Sunday, October 18, 2020

ARP171 The Conway Cabal

Following the victory at Saratoga, General Horatio Gates was the toast of America.  The surrender of Burgoyne’s army was an unprecedented event.  Gates had long thought that he was a better General than Washington and had a history of looking for an opportunity to replace him as Commander in Chief.  In late 1777, with Gates credited with the victory at Saratoga, and Washington losing Philadelphia to Howe, many others started to think maybe Gates could be a better commander.

Thomas Conway

The Conway Cabal is the name given to a loosely defined group of leaders in Congress and in the military who made some efforts to replace Washington with Gates as commander of the Continental Army.

Thomas Conway
(from Wikimedia)
Thomas Conway, who is the title conspirator in this matter is probably not even the leading figure in the events that unfolded.  But he does play a role in these events.  

I’ve already introduced Conway, one of many French officers who arrived in Philadelphia in 1777 with commissions in hand to become generals in the Continental Army.  Although born in Ireland, Conway moved to France at age six, and became a lieutenant in the Irish Brigade of the French army at age fourteen.   Over the next seventeen years, he served as a capable officer, but remained a lieutenant, even through his service in Europe during the Seven Years war. 

After the war ended, Conway began to find his way up the promotion ladder, finally making captain in 1765, then major and finally colonel in 1772.  Conway learned the political game of flattering superiors and making the right contacts to get ahead in the army.

Seeing an opportunity for advancement in the revolution, he got a promised commission from Silas Deane and left for America in December 1776.  Congress gave him a commission as brigadier general in May 1777.  Conway served as a brigade commander in Washington’s army.

Conway Seeks Promotion

Conway seems to have impressed himself at the Battle of Brandywine.  Based on his service there, he requested that Congress promote him to major general.  Washington objected to the promotion, in a letter to delegate Richard Henry Lee, Washington wrote "General Conway's merit, then, as an Officer, and his importance in this Army, exist more in his own imagination than in reality.”  Washington pointed out that Conway’s promotion over more senior brigadiers who had also performed well in recent battles, would lead to more dissension among the military leadership.  Earlier, Washington endorsed Conway’s commission as a brigadier, so this was a different attitude.  Washington’s reluctance to support Conway’s bid for promotion led to a tiff between the two leaders.  

With Washington appearing to be an impediment to his advancement, Conway opted to reach out to General Gates, whose star was on the rise after Saratoga.  In early November 1777, word reached Washington that Conway had written a letter to Gates saying “Heaven has been determined to save your country; or a weak General and bad counselors would have ruined it.”  The “weak general” was an obvious reference to Washington.  When Washington received the note, he sent it along to Conway noting the quote.  Conway denied that he had ever used the term “weak general” but did not shy away from the fact that he was critical of Washington’s leadership.  The original letter has been lost, so we’ll never know exactly what it said.  Henry Laurens, who did read the original letter before it was lost, said in a letter to a friend that Wilkinson did not get the quote verbatim, but that Conway’s original letter was “ten times worse in every way.”

Gates Gets Mad

The matter might have ended there, but when General Gates received word that Washington had received information from his private correspondence, he wrote an angry letter to Washington in December saying that it was outrageous that someone had been going through his private correspondence and demanded that Washington find out who had committed this invasion of his privacy.

Gates did not name names in his letter, but it became clear later that he suspected the culprit was Alexander Hamilton.  Recall last week, I talked about how Hamilton had ridden up to Gates’ headquarters in November to facilitate Gates moving some of his army south to assist Washington.  Gates suspected that had Hamilton rifled through his papers while in Albany and reported this information back to Washington.  Hamilton was in his sick bed in Peekskill when this whole matter erupted.

James Wilkinson
As it turned out, Hamilton had nothing to do with it.  Word had gotten to Washington from other officers who had heard the quote at a dinner with Gates’ aide, Colonel James Wilkinson.  It seems that when Wilkinson was taking his time travelling from Albany to York to bring word to Congress of the victory at Saratoga, he had let slip the gossip.  

Wilkinson dined with several officers, including General Lord Stirling and his aide, Major James Monroe.  After a few drinks had quoted a few choice excerpts from the letter, which Gates had read aloud to his aides.  When Washington filled in Gates about the source of the information, Gates had to put aside his efforts to shift the conversation from who leaked the letter to instead dealing with the substance of the correspondence.

