|This Week in History
December 13 19, 1777
The Conway Cabal Attempts To Slander and then Replace General George Washington
Whether it was launched as one of the many British intelligence operations during the American Revolution, or was simply the result of blind partisanship that ignored the general welfare, or perhaps a combination of both, the Conway Cabal caused much short-term damage to America's prospects of becoming an independent nation. Fortunately, the cabal's adherents helped to bring about their own defeat, just at the point that they had reached the height of their power and thought that victory was within their grasp.
That point was Dec. 14, 1777, when the cabal members in Congress succeeded in appointing Thomas Conway as a Major General, against the advice of Gen. George Washington. The main focus of the Continental Army officers and members of Congress who comprised the grouping was to replace Washington with English-born Gen. Horatio Gates.
In the fall and winter of 1777, Gates was the hero of America, for the troops under his command had defeated and captured British Gen. John Burgoyne and his entire army at Saratoga, N.Y. on Oct. 17. However, the plans for the American campaign to stop Burgoyne's march from Canada had been laid many months before by General Washington, working closely with Gen. Philip Schuyler, who commanded at Albany.
Schuyler, however, was unacceptable to many of the New England militia commanders, who were desperately needed to help stop Burgoyne. So the competent Schuyler was shunted aside, although he continued to provide logistical support, and the less gifted Gates was put in his place.
Flushed with his own importance, General Gates neglected to inform Washington, his Commander-in-Chief, of the victory over Burgoyne. Instead, he sent his aide-de-camp, James Wilkinson, with a flowery message to Congress, leaving Washington to depend on rumors. Wilkinson took an incredibly long time to reach Congress, and then spent three days "arranging his papers" before he gave them the news. Congress, although noting his dilatoriness, proposed voting him a sword for bringing such glad tidings, but a Scottish-American delegate named Dr. Witherspoon quipped, "I think ye'll better gie the lad a pair of spurs."
Meanwhile, Washington had been dealing with a very difficult situation, trying to determine what American target General Howe would attack next, and endeavoring to obtain the troops and supplies to stop him, wherever he might strike. Finally, it became clear that Howe was going to attack Philadelphia, and Washington had a heavy barrier, called a cheveaux-de-frise, built across the Delaware River below the city, guarded by a fort on either side.
After the victory at Saratoga, Washington looked forward to the return of Daniel Morgan's rifle corps, which he had forwarded from his own command to help General Gates. He also wrote to Gates asking for the transfer of some of the northern troops to help him keep the British from setting up a permanent base in Philadelphia. Washington's small and ill-equipped army had not succeeded in keeping Howe out of Philadelphia, but the barrier across the Delaware and its guardian forts were keeping the British warships south of the city. If the ships could not anchor at Philadelphia itself and provide artillery cover for the Redcoats, the British occupation of Philadelphia would become untenable and the army would have to withdraw.
General Gates sent no troops, so Washington dispatched Col. Alexander Hamilton to hurry the reinforcements on their way. The letter which Hamilton carried from Washington to Gates congratulated him on his victory, but added, "At the same time, I cannot but regret that a matter of such magnitude, and so interesting to our general operations, should have reached me by report only; or through the channel of letters not bearing that authenticity which the importance of it required, and which it would have received by a line under your signature stating the simple fact."
Hamilton enlisted the aid of Governor Clinton of New York to help him shake loose some troops from the Northern Department, but obstacles faced him everywhere. Washington wrote that "Colonel Hamilton, one of my aides, is up the North [Hudson] River doing all he can to push them forward, but he writes me word that he finds many unaccountable delays thrown in his way. The want of these troops has embarrassed all my measures exceedingly." Hamilton finally succeeded in mobilizing some troops southward, but he wrote to Washington that, "I doubt whether you would have had a man from the Northern army, if the whole could have been kept at Albany with any decency."
Meanwhile, the British were hard at work to solidify their position in Philadelphia. General Howe was constructing redoubts and batteries on Province Island in the Delaware River, and on Nov. 10, his troops attacked Fort Mifflin. The American defenders held on for days under heavy fire from ships, gondolas, and floating batteries, but they finally had to abandon the fort and retreat to Red Bank, New Jersey. Washington had been unable to deploy all his troops, because he also had to guard the military storehouses at Easton, Bethlehem, and Allentown, as well as the troop hospitals and the post at Red Bank, through which Fort Mifflin was supplied and reinforced.
"I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of the troops from the northward," wrote Washington, but still no reinforcements arrived. Washington hoped to keep Red Bank in American hands, and thus prevent the British from pulling up the chevaux-de-frise in the river before the first frost forced the British warships to leave the Delaware. But Howe's forces now captured Fort Mercer, the other river guardian. It was too late in the season to pull up the barrier, but they opened a small channel in the river to enable their transports and supply barges to reach Philadelphia.
After the British had thus completely established their control of Philadelphia, the northern troops arrived. "Had they arrived but ten days sooner," wrote Washington to his brother, "it would, I think have put it in my power to save Fort Mifflin, which defended the chevaux-de-frise, and consequently have rendered Philadelphia a very ineligible situation for the enemy this winter." With permission from Congress, Washington withdrew his army to Valley Forge, positioned to protect the iron foundries so necessary to the army, and the "workshop of the Revolution" for military supplies in Lancaster.
While Washington was fighting the British, he was also trying to deal with a slander campaign launched by the Conway Cabal and its allies. This campaign neatly dovetailed with British moves, so that Washington was blamed for every disaster which stemmed in actuality from actions by the cabal or its supporters.
