The Conway Cabal

It was inevitable that in the aftermath of the campaign of 1777 some members of Congress and officers in the army would question George Washington's ability as a military commander. He had been defeated twice more by William Howe and lost Philadelphia. That Howe's triumphs had been strategically barren, leaving the British essentially as prisoners in their conquest, was lost on the many who were more impressed by the exile of Congress to York, Pennsylvania, and the sufferings of the army at Valley Forge.

A Letter Is Leaked

Among the members of Congress thought to be ready to replace Washington were Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, but nothing advanced beyond rumor. No congressional representative ever dared to propose Washington's ouster. The only political figure to openly say that Washington should be replaced was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a former congressional representative. Rush's candidate for commander in chief was Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga. Basking in the luster of his great triumph, Gates was the hero of the hour. To Washington's critics, Gates was a man who knew how to win.

Much of Benjamin Rush's opposition to the Commander in Chief stemmed from a fear that Washington's popularity would lead him to establish an American monarchy. Rush was not alone in worrying that the American military would imitate many European armies and create a king.

One of Washington's critics was General Thomas Conway, a French officer of Irish origins who had joined the Continental army. Conway was a competent officer, but he was also a quarrelsome man who alienated many of his colleagues. Doubly an outsider, Conway did not share the esteem most of his fellow officers felt for Washington. He made the mistake of communicating this in a letter to Horatio Gates. One of Gates's staff officers drunkenly revealed this to an officer who made sure that the news was brought to Washington.

The Phantom of a Cabal

George Washington was a proud and sensitive man. The trials that he had borne trying to keep his army together had done nothing to improve his temper. He sent an angry letter to Conway. Conway denied directly criticizing Washington, though he admitted to complaining about the general military situation. Washington also wrote to Gates, who responded in a defensive manner.

The matter might have ended there, with ruffled feathers but no real harm done. Then Congress promoted Conway to the post of inspector general and appointed Gates to the presidency of the Board of War, a committee that dealt with supplies and administrative matters. Washington loyalists in the higher ranks of the army, such as Greene, Knox, Stirling, Schuyler, Lafayette, and Cadwalader, saw this as evidence of a conspiratorial cabal between Conway, Gates, and members of Congress. No evidence has ever emerged of any conspiracy, and the Conway cabal is a myth. But Washington and his military family believed that it was real enough. General Cadwalader challenged Conway to a duel and badly wounded him in the affray. Congress was roiled as friends of Washington accused fellow legislators of taking part in the “conspiracy.”

The affair petered out when news of the French alliance arrived and better weather alleviated the army's condition. Washington began planning operations for the new campaigning season. General Conway left the American army and returned to France. The Conway cabal was a measure of the strains caused by a war that had gone on too long without any immediate prospect of an end.

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