The Conway Cabal


The English writer G. K. Chesterton once observed that journalism largely consists of saying “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive. So perhaps does telling the story of the Conway Cabal, a military-political convulsion of 1777 that might have sent Gen. George Washington home to Mount Vernon prematurely. It ended up accomplishing nothing, and historians tend to label the affair a nonevent. But a closer look at it provides, for those who find Washington not quite human, a visceral glimpse of him come down from Mount Rushmore as a wounded animal. And the episode has also brought out the beast in historians.

Thomas Conway came from an Irish-born Catholic family that had fled to France because of English oppression when he was six. He served for years in the French military and also under the legendary Prussian Frederick the Great before coming to America, “to increase my fortune and that of my family,” in 1777, when he was forty-two. He made a good first impression on Washington, who found him a “man of candor . . . infinitely better qualified to serve us than many who have been promoted, as he speaks our language.” Washington’s new aide, the Marquis de Lafayette, who barely had turned twenty, advised his commander, “General Conway is a so brave, intelligent and active officer that he schall, I am sure, justify more and more the esteem of the army and Your approbation.” On May 13,1777, Congress made Conway a brigadier general. He fought well at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and became “the idol of the whole army,” in the words of Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia.

WHEN General Washington sensed a conspiracy gathering to strip him of command of the Revolutionary army, it did not bring out the best in him .

But things soon soured. Washington was not impressed with Conway’s performance at Germantown and even considered courtmartialing him, according to another young aide, John Laurens, because Conway was “a considerable time separated from his brigade.” Conway further disenchanted his admirers by lecturing them on what the great Frederick would have done had he been in the untutored Americans’ place. Conway had an I-toldyou-so look, with bulging eyes, pursed lips, and pinched little chin perched on a long neck that loomed up from slumped shoulders, like a scolding Ichabod Crane.


The animosity simmered along until another ingredient was added: Gen. Horatio Gates, who was on top of the world at the moment. In October 1777 Gates’s Continentals defeated and captured John Burgoyne’s entire British army at Saratoga. It was the greatest victory to date, hundreds of miles away from Washington and his string of unbroken defeats around Philadelphia and light-years away politically from Congress, which now sat in York, Pennsylvania, having fled there because Washington could not even keep the national capital out of British hands. Across the Atlantic news of Saratoga would tip France into an official alliance with America four months later.

LAFAYETTE consoled his spiritual father in words that reflected their growing bond .

After Saratoga, Gates basked in the victor’s glory, deluged with congratulatory letters, including ones from Lafayette and Washington. His commander in chief wrote, “I do myself the pleasure to congratulate you on the signal success of the Army under your command.” Lafayette was “very desirous, sir, to convince you how I wish to cultivate your friendship.” Gates had been in command less than eight weeks before Burgoyne surrendered, arriving just in time to claim the lion’s share of the victory. Gen. Philip Schuyler had done most of the planning, and Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan had done all the fighting—facts barely discernible in Gates’s dispatches. At fifty, Gates was five years older than Washington and had more military experience, being a former British officer who had moved to America from his native England only four years before the Revolution. Both had served under Gen. Edward Braddock and been with him when he was killed at the disaster of Fort Duquesne in 1755; Gates had been wounded, and Washington himself was nearly killed. During the Revolution Gates’s men called him Granny because of his fussiness. Gilbert Stuart’s superb portrait of him shows warm, sad eyes write his life have been able to bear with him long enough to complete it.”

Gates’s singular success served to magnify Washington’s mediocrity in the eyes of Congress. Only six members still remained from 1775, when the body had elected him Commander; as few as fifteen new faces bothered to show up for sessions. Some began believing Washington had been justified when upon accepting the job, he pleaded “a conviction of my own incapacity and inexperience.” As failure mounted, he pointed out that he had never “assumed the character of a military genius .” Among prominent citizens inclined to agree were John and Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Rush, and—particularly—Thomas Mifflin, Washington’s unhappy quartermaster general. James Lovell of Massachusetts also was not in Washington’s camp and wrote mooning letters to Gates wishing he were in charge, as did Rush.