As Washington wrote to his friend Patrick Henry, in the absence of reinforcements from the north he was forced to pretend that his army was larger than it really was, in order to slow Howe's advance on Philadelphia. But his critics used this pretense to criticize him for not attacking the British in force. Many of the Philadelphia merchants were reluctant to supply the army, yet tried to goad Washington into making a suicide attack on Philadelphia with his ill-equipped small force. The Council of Pennsylvania even wrote Congress to demand that Washington take his ragged and starving army back into the field in the middle of winter, and criticized him for not attacking after the British maneuvered for three days at White Marsh, trying to lure him out of his superior position. If he had taken the bait, his weakened army would have been overwhelmed by the much larger and well-equipped British force.
Although it was obvious to Washington that he had powerful enemies, it was not until the fall of 1777 that he was able to counterattack. James Wilkinson, on the way to report the Saratoga victory to Congress, had let it slip to an aide to American General Stirling that Thomas Conway had written a letter to General Gates in which he said that heaven must have determined to save America, since a weak general and bad counselors would have ruined it. Washington sent a short note to Conway, telling him that he had been informed of the letter's existence. Conway tendered his resignation, giving a fraudulent reason, but it was not accepted by Congress, and Washington did not publicize the letter.
There was a strong faction in Congress that supported Gage and Conway, and among them was James Lovell, who blamed Washington for the capture of Fort Mifflin, and wrote to Gage saying, "In short, this army will be totally lost, unless you come down and collect the virtuous band who wish to fight under your banner, and with their aid save the Southern Hemisphere. Prepare yourself for a jaunt to this placeCongress must send for you." Lovell, as head of the Committee on Foreign Relations, also attacked the American Commissioners to France, and slandered Benjamin Franklin with an eye to replacing him.
Lovell's ally in the Continental Army was Thomas Mifflin, who had served as the Quartermaster General, but had resigned when questions of monetary irregularities had been raised. Mifflin, hearing of Washington's letter to Conway, warned General Gates. Gates went into a panic, and wrote Washington to demand that the person who stole one of his letters be apprehended, and then sent a copy of the letter to Congress. Washington replied, saying that he was amazed that Gates would send a copy to Congress, and adding that he had taken what Wilkinson said about Conway's letter as a warning from Gates himself, but now he saw that was not the case, so he was also sending a copy of his letter to Congress.
On Nov. 27, Congress increased the Board of War from three to five members, which included Mifflin and Gates, and Gates was appointed President of the Board. The new board recommended, and Congress agreed, that there be two Inspector-Generals of the Army to promote discipline and reform abuses, and one of these was to be Conway, who was appointed a Major-General on Dec. 14.
The pace of attacks quickened on Jan. 12, 1778, when an anonymous letter was sent to Patrick Henry stating that the Southern army would become an "irresistible body of men" within a few weeks of being put under the command of a Gates, a Charles Lee, or a Conway, all of whom had been born in England or Ireland. Another letter, sent to Henry Laurens, the President of Congress, on Jan. 17, accused the American people of idolatry, by making Washington their God. Laurens refused to lay it before Congress, and instead sent it to Washington.
Washington answered that, "My enemies take an ungenerous advantage of me. They know the delicacy of my situation, and that motives of policy deprive me of the defense I might otherwise make against their insidious attacks. They know I cannot combat their insinuations, however injurious, without disclosing secrets which it is of the utmost moment to conceal."
Gates, puffed up even more by his appointment as head of the Board of War, now decided to invade Canada, and again neglected to inform Washington of his decision. It was decided to try to detach the Marquis de Lafayette from his close association with Washington, and for that purpose the cabal had him appointed head of the Canadian campaign. Lafayette travelled to meet Gates at York, Pa., and offered a toast to George Washington, which was received without enthusiasm by the assembled plotters. Although Lafayette journeyed to Albany, the requisite men and supplies were not forthcoming, and Congress recalled the expedition.
The winter of 1778 saw another slander of Washington, this time coming directly from the British. A series of letters was published in London which had supposedly been written by Washington to his family and to his agent, Lund Washington. The forgeries showed Washington as a cold-hearted man who was faithless to the cause of liberty. The first letter appeared on Feb. 14, in Rivington's Royal Gazette in New York City, and extracts were printed in a Philadelphia paper. Washington wrote that, "They were written to show that I was an enemy to independence, and with a view to create distrust and jealousy."
But distrust and jealousy were now breaking out among the members of the Conway Cabal. After Washington's letter, Gates had denounced James Wilkinson, and when Wilkinson journeyed to York, to become secretary to the Board of War, he challenged Gates to a duel. For good measure, he challenged General Stirling too. Setting out for Valley Forge, Wilkinson met Washington's friend Dr. Craik on the way, who informed him that his promotion by Congress to Brigadier General had been opposed by 47 Colonels in the army. At headquarters, Washington showed Wilkinson his correspondence with Gates, and Wilkinson stated he could no longer serve with Gates as secretary of the Board of War and tendered his resignation.
The tide was beginning to turn in Washington's favor, as the Continental Army troops and most of the officers supported him. The American public also felt that Gates and his allies in Congress had gone too far. By March, Congress ordered Gates to resume command of the Northern Department, and told him not to mount any expedition against New York City without consulting General Washington. Congress then asked Washington to assemble a council of Major Generals to determine a plan of operations for the year's campaign, and both Gates and Mifflin were ordered to attend, thus sustaining Washington's overall authority.
Conway, who had been stationed at Albany and then at Fishkill, wrote an angry letter to the President of Congress, complaining that he was "boxed about in a most indecent manner." He intimated that he would resign, and to his amazement, his resignation was accepted. He wrote back to say his meaning had been misunderstood, but try as he might, he could not get reappointed. His place was filled by Baron von Steuben, who had helped to mold the neglected army at Valley Forge into a force to be reckoned with.