Virtual Marching Tour of the American Revolutionary War

The Conway Cabal

In our time George Washington's name is virtually unsullied and unassailable. So it's difficult to comprehend that, like anyone serving in a public capacity for half a century, he had his detractors, especially when things were not going well.

During the dismal autumn of 1777, these detractors included Granny Gates, an American general, a factious Congressional clique, Benjamin Rush, the highly esteemed "Father of American Medicine," and a certain ambitious foreign officer named Thomas Conway. They were all critical of Washington's handling of the war and they all wanted Washington replaced. Whether they united deliberately to form a "cabal," or plot, is debatable; regardless, their sniping, griping, and machinations have come to be known as the "Conway Cabal."

George Washington learned of a letter written by Conway to Gates that called him a weak general; he learned of anti-Washington talk in Congress; and he was aware of broadsides, letters, and talk questioning his abilities. This "cabal" so frustrated and embittered Washington that he indicated that he would resign from the army if his performance continued to be brought into question.

Portait of Horatio Gates
by Charles Wilson Peale
National Portait Gallery

The campaign of 1777 was, by most estimations, the low point of Washington's military career. He retreated from Brandywine and he let slip away a probable triumph in the fog at the Battle of Germantown. Meanwhile his countryman General Horatio Gates had won a smashing victory at Saratoga. There was a desire expressed within the military and within Congress to have the commander in chief sent home to Mount Vernon and to replace him with the more successful Gates.

Among Washington's detractors in Congress were Samuel Adams, Thomas Mifflin, and Richard Henry Lee. This group was dissatisfied with many aspects of the war - ranging from how supplies were procured, to battlefield performance, to the supervision of soldiers by the commander in chief.

Benjamin Rush
by Charles Wilson Peale
Second Bank Portait Gallery
Indepndence National Historic Park

Benjamin Rush
by Thomas Sully
Pine Center Building, University of Pennsylvania Hospital

One of the most vocal critics of Washington's handling of troops was Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Father of American Medicine. This Signer of the Declaration of Independence, though no longer a member of Congress, was a respected army physician. He wrote a scathing, though unsigned letter to Patrick Henry, disparaging Washington's generalship and commending General Gates who was at the head of the northern army. In this letter was the following:

The northern army has shown us what Americans are cable of doing with a GENERAL at their head. The spirit of the southern army is no ways inferior to the spirit of the northern. A Gates, a Lee, or a Conway would in a few weeks render them an irresistible body of men.

In a separate letter Rush wrote, "The present management of our army would depopulate America if men grew among us as speedily & spontaneously as blades of grass."

John Adams, Rush's best friend, echoed the doctor's disgust, "I am sick of Fabian systems in all quarters!"

Thomas Conway's name will forever be linked to the criticism of Washington due to his conspicuous attacks on the General.

After Conway's able performance at the Battle of Brandywine on September 21, 1777, General Sullivan wrote: "His regulations in his Brigade are much better than any in the Army, and his knowledge of military matters far exceeds any officer we have." (It was in rallying Conway's Brigade at Brandywine that the Marquis de Lafayette was wounded in the leg.)

Buoyed by his own bravery at Brandywine, Conway wrote a boastful letter to Congress asking for a promotion to major general. Such a promotion would have hopscotched him over many senior brigade leaders. While he waited for a reply from Congress, Conway continued disparaging Washington. He was overheard saying, "as to his (Washington's) talents for the command of an Army, they were miserable indeed."

When Washington got wind of Conway's self-important letter to Congress, he wrote to Richard Henry Lee protesting any appointment of Conway. "General Conway's merit, then, as an Officer, and his importance in this Army, exist more in his own imagination than in reality: For it is a maxim with him, to leave no service of his own untold, nor to want any thing which is to be obtained by importunity..." Washington goes on to write that promoting Conway would also have a disastrous effect on the morale of his longer-serving, more devoted officers who might resign. Washington continues,

To Sum up the whole, I have been a Slave to the service: I have undergone more than most Men are aware of, to harmonize so many discordant parts, but it will be impossible for me to be of any further service, if such insuperable difficulties are thrown in my way...

