The Conway Cabal

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Washington responded the next day, beginning nominally to paper over differences with flourishes of equanimity: “I am as averse to controversy, as any Man. . . . Your repeatedly and Solemnly disclaiming any offensive views . . . makes me willing to close with the desire, you express, of burying them hereafter in silence, and, as far as future events will permit, oblivion.”

But matters had moved past nasty letters among Washington, Gates, and Conway, with Congress a giddy audience. Even before the episode, John Adams had complained to his wife: “I am wearied to Death with the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs. Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for Nutts.” In rallying around their chief, Washington’s officers at Valley Forge went to the power of the pen and beyond. Nine of his generals had already signed a petition protesting Conway’s promotion, while forty-seven colonels had protested the promotion over them of Gates’s pet, Wilkinson. These soldiers were already riled because Congress was balking in promising half-pay for life to officers.

Now the factions ominously inched toward settlement by affairs of honor. Trembling with rage, Col. Daniel Morgan physically confronted the Board of War’s secretary, Richard Peters. Two days later Peters, still smarting, wrote, “I don’t see how any Man of Feeling or Sentiment can continue in a public Department where every measure is looked upon with a jaundiced Eye, and of course all Mistakes magnified into Sins political and moral.” An aide to Nathanael Greene (who topped Mifflin’s list of “bad counsellors” to his “weak general") suggested that “a few Ozs. of Gun-powder diffused thro proper channels will answer a good purpose.” John Laurens wrote to his father in Congress asking “whether Genl W is to be sacrificed to Gnl C.” Young Laurens even raised the idea of Washington’s getting into a duel: Conway’s letter “is such an Affront as Conway would never have dared to offer if [Washington’s] Situation had not assured him of the impossibility of it’s being revenged in a private way. I hope that some virtuous and patriotic men will form a Countermine to blow up the pernicious Junto.”

With his political enemies beginning to run, Washington’s rage grew. He was said to be amused on learning that Thomas Mifflin was resorting to quick steps to avoid a duel with an ominous stalker, Gen. John Cadwalader, whose Welsh blood was on a boil. By now Mifflin was exclaiming to one and all—met by hoots—that Washington was the best friend he had ever had in his life. In a bit of retrograde nastiness, Washington showed young Wilkinson portions of Gates’s letters that demeaned him. In the complex masked ball, Wilkinson unsuccessfully tried to divert the tattletale finger to another aide and then turned like a betrayed lover on Gates with words that made all prior recriminations seem tepid. He declared he would “