Recipient: Parsons, Samuel Holden
John Adams to General Parsons
[dateline] Philadelphia October 2. 1776. Wednesday
[salute] My dear Sir
Your Letter from Long Island of the 29th. of August,11
has not been answered. I was very much obliged to You, for it: because it contained Intelligence of a transaction, about which, We were left very much in the dark, at that time, and indeed to this hour, are not so well informed as We should be. I think, Sir, that the Enemy, by landing upon that Island, put it compleatly in our Power to have broke their plans, for this Campaign, and to have defended New York. But there are strong Marks of Negligence, Indolence, Presumption, and Incapacity on our Side, by which scandalous Attributes We lost that Island wholly, and Manhattan Island nearly. I am happy to hear your Behaviour commended. But, Sir, it is manifest that our Officers were not acquainted with the Ground; that they had never reconnoitred the Enemy; that they had neither Spies, Sentries, nor Guards placed as they ought to have been; and that they had been shamefully remiss in Obtaining Intelligence, of the Numbers and Motions of the Enemy, as well as of the nature of the Ground.
I have read, somewhere or other that a Commander, who is surprized in the night, though guilty of an egregious fault, may yet plead something in Excuse: but, in point of discipline, for a General to be surprized by an Enemy, just under his nose, in open day and caught in a State of wanton Security, from an overweening presumption in his own Strength, is a crime of so capital a nature, as to admit of neither Alleviation nor Pardon.12
Ancient Generals have been nailed to Gibbets alive, for such crimes.
Be this as it may, I think the Enemy have reached their Ne plus, for this Year. I have drawn this Conclusion from the Example of Hannibal, whose Conquests changed the face and fortune of the War. According to Montesquieu, so long as he kept his whole Army together, he always defeated the Romans: but when he was obliged to put Garrisons into Cities, to defend his Allies, to besiege Strong holds, or prevent their being besieged, he then found himself too weak, and lost a great part of his Army by piece meal. Conquests are easily made, because We atchieve them with our whole force: they are retained with difficulty because We defend them, with only a part of our forces.
Howe, with his whole Army could easily take Possession of Staten Island, where there was nothing to oppose him. With the same Army, he found no great difficulty, in getting Long Island, where even his Talent at Strategem, which is very far from Eminent, was superiour to the Capacity of his Antagonist. After this it was easy to take New York which was wisely abandoned to him. But, Sir, the Case is altered. A Garrison is left at Staten Island, another at Long Island, a little one at Montresor's Island, another at Paulus Hook, a large Body in the City of New York and a larger still to man the Lines, across the Island, between the Seventh and the Eighth mile Stone. After such a division and distribution of his forces, I think he has nearly reached the End of his tether for this Year.
The Ennemies Forces are now in a Situation peculiarly happy, for Us to take Advantage of.... If an enterprizing Spirit should be indulged and encouraged, by our Commanders, in little Expeditions to Staten Island, Long Island, Montresors Island and elsewhere, you would gradually form your Soldiers for great Exploits and you would weaken, harrass and dispirit your Enemy.
Thus you see I scribble my Opinions with great Assurance, upon Subjects, which I understand not. If they are right, it is well, if wrong they will not mislead you.
[addrLine] General Parsons.