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Washington, Gates, and a battle for power in the young United States

Conspiracies are seldom what they are cracked up to be. It is in their nature for people to gossip and complain. Through it all they sometimes agree with each other, or pretend to for other reasons. Thus eavesdroppers looking for conspiracy can imagine plenty of it in almost any gathering, particularly if alcohol is lubricating and amplifying the discussions. So it was that in the winter of 1777-78 that some commonplace military griping got elevated to the level of conspiracy, at the center of which were a few hapless men later referred to as the “Conway Cabal.”

Congress appointed George Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in June 1775. This was after fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord and New England militia regiments besieged British forces in Boston. More or less at the same time they created the Continental Army by cobbling together some of the stronger New England militia regiments and federalizing them. Horatio Gates, who had earlier been an officer in the British Army, was appointed adjutant general to Washington, with the rank of brigadier. The Americanized Gates was a firm believer in republican and democratic ideals by this time. He had strong administrative and managerial skills that would serve Washington well over the coming months.

In the early part of the war, many still held out hope for a negotiated peace that would keep the colonies in the British Empire. Many in Britain, including many army officers, were actually sympathetic to the Americans and critical of their government’s treatment of them. But despite moderate views on both sides there was no turning back. The Americans declared their independence in the summer of 1776, and it was then Washington’s task to maintain it with an improvised army made up mostly of amateurs.

Washington’s skills were in military leadership, and his selection was designed to keep the army intact and the southern states committed to the cause. He was by nature a patient man, and his patience would be tested many times over the next few years. Like all men, he had some failings, but his strong points outweighed them.

Washington knew how to spot talent. He admired young Alexander Hamilton and regarded him like a son. When in 1777 the Marquis de Lafayette showed up to offer his services, Washington took him under his wing like a son as well. Both young men were only twenty years old. Washington was forty-five. Hamilton was appointed aide-de-camp in March of that year, having served bravely as an artillery officer in the fighting around New York City the previous year. He served as Washington’s aide for the next four years.

As the war ground on and Congress worked to create a functioning government of the fly, military men were appointed, promoted, transferred, and occasionally sacked. By the summer of 1777, Horatio Gates was no longer Washington’s adjunct, but instead was an aspiring field commander. Congress appointed Gates to replace Philip Schuyler as commander of the Northern Army in the summer of 1777. Schuyler’s faults were that he was (1) an Anglo-Dutch aristocrat from New York, and (2) the guy in charge when Fort Ticonderoga was captured by John Burgoyne’s invading British army from Canada. For these reasons, the New England regiments that made up most of the Continental portion of the Northern Army were not inclined to serve gladly under Schuyler. They were, on the other hand, delighted to serve under Gates, a Major General who had made a good impression on them in the fighting around Boston two years earlier.

Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull Gates is in the center, with arms outstretched via Wikimedia Commons

Gates was ambitious, and he harbored a common failing, an unrealistic assessment of his own capabilities. For its part, Congress made a few errors in its eagerness to maintain control while still getting things done. One such error was appointing Gates commander of the Northern Army without involving Washington, who was supposedly Commander-in-Chief. Washington’s patience saved him from blowing up at this affront, just as it did with many other affronts. However, Gates did nothing to improve the situation after the Battle of Freeman’s Farm south of Saratoga on September 19, 1777. The American army did well that day, and the scene was set for the decisive Battle of Bemis Heights that would come eighteen days later on the same ground. Gates sent his report of the first battle directly to John Hancock, President of Congress, deliberately bypassing Washington, who most people regarded as Gates’s immediate superior. The snub was just another test of Washington’s patience.

Washington had recently helped Gates by sending him Daniel Morgan and his Corps of Riflemen. Morgan’s men had performed well, and when Washington asked Gates to send them back, Gates was able to decline on grounds that Washington could not order him to do so. His letter to Washington does not contain the phrase “You are not the boss of me,” but an astute reader can find it between the lines. Washington had his critics, and Gates thought he saw an opportunity to replace Washington as Commander-in-Chief if things continued to go well in the North and if Washington was forced out.

Things did go well. Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to Gates on 17 October 1777, and the grumblers in the officer corps of the Continental Army began to mention Gates as a better option than Washington. Brigadier General Thomas Conway wrote letters criticizing both Washington and the course of the war. These were eventually forwarded to Congress. When the letters were made public, Washington’s supporters moved to counter them politically. Conway was compelled to resign from the army, and his friends were cowed. Gates eventually apologized for any appearance of impropriety he might have contributed to the scandal.

Those Continental Army officers that had grumbled most were later branded the “Conway Cabal,” but there is no evidence that there ever was an organized conspiracy. It was the only serious threat to Washington’s command during the course of the war, but Washington naturally worried that it might indicate something deeper and more serious. His continued outward patience through late 1777 and early 1778 suggests that he was not terribly worried. Part of that was his ability to hide his thoughts. However, we also now know much more about Washington’s talents as a spy master. His spy networks around New York and Philadelphia served him well. His ability to acquire good intelligence and to counter the British with planted disinformation did much to help the American war effort. It seems likely that he also knew much more about the activities of his critics than they realized at the time.

Featured image credit: American flag by tookapic. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Jef Wall

    Can someone please provide me with the book’s website address that contains the supplemental maps and photos? My copy is an early version that does not have this information.
    Thank you.

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