Board of War

That could have been the end of the incident, except for the fact that many powerful leaders were looking for a way to replace Washington and did not want the incident to go away.  A contrite General Conway offered his resignation to Congress on November 14.  Instead of accepting his resignation, Congress granted Conway his desired promotion to major general.

Thomas Mifflin
(from Wikimedia)
On top of that, Congress reorganized the Board of War around this same time, in a way that appears to have been designed as an insult to Washington.  Up until this time, John Adams had been running the Board of War.  In November, however, Adams resigned his seat to return home to Massachusetts.

Congress decided that perhaps soldiers, rather than delegates, should run the Board of War.  They named General Horatio Gates as the new President of the Board.  Major General Thomas Mifflin, who had been Quartermaster General, also sat on the board.  Having military officers on the board created an obvious problem.  Gates and Mifflin were both military subordinates to General Washington.  Yet their position on the board gave them the ability to give orders to Washington.

Many in Congress, including the recently departed John Adams, had come to the position that Gates would make a better commander in Washington.  Other powerful members of this group included Samuel Adams, James Lovell, and Richard Henry Lee.  Another former member, Benjamin Rush, was also an outspoken critic of Washington.  He wrote several letters, including one to Patrick Henry, saying so.

Inspector General

In December, in addition to promoting General Conway, Congress approved his appointment as Inspector General of the Army.  In this position, Conway could second guess and attack Washington with impunity.

Conway met with Washington at Valley Forge in late December  As was typical with someone who had disrespected him, Washington met Conway with a cold formality.  Conway’s ego, by this time in full bloom, took offense at Washington’s treatment.  He wrote a letter to Washington, basically saying that the cold reception that he got indicated that Washington was unhappy about all this and apparently unwilling to work with the new inspector general.  Conway said he had better things to do in France and had no reason to stick around in America if Washington would not support him.

Thoughts of a Freeman

Many saw Congress’ new Board of War and Inspector General as an attempt to insult Washington in hopes that he would simply resign and go home.  In January, 1778, Congress also received a pamphlet entitled Thoughts of a Freeman which criticized Washington’s leadership during the Philadelphia campaign and warned that the people were holding him up as a false idol.  

This was yet another attempt to discredit Washington.  In addition attacking his military decisions the document implied that Washington was taking on an irrational popularity among some and that this posed a danger to Congress.  It played on the common fear that a military leader would rise up like Cromwell or Caesar, overthrow the legislature, and become a dictator.

Both Washington’s lack of military success, especially when compared with Gates, and the danger that he was becoming too powerful a leader, contributed to the growing opposition to him in Congress.  It increased the desire of many to remove and replace him.  

Plans to Invade Canada

The new Board of War met in York in December and January to discuss future plans.  They largely ignored Washington and planned a new invasion of Canada. 

Gen. Guy Carleton
(from Wikimedia)
The thinking was that, with Burgoyne’s army out of action, a new assault on Quebec would succeed.  Following Burgoyne’s surrender, the British had abandoned Fort Ticonderoga in November, destroying most of it, and retreating back to Canada.  Once again, the Gibraltar of North America fell without even a battle fought.  If the Americans could launch an attack before spring, when the British might send reinforcements to Quebec, they might take the region and win the support of the locals.

General Guy Carleton still commanded an army of thousands in Quebec.  Most of the New York and New England Militia who had won Saratoga did not want to invade Quebec.  The massive losses suffered by the armies that had invaded in 1775 were still too fresh. 

Gates and the Board of War concocted a new plan to invade Quebec, with the Marquis de Lafayette leading the conquering army.  The Board gave the second in command to General Thomas Conway.  Board members thought that the Marquis would be a figurehead, given that the twenty year old former French captain would defer to the more experienced Conway.  By placing French generals at the head of the army, the Board hoped that the French speaking subjects of Quebec would rally around this army of liberation.  The Board also added General John Stark as third in command in hopes of getting more New England militia in favor of the attack.

Even the plan itself was tentative.  Lafayette received instructions to raid St. Johns and to capture the ships and dockyards there.  Only if he could win the support of the locals to join the American cause, he should proceed further.  If not, he was to burn St. Johns and pull back into New York.

