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The Conway Cabal
February/March 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 1
But Congress did not accept Conway’s resignation; instead it promoted him to major general over twenty-three American officers senior to him. In a series of decisions remarkable in their heavy-handedness, Congress set up a new Board of War to oversee Washington—with Horatio Gates as president. Conway was to be Washington’s new inspector general! The Virginian had, after all, called for help, “if any new source can be opened for alleviating our distresses.” Now he would get more than he bargained for.
Henry Laurens later wrote soothingly to Lafayette (his prior letter to his son notwithstanding) that no one in Congress wanted Washington’s head, not one soul. “If he has an Enemy, a fact which I am in doubt of . . . the whole amounts to little more than tittle tattle. . . . In a word Sir, be not alarmed I think it is not in the power of any junto to lessen our friend without his own consent.”
Don Higginbotham, in his history The War of American Independence , concludes that “barring the discovery of new information, we may assign the Conway Cabal to the realm of myth, though, to be sure, it was a troublesome thing while it supposedly lasted.” This is hard to accept. Given those official acts of Congress, surely more than a single committed foe of Washington was afoot. At the least, as the historian Page Smith has remarked, “There was either malice or stupidity in the act, perhaps a bit of both.”
On learning of Conway’s elevation, Washington fired both barrels at Richard Henry Lee over “as unfortunate a measure as was ever adopted” for the morale of his officers. Conway’s “importance in this Army exists more in his own imagination than in reality: For it is a maxim with him, to leave no service of his own untold.” He added a poignant note that may be read as a threat of resignation: “I have been a Slave to the service: I have undergone more than most Men are aware of, to harmonize so many discordant parts; but it will be impossible for me to be of any further service , if such insuperable difficulties are thrown in my way.” He later wrote a friend that he hoped “that those who come after may meet with more prosperous gales than I have done, and less difficulty.”
WASHINGTON wrote to Gates bristling with suppressed fury and convoluted sarcasm .
Richard Henry Lee conceded that perhaps Conway’s promotion might not be such a good idea since “it is likely to produce the evil consequences you suggest ,” and he predicted that it might not happen after all. Such a sop was temporary. Conway soon rode into Washington’s camp at Valley Forge as his official inspector general. He had not solicited his position, he assured Washington, and if the appointment displeased the general, “I am very ready to return to France where I have pressing business.” Relations between them were glacial, despite Washington’s writing to Conway that his appointment “has not given the least uneasiness to any Officer.” This was modified by “I believe”—and clearly did not include himself. Conway complained of a coldness “as I never met with before from any general during the course of thirty years in a very respectable army.” In sparkling candor Washington shot back to Congress: “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 the man I deem my Enemy.”
Washington next wrote to the president of Congress that “a malignant faction had been for some time forming to my prejudice. . . . My Enemies take an ungenerous advantage of me—they know the delicacy of my situation.” How could he defend himself without disclosing military secrets? At this lowest moment in his career, Washington could offer Congress nothing but good intentions: “My heart tells me it has been my unremitted aim to do the best circumstances would permit; yet, I may have been very often mistaken in my judgment of the means, and may, in many instances deserve the imputation of error.” Washington’s aide Tench Tilghman noted at the time, “I have never seen any stroke of ill fortune affect the General in the manner that this dirty underhand dealing has done.”