leaf repaired with tissue; light toning at margin; fold affects Washington's franking signature on address leaf, else very good condition.




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