Congress approved the plan in late January.  Gates’ Board of War informed Washington of the planned invasion and requested that he deploy some of his army to Albany to participate.  Washington, in a private letter a couple of weeks later called the plan the “child of folly” and thought it would be a mess.  But he kept his mouth shut, and complied with the Board’s directives.  Since the Board did not ask for his advice on the matter, Washington did not offer it.

Almost immediately, the project began to fly off the rails.  First, the assumption that Lafayette would defer to Conway proved terribly wrong. Lafayette travelled to York where he dined with General Gates and other top officers on his first night back in town.  At the end of the meal, the men offered a series of toasts.  Lafayette noticed the conspicuous absence of any toasts to General Washington, and so he offered one himself.  His toast, met with confused silence, helped him to understand just how much this group was seeking to undermine the commander-in-chief.

Marquis de Lafayette
(from Wikimedia)
Next, Lafayette appeared before Congress to oppose the Board’s decision of Conway as second in command.  Lafayette demanded that General Johann Dekalb be given that role. Congress complied, and Conway once again found himself on the outs.

With that Lafayette travelled to Albany where he found an invasion army of less than 1000 men, some of them boys as young as twelve and old men above the age of sixty.  Further, there were no supplies, equipment, or even clothing to conduct a winter campaign, even if they could gather the necessary men quickly.

Gates also told Lafayette that Stark would probably have already taken St. John by the time Lafayette got to Albany.  Instead, he simply found a letter from Stark asking when he would like to get started and how many men he might need? Stark did not say so, but was likely ticked off.  Months earlier, Gates had promised Stark would command the invasion of Canada.  Now finding himself third in command behind two French officers probably left Stark less excited about the mission.

Lafayette consulted with other generals in the area, including Philip Schuyler, Benjamin Lincoln, and Benedict Arnold.  With the exception of General Conway, who had joined the group without having a command and who was eager to proceed, the other generals all believed that this was headed for disaster.  After determining that there was no way for the army to assemble the necessary soldiers and supplies in time, Lafayette wrote back to Congress saying that he would not proceed.

Washington Strikes Back

Washington had remained quiet through all of this, but was not ready to fade quietly into the night.  He knew that any kind of power play opposing the inspector general or the board of war would just play into the hands of his enemies and convince people that he was a danger to civilian rule.  Instead, Washington just threw the whole thing back at Congress.

He dispatched the correspondence that had gone between himself and General Conway, as well as the correspondence with General Gates about the revelation of Conway’s comments to him.  In sending this information to Congress, he said the following: 

If General Conway means, by cool receptions...that I did not receive him in the language of a warm and cordial friend, I readily confess the charge….my feelings will not permit me to make professions of friendship to a man I deem my enemy….At the same time, Truth authorizes me to say that he was received and treated with proper respect to his official character, and that he has no cause to justify the assertion that he could not expect any support for fulfilling the duties of his appointment.

Washington found that, while he had critics in Congress, he also had supporters.  One of his key supporters was President Henry Laurens.  Communications with his son John Laurens, serving as Washington’s aide-de-camp, helped President Laurens to appreciate everything Washington was doing.

Following Washington’s letters came a memorial sent by nine Continental brigadiers who objected to General Conway being promoted over them, just as Washington had predicted.  In addition a group of colonels protested Wilkinson’s brevet to brigadier over more senior colonels with more command experience.

Seeing the strong objections from the military leadership and also after reviewing the correspondence that made Gates, Conway, and Wilkinson look like fools, any support for replacing Washington very quickly evaporated.  Gates and Conway both testified before Congress but gave a poor performance. 

The Marquis de Lafayette took it upon himself to speak on behalf of France before Congress.  He said that the French viewed Washington and the revolution as one and the same.  They could not conceive of another general taking command.  Numerous other Continental officers also sent letters to Congress confirming that Washington had their full faith and support as Commander-in-Chief.


With Washington’s role as commander now firmly reestablished, everyone tried to make nice again. Members of Congress at least silenced their opposition to Washington, having decided that Gates would be no improvement.  General Gates wrote a series of letters to Washington trying to repair their relationship.  Washington seemed to think that Gates at least was a good general, and made an effort to put the matter behind them.  Gates resigned from the Board of War in the spring and took up a command in New England.  There, he would remain away from Washington and from most of the actions of the war for the next few years.  

