The Conway Cabal

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With teasing allusion and shadowy inference, Henry Laurens, the new president of Congress, wrote his son John about purported intrigues. Since John was an aide in Washington’s youthful circle, the warning surely was passed on to his chief, to bore like pine beetles into Washington’s tormented psyche. Henry Laurens wrote that there was one man in particular—unnamed—whose “idleness, duplicity & criminal partialities in a certain Circle laid the foundation of our present deplorable state,” and he added that this was somebody Washington trusted, for whom he held “the most favorable Sentiments.” Henry Laurens discerned “Agents from our Enemies if not within Doors, yet too closely connected with some who sat there. . . . I will attend to all their movements & have set my face against every wicked attempt however specious.”

Such warnings preyed on Washington. Who were these false friends? Mifflin, his first aide at the start of the war? Richard Henry Lee, a fellow Virginian? John Adams, who had nominated him for command? Samuel Adams, who had seconded the motion? Surely not the solicitous Dr. Rush, the army’s surgeon—until an anonymous letter crying for Washington’s replacement was passed along to the general. Sadly, after “having always received . . . the strongest professions of attachment and regard” from his surgeon general, Washington recognized Rush’s handwriting.

Lafayette consoled the man who had become his spiritual father in words that reflected their growing bond. He called Washington’s detractors “stupid men who without knowing a single word about war undertake to judge you, to make Ridiculous Comparisons; they are infatuated with Gates without thinking of the different Circumstances.” The young Frenchman made his own allegiance clear: “I am now fixed to your fate and I shall follow it and sustain it as well by my sword as by all means in my power. . . . You will pardon my importunity. . . . Youth and frienship make perhaps myself too warm, but I feel the greatest concern of all what happens since some time. . . . With the most tenderest and profond respect I have the honor to be, dear general, Your most obedient humble servant Lafayette.”

It was a timely, supportive letter, and its childlike tone, that of a man struggling with English, only enhances its heartfelt beauty. It obviously touched Washington, and he momentarily turned philosophical: “It is much to be lamented that things are not now as they formerly were; but we must not, in so great a contest, expect to meet with nothing but Sun shine. . . . if you will give me your Company in Virginia, we will laugh at our past difficulties and the folly of others.”

The eruption came when Gates’s aide James Wilkinson bragged to an aide to Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling, about a letter Gates had received from Conway. Stirling, smarting over remarks Conway had made to Congress about his own drunken ineptitude, passed the bit on to Washington, as an example of “wicked duplicity of conduct.” Washington exploded. The next day Conway received a fire-and-ice letter from his commander: “Sir: A letter which I receivd last Night, containd the following paragraph. In a letter from Genl. Conway to Genl. Gates he says: ‘ Heaven has been determind to save your Country; or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruind it .’ I am Sir Yr. Hble. Servt.”

Conway wrote back that although he had made some critical remarks about the Army, “I Believe I can assert that the expression Weak General has not slipped from my pen.” He said he was willing to have Washington read the original letter in Gates’s possession and added, “I Defy the most keen and inveterate Detractors to make it appear that I levell’d at your Bravery honesty, honour, patriotism or judgment of which I have the highest sense. . . . Your modesty is such that although your advice is commonly sound and proper you have often been influenced by men who were not equal to you.” In a later reply, Conway stood on his tiptoes in wounded protest. Other officers were free to express their opinions; why not he? “Must such an odious and tyrannical inquisition begin in this country? Must it be introduced by the Commander-in-chief of this army raised for the defence of liberty? It cannot be, and I am satisfied you never had such thoughts.” He followed this with an incredible slap, referring to himself as a veteran sailor of thirty years and Washington as a new admiral: “An old sailor knows more of a ship than admirals who have never been at sea .”

Conway then wrote to Congress offering his resignation, mainly because of his lack of promotion but also mentioning his falling-out with Washington. Washington had wished the matter to remain private. After stating that only Congress could make such a decision, the general, with an icy formality one can only imagine, responded, “I shall not object to your departure, since it is your inclination.” He doubtless agreed with Conway’s own words that he could serve “more effectively in another part of the World.”