The Orders of the Continental Army For the Final Act of the Revolutionary War, Issued and Signed by General Henry Knox on Behalf of George Washington

He specifies the orders for the conduct of the Continental Army during the British evacuation of New York City, which was then under way

While General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 was decisive, it did not end the Revolutionary War. The British government had to receive word of the surrender and accept the meaning of the result, which took a number of months. On February 22, 1782, the House of Commons voted against...

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The Orders of the Continental Army For the Final Act of the Revolutionary War, Issued and Signed by General Henry Knox on Behalf of George Washington

He specifies the orders for the conduct of the Continental Army during the British evacuation of New York City, which was then under way

While General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 was decisive, it did not end the Revolutionary War. The British government had to receive word of the surrender and accept the meaning of the result, which took a number of months. On February 22, 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America. Two days later, British Prime Minister Lord North, who had promoted and run the war, resigned, and was succeeded by Lord Rockingham who sought immediate negotiations with the Americans. By early 1782 the British Army began withdrawing some troops from America, and Loyalists started fleeing to Canada. Peace talks in Paris began in April 1782 between Richard Oswald representing Great Britain and the American Peace Commissioners Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams. Negotiations were far along when the last battle of the Revolution was fought on November 10, 1782. The preliminary articles of peace were agreed upon just weeks later and signed on November 30. They recognized American independence and established borders for the new nation. On February 4, 1783, Great Britain announced a cessation of hostilities. The Continental Congress waited until word of the fact crossed the Atlantic and followed suit on April 11; this ended the fighting from the American point of view. At the end of May Congress passed a resolution to furlough the Continental Army, and with men already leaving, on June 13 Washington gave the military order for the main portion of the Continental Army to be furloughed.

The American Revolution officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, and on November 1 the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper reported the recent arrival of the exciting news that the “definitive treaty” had been signed. Anticipating this, on October 18, Congress proclaimed the discharge of men enlisted for the war, and to permit officers on furlough to retire from service. Eleven days later it supplemented that proclamation with an order to discharge the army as of November 4, 1783, with the exception of certain troops, mainly from Massachusetts, under the command of Gen. Henry Jackson who would remain. Jackson was a friend of Maj. General Henry Knox, who Washington selected to lead the army upon his resignation.

On November 2, 1783, Washington issued his farewell orders to the Continental Army; this emotional statement was the last communication in his name from Washington to his army: ”A contemplation of the complete attainment…of the object for which we contended against so formidable a power cannot but inspire us with astonishment and gratitude. The disadvantageous circumstances on our part…can never be forgotten. The…unparalleled perseverance of the Armies of the U States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle…He [Washington] presents his thanks in the most serious and affectionate manner to the General Officers, as well for their counsel on many interesting occasions, as for their Order in promoting the success of the plans he had adopted. To the Commandants of Regiments and Corps, and to the other Officers for their great zeal and attention, in carrying his orders promptly into execution. To the Staff, for their alacrity and exactness in performing the Duties of their several Departments. And to the Non Commissioned Officers and private Soldiers, for their extraordinary patience in suffering, as well as their invincible fortitude in Action. To the various branches of the Army the General takes this last and solemn opportunity of professing his inviolable attachment and friendship…It only remains for the Commander in Chief to address himself once more, and that for the last time, to the Armies of the United States (however widely dispersed the Individuals who composed them may be) and to bid them an affectionate, a long farewell.”

Meanwhile, for Washington and the civil authorities, much of the fall of 1783 was spent waiting for the last British commander in New York, General Guy Carleton, to evacuate the city, and dealing with the transfer of power that would occur then. In 18th century terms, the logistics of evacuation were staggering. There were 22,000 British soldiers in the city along with an institutional infrastructure seven years in the making that needed to be dissembled. In addition to the army, there were an estimated 35,000 loyalists within the city, almost all of whom would seek to take up the Crown’s offer of relocation, either to England itself or to other imperial outposts, particularly Canada and the Caribbean. Both Washington and New York’s governor George Clinton corresponded with Carleton so as to effect a seamless transfer of power and prevent any lawlessness. Carleton was particularly worried about harassment of his troops and ships, and violence against them, as they left. Governor Clinton assured him that safety measures would be taken. The correspondence concluded with Carleton telling Clinton and Washington that the evacuation would be completed on November 22, but in part because of inclement weather, this date was pushed up to November 25. On November 18, Clinton issued “Orders Relating to the Withdrawal of British Troops From the Various Posts in New York and Vicinity”, which specified how the evacuation would role out, and provided that American troops should remain close to their lines, and that Carleton’s navigation “will remain perfectly free till the final evacuation.”

On November 20, 1783, Washington, Clinton, and the army’s remaining soldiers marched from Tarrytown to Day’s Tavern in Harlem. The next day, November 21, they held a council which arranged the final details for Knox to take possession of the city, and for the procession after the evacuation to be joined in by Washington and Clinton.

Autograph document signed, completely in the hand of Henry Knox, Harlem, November 22, 1783, to brigade Major Bowles (Ralph Hart Bowles of Jackson’s Regiment), being the final orders issued to the Continental Army before the final act of the Revolution – the evacuation. In it, he instructs the Americans to abide by the orders issued on November 18 by Governor Clinton for the evacuation. “Please to publish immediately the following orders and the ordinances copies of which must be transmitted to officers commanding detachments.” He has signed at this point “H. Knox, Major General.” The document then continues with the orders: “The following ordinances of his Excellency Governor Clinton and the Council of this state are to serve as the rule of conduct to be observed by all officers commanding detachments. Then follows the ordinances – Major Prescott must post up this order & ordinances at the barrier of Fort Washington.” Thus these were to be both published to all commanders and posted up at Fort Washington (which was at the northwest corner of Manhattan).

The departure of the British on November 25, 1783, was the final act of the Revolutionary War. The city was then secured by American troops under Knox’s command, without a hitch in the evacuation. Washington and Clinton marched down Manhattan Island with 800 army troops in a glorious and triumphal procession. This was Washington’s last military action of the war.

Nine days later, on December 4, 1783, Washington summoned his military officers to Fraunces Tavern in New York City to inform them that he would be resigning his commission and returning to civilian life. Observers of the intimate scene there described Washington as “suffused in tears,” embracing his officers one by one after issuing his farewell. Washington left the tavern for Annapolis, Maryland, where he officially resigned his commission on December 23. He then returned to his beloved estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia, where he planned to live out his days as a gentleman farmer. But fate decreed otherwise.

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