Horatio Gates
When Gates discovered that Wilkinson was behind the revelation of Conway’s letters to him, the two men got into a huge fight.  Not only had Wilkinson started this whole mess by revealing this information to officers loyal to Washington, he also denied to Gates that he had done it.  Instead, he tried to blame one of Gates’ other aides.  Gates had good reason to be angry at his aide’s poor judgment and dishonesty.  He went off on an abusive tirade against the young man.  

According to Wilkinson’s later recollections, the encounter ended up with Wilkinson challenging Gates to a duel and Gates accepting.  Ordinarily, commanding officers did not duel with those under their command, but in this case, Gates seemed ready to resolve their dispute on the field of honor.  Before the duel could take place though, the two men reconciled and put the issue behind them.  

Gates was still serving on the Board of War and Wilkinson had become the board secretary.  A short time later, Wilkinson read some of the letters that Gates had written to others regarding Wilkinson’s role in all of this.  Wilkinson then wrote a letter to Congress accusing Gates of “treachery and falsehood” and said he could not serve as secretary with Gates as President of the Board.  Congress accepted his resignation and for the next couple of years, Wilkinson did not have any official duties within the army.

Several months later, both Gates and Wilkinson appeared as witnesses at the court martial of General Arthur St. Clair.  The two men got into it again and once again agreed to a duel.  This time, they went through with it, firing three rounds without any hits before they decided that their honor had been satisfied.

John Cadwalader
(from Smithsonian)
Most of the public blame for the effort to unseat Washington fell on General Conway.  Officially, Conway continued to serve as inspector general, although he did not really do much in that position.  Congress tried to transfer him to a position in the Hudson Valley where he would be out of the action.  Seeing the appointment as political exile, and realizing that he was pretty well isolated and hated by most of his fellow officers under Washington’s command, Conway once again submitted an offer of resignation to Congress in March 1778.  This time, Congress accepted.

Conway did not return to France, despite his resignation.  He spent his time criticizing Washington and trying to justify his actions. Later that summer, one of Washington’s supporters, Pennsylvania militia General John Cadwalader challenged Conway to a duel in Philadelphia.  At the duel Cadwalader shot Conway in the mouth.  Cadwalader’s only comment upon shooting Conway was “I’ve stopped the damned rascal’s tongue anyway.

Believing that he was about to die, Conway wrote a letter of apology to Washington, calling him a great and good man.  Conway did not die, but did decide it was time to return to France, where he rejoined the French army. 

Washington came out of the event much stronger. Talk in Congress of replacing the commander never again approached anything serious.  Those who had opposed Washington muted their complaints and tried to minimize or deny their past opposition to his leadership.

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Next Episode 172 Winter at Valley Forge 

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Further Reading


Conway Cabal podcast episode with Brady Crytzer and Mark Lendal:

Conway Cabal:

The Conway Cabal:

Zellers-Frederick, Andrew A. “General Thomas Conway: Cabal Conspirator or Career Climber?” Journal of the American Revolution,  Oct. 29, 2018:

Thoughts of a Freeman

“From George Washington to Major General Lafayette, 31 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Horatio Gates, 24 January 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Lafayette, 9 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Lafayette, 9 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Lafayette, 27 February 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Major General Lafayette, 10 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Lafayette, 20 March 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Thomas Conway, 23 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Lowry, Robert A Complete History of the Marquis de Lafayette, New York: (self-published) 1826.

Moore, Howard Parker A life of General John Stark of New Hampshire, (self-published) 1949.

Prowell, George R. Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania and York County in the Revolution, The York Printing Co., 1914.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941.

Chidsey, Donald Barr Valley Forge; An On-The-scene Account of the Winter Crisis in the Revolutionary War, Crown Publishing, 1959.

Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Flexner, James Thomas, George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, Little Brown, 1968.

Jacobs, James R. Tarnished Warrior: The Story of Major-General James Wilkinson, Macmillan, 1938.

Lender, Mark E. Cabal!: The Plot Against General Washington, Westholme, 2019 (book recommendation of the week). 

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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