State of New York
Nathanael Greene to George Washington.
Kingsbridge, New-York Island, September 5, '776
the critical situation which the army is in , will I hope, sufficiently apologize for my troubling your Excellency with this letter. The sentiments are dictated, I am sure, by an honest mind- a mind which feels deeply interested in the salvation of this country, and for the honor and reputation of the General under whom he serves.
The object under consideration is whether a general and speedy retreat from this island is necessary or not. To me it appears the only eligible plan to oppose the enemy successfully and secure ourselves from disgrace. I think we have no object on this side of King's Bridge. Our troops are now so scattered that one part may be cut off before the others can come to their support. In this situation, suppose the enemy should run up the North River several ships of force and a number of transports at the same time, and effect a landing between the town and middle division of the army; another party from Long Island should land right opposite; these two parties form a line across the island, and entrench themselves. The two flanks of this line could be easily supported by the shipping; the center, fort)fied with the redoubts, would render it very difficult if not impossible to cut our way through.
At the time the enemy are executing this movement or manoeuvre, they will be able to make sufficient diversions, if not real lodgments, to render it impossible for the centre and upper divisions of the army to afford any assistance here. Should this event take place (and by the by, I don't think it very improbable), your Excellency will be reduced to that situation which every prudent general would wish to avoid that is, of being obliged to fight the enemy to a disadvantage, or submit.
It has been agreed that the city of New-York would not be tenable if the enemy got possession of Long-Island and Governour's Island. They are now in possession of both these places. Notwithstanding, I think we might hold it for some time, but the annoyance must be so great as to render it an unfit place to quarter troops in. If we should hold it, we must hold it to a great disadvantage.
The city and island of New-York are no objects for us; we are not to bring them into competition with the general interests of America. Part of the army already has met with a defeat; the country is struck with a panicle; any capital loss at this time may ruin the cause. 'Tis our business to study to avoid any considerable misfortune, and to take post where the enemy will be obliged to fight us, and not we them.
The sacrifice of the vast property of New-York and the suburbs I hope has no influence upon your Excellency's measures. Remember the King of France. When Charles the Fifth, Emperor of Germany, invaded his kingdom, he hid whole provinces waste, and by that policy he starved and ruined Charles' army and defeated him without fighting a battle. Two-thirds of the property of the city of New-York and the suburbs belongs to the Tories. We have no very great reason to run any considerable risk for its defence. If we attempt to hold the city and island, and should not be able finally, we shall be wasting time unnecessarily and betray a defect of judgment, if no worse misfortune attend it.
I give it as my opinion that a general and speedy retreat is absolutely necessary, and thee the honour and interest of America require it. I would burn the city and suburbs, and that for the following reasons: If the enemy gets possession of the city, we never can recover the possession without a superior naval force to theirs; it will deprive the enemy of an opportunity of barracking their whole army together, which, if they could do, would be a very
great security. It will deprive them of a general market; the price of things would prove a temptation to our people to supply them for the sake of grain, in direct violation of the laws of their country.
All these advantages would result from the destruction of the city, and not one benefit can arise to us from its preservation that I can conceive of. If the city once gets into the enemy's hands, it will be at their mercy either to save or destroy it, after they have made what use of it they think proper