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A “New And Strange Order Of Men”
Just what moved those Revolutionary War officers to form the Society of the Cincinnati, America’s first veterans’ organization? Some said it was treason
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
On the morning of May 13, 1783, a group of officers of the Continental Army gathered at Verplanck House near the Hudson River village of Fishkill, New York. The house, built of stone in the Dutch style, was headquarters for General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian professional who had done so much to train and reorganize Washington’s Revolutionary army. As the senior officer present, Baron von Steuben presided.
The meeting’s moving force, however, was Major General Henry Knox, Chief of Artillery for the Continental Army. For some years Knox had been thinking about a ribbon that veterans might wear to show they had fought for the liberty of their nation. He envisaged a badge or memento that could be passed proudly from generation to generation.
Now Knox’s dream was nearing fulfillment. In April he had sketched out an organization and made a rough draft of its rules; then he had checked his ideas with other officers of the Army, which was camped for the winter around Newburgh, New York. Encouraged by their reactions, he arranged for meetings in May to shape his proposed society. Now, at Verplanck House, a charter was discussed and unanimously approved by all present. America’s first veterans’ group had been formed.
The Society of the Cincinnati, as the new organization was called, was not destined for obscurity. Before the end of the critical period between 1783 and 1790, it would touch off an international furor and shake the wobbly foundations of the new American republic. Along the way it would embarrass George Washington, distress John Adams, alarm Thomas Jefferson, amuse Benjamin Franklin, and in some way stir the lives of nearly all leading Americans.
None of the officers assembled at Verplanck House could foresee any of this, of course. They had more immediate concerns, and one was the disbanding of their army. Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown nearly two years before, and American ministers in Europe had been negotiating the peace settlement. With the day of separation coming on, Washington’s officers wished simply to preserve the camaraderie established by the war and to help ensure that the ideals for which they had fought would be realized.
And there were other considerations. To put it baldly, many officers had financial worries. The Continental Congress had been lax about its soldiers’ pay, and the future for many was uncertain. Some, like George Washington, could rely on private resources; others were in straits. Von Steuben himself was a case in point. After the surrender at Yorktown, highranking officers of the American, French, and British forces competed at entertaining each other—except for von Steuben. He had already given up his watch to pay the doctor’s bill of his aide-de-camp. Humiliated because he could not be even a moderate host, he tried selling his favorite horse. “We are, God knows, miserably poor,” the Baron complained. “We are constantly feasted by the French without giving them even a bit of bratwurst.” Telling his aide to “take my silver spoons and forks and sell them,” he declared: “I will give one grand dinner to our allies, should I eat my soup with a wooden spoon forever after.”
Finding themselves in similar trouble, many officers were in a lean and dangerous mood. In the winter of 1782–83 they had circulated two “addresses” protesting the “coldness and severity” of their treatment by Congress. Mutiny had hovered over the Newburgh encampment, and Washington had been compelled to warn Congress that “the patriotism and long suffering of this army are well-nigh exhausted.” In the end, only the General’s powerful personality, together with an eloquent appeal to his men’s sense of duty, had calmed the winds of discontent.
But the basic matter of money—and the inability or reluctance of Congress to provide it—remained. It was natural, then, for officers to band together to protect their common interests. If Congress had been remiss on salaries, it could now at least be gracious enough to provide pensions or other financial security for America’s out-of-work soldiers. And what Congress did not provide could be made up by an organization that would help those in need.
Were social ties and mutual worries the only considerations at Verplanck House? It is impossible not to assign mundane motives to most of those present, but they were idealistic, too, and this came through at least in the name they chose for their new society.
In the fifth century B.C., Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus left his farm to lead his fellow Romans in victorious battle against invading enemies. Then Cincinnatus set a precedent for future civilian-soldiers by rejecting the Senate’s offer of civil power and returning to furrow and family. To men imbued with the neoclassic spirit of the late eighteenth century, Cincinnatus must have had a special appeal. The Revolutionary officers honored his name and example by calling their organization the Society of the Cincinnati.