Some have suggested that Washington was oversensitive to criticism. But gossip, innuendo, and direct criticism flew about the commander in chief like grapeshot. Likely, he was privy to the reports sent from South Carolina Congressman Henry Laurens to his son John, who was an officer on Washington's staff. These letters were full of juicy anti-Washington whisperings floating about Congress. Laurens, who would later be President of Congress, cannily never named these "Actors, accommodators, Candle snuffers, Shifters of scene and Mutes" who impugned Washington.

Then there were annoyances such as the circulation of an anonymous paper entitled, "Thoughts of a Freeman," written by Washington's enemies in Congress. It was critical of Washington's generalship, and particularly critical of the apotheosizing cult that had grown around him: "The people of America have been guilty of making a man their God."

James Lovell, a Massachusetts delegate to Congress, and anti-Washingtonian wrote to Samuel Adams to complain about his fellow delegates, calling them, "privy Councillors to one great Man whom no Citizen shall dare even to talk about, say the Gentleman of the Blade." In other words, Lovell was concerned that various members of congress were unwilling to hear criticism of the General, while the General's defenders within the military were willing to defend his reputation with their swords. Lovell proved prescient as we shall see later.

Conway and the "weak General" letter

In late October 1777 Conway wrote a letter to General Gates which would bring the situation to a boil. It contained the following paragraph:

"Heaven has been determind to save your Country; or a weak General and bad Coucellors would have ruined it."

As to Conway's motivations in writing Gates, only speculation serves. Perhaps he wished a transfer to Gates's army; perhaps it was part of his overall self-promoting public relations campaign; perhaps it was to rouse anti-Washington sentiment.

Washington received word of the letter in a roundabout manner. A Gates aide, General James Wilkinson, was visiting the headquarters of the American officer Lord Stirling. Apparently while drunk, Wilkinson revealed the contents of the letter to a Stirling officer, Major McWilliams, who relayed its contents to Stirling. Stirling, mortified by "such wicked duplicity of conduct" felt obligated to report the letter's contents to Washington. In turn, Washington fired off a brief letter to Conway letting the upstart know that the contents of his letter had been exposed. Conway wrote back immediately saying falsely that he had never called Washington "a weak General." He went on to write that while he considered Washington a "brave man" he also thought that the general had been "influenced by men who were not equal to him in point of experience, knowledge or judgment." Now he had not only disparaged the General, but his staff as well.

On November 14 Conway offered his resignation to Congress. In enumerating reasons for his resignation he cited the rebuff by Washington, but also Congress's failure to promote him, and the promotion of Baron de Kalb who had held a lower rank than Conway in the French army. Congress passed Conway's letter on to the Board of War, whose members included the influential Thomas Mifflin.

Washington's foes promote Conway

While the War Board considered Conway's resignation, political foes of Washington in Congress promoted Conway to the newly formed position of Inspector General, which bore the rank major general. The Inspector General (ironically the post was conceived by Washington after a suggestion by a foreign volunteer) was to devote himself full time to the preparing of a training manual and assembling and implementing a guide to military maneuvers. Conway would work alongside Washington who was now at Valley Forge but would be responsible only to the War Board. To add insult to injury as far as Washington was concerned, Congress had appointed Horatio Gates as President of the Board of War, on November 27, 1777.

Bust portrait of Baron Johann de Kalb
by Charles Wilson Peale
Second Bank Portait Gallery
Independence National Historic Park

War of the Letters

Naturally, when Conway arrived at cold Valley Forge on December 29, Washington gave him the cold shoulder. Inspector General Conway began to shrink before Washington's wrathful eye and icy formality. In one charged exchange of letters, Washington wrote to Conway asking him how he intended to conduct business. Conway wrote back to the effect that if Washington found his service "disagreeable" that "I am very ready to return to France." Washington shot back that while he was very willing to work with Congress and accept their decisions, members of his staff felt slighted by Conway's promotion - particularly in light of how Conway complained after Baron de Kalb's promotion.

Given enough time a loose cannon will shoot himself in the foot. Conway wrote another letter to Washington:

We know but the great Frederick in Europe and the great Washington in this continent. I certainly never was so rash as to pretend to such a prodigious height. By the complexion of your letter and by the reception you have honored me with since my arrival, I perceive that I have not the happiness of being agreeable to your Excellency and that I can expect no support in fulfilling the laborious duty of the Inspector General.

On January 2, 1778, Washington forwarded Conway's diatribe to Congress along with a cover letter. In his letter, Washington confessed personal disdain for Conway but made it clear it never affected the professional manner in which business was conducted nor was the support Conway expected ever withheld.

Placing Blame and Covering Up

Conway had tracked down that it was Wilkinson who revealed the content of his letter to Gates. He reported this to Thomas Mifflin, who chastised Gates for being careless with his letters.

Gates then wrote a letter concurrently to Washington and Congress. In it he asks for assistance in discovering the means by which Washington came in possession of Conway's letter to him. "Those Letters have been Stealingly copied," he wrote. Washington could do "a very important service, by detecting the wretch who may betray me, and capitally injure the very operations," he wrote. This was the first time that Washington discovered that Gates and Conway had been exchanging disparaging correspondence behind his back. Washington wrote back to Gates. In opening he expresses his dismay at Gates having sent the letter to both himself and Congress, questioning the motives, and then responding by doing the same himself, "lest any Member of that Honbl. body, should harbour an unfavourable suspicion of my having practiced some indirect means, to come at the contents of the confidential Letters between you and General Conway." He then revealed the sequence of events and goes on to say that the act rather than being one of betrayal of Gates was intended rather as an act of "Justice." Washington further stated that he had revealed the contents of Conway's letter to no one outside his family except the Marquis de Lafayette and then only upon demand and with the oath of secrecy. Washington stated that he was desirous of "concealing every matter that could, in its consequences give the smallest Interruption to the tranquility of this Army, or afford a gleam of hope to the enemy by dissentions therein."

Fulfulling Lovell's prediction, Gates challenged Wilkinson to a duel. The challenge was not accepted.

Congress Reviews the Matter

The Cabal collapsed on January 19 when Conway and Gates made a trip to Congress sitting at York. They went before Congress to try and clear their names but would not reveal the original "weak general" letter which was the catalyst for the cabal. Lafayette delegated himself spokesman for the French court. He did his utmost to convey the conviction that France regarded Washington as one and the same with the American cause. France could not even conceive of another commander, he implied. Eventually, that would be the French attitude, but only after Lafayette's efforts - especially his year of personal lobbying in France in 1779 - had worked to make it so.

As we have seen other officers remained loyal to Washington throughout the affair, from the brigadier generals protesting Conway's promotion to the colonels writing anti-Wilkinson memorials to Congress.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
John Trumbull, 1806
National Gallery of Art

Another staunch ally was aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, a master manipulator who wrote a series of letters castigating the plotters.

Congress, in light of the duplicity and foolishness of Gates and Conway, and in possession of letters of support from the majority of Washington's officers was forced to fully support Washington. The movement to unseat Washington lost all steam.

The Fall Out

Thomas Mifflin resigned from the Board of War.

James Wilkinson resigned as Secretary of the Board of War.

Horatio Gates returned to his troops a chastened general.

Portait of Thomas Conway
Unknown artist, 18th century.

Thomas Conway was transferred to a subordinate command in the Hudson Highlands. Naturally he protested this transfer and so resigned from the army. In 1778, Congress accepted his resignation. Yet Conway would not go away. He remained a burr in Washington's saddle by badmouthing the general to anyone who will listen. General John Cadwalader, a staunch Washington supporter, challenged Conway to a July 4 duel, grievously wounding him. Believing his wounds to be fatal Conway wrote a letter of apology to Washington.

After recovering from his wounds, the lucky and still plucky Conway headed back to France. He served as governor of the French colonies in India and then fought against the armies in the French Revolution. Appropriately for someone who had spend his life as a soldier of fortune, he died in exile, in the year 1800