“It it with great reluctance, I trouble you on a subject.”
In the throes of the winter of 1778, spent at Valley Forge, General George Washington and his staff formulated a mountain of paperwork to multiple recipients of the American cause. On February 16, 1778, Alexander Hamilton composed a letter for the commander-in-chief of the Continental army to a gentleman who had moved from the military to the political ranks; George Clinton of New York.
He had seen service in the Hudson Highlands and had been commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental army on March 25, 1777. Later that same year both governor and lieutenant governor of New York, formally resigning the latter and accepting the former on July 30, 1777. In that capacity, he received the letter, excerpts below, from Valley Forge.
“It is with great reluctance, I trouble you on a subject, which does not properly fall within your province; but it is a subject that occasions me more distress, than I have felt, since the commencement of the war; and which loudly demands the most zealous exertions of every person of weight and authority, who is interested in the success of our affairs.” I mean the present dreadful situation of the army for want of provisions and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity. It is more alarming, than you will probably conceive, for to form a just idea, it were necessary to be on the spot.2 For some days past, there has been little less, than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh & the rest three or four days.3 Naked and starving as they are, we cannot eno⟨ugh⟩ admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been, ere this, excited by their sufferings, to a general mutiny and dispersion. Strong symptoms however of discontent have appeared in particular instances; and nothing but the most active effort⟨s⟩ every where, can long avert so shocking a catastrophe.
Washington then asks for any help or supplies that Clinton can send his way, even though the army is outside the state lines of New York. Washington’s mindset is that the cause of the army in Pennsylvania is the cause of American independence and that Clinton, who had served would recognize that and do his utmost to provide what he can.
“I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upon so important an occasion, and from your well known zeal, I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit. I am sensible of the disadvantages it labours under, from having been so long the scene of war, and that it must be exceedingly drained by the great demands to which it has been subject, But though you may not be able to contribute materially to our relief, you can perhaps do something towards it; and any assistance, however trifling in itself, will be of great moment, at so critical a juncture, and will conduce to keeping the army together, ’till the Commissary’s department can be put upon a better footing, and effectual measures concerted to secure a permanent and competent supply. What methods you can take, you will be the best judge of; but if you can devise any means to procure a quantity of cattle or other kind of flesh, for the use of this army, to be at camp in the course of a month, you will render a most essential service to the common cause.“
Not only did Clinton receive this missive from Washington, dated February 16, but the following day Gouverneur Morris from a camp committee established by the Continental Congress also sent the New York governor a letter asking for any assistance he could provide for the army at Valley Forge.
These letters underscore the seriousness of the plight of the army encamped at Valley Forge as the winter slowly turned to spring. The action at Washington’s headquarters and from the camp committee helped create a path forward through that pivotal winter. To learn more about what transpired during those six months from December 1777 to June 1778, follow the link above to the “2022 Bus Tour” and join Emerging Revolutionary War on our second annual bus tour November 11-13, 2022.
The entire letter from Washington (Hamilton) to George Clinton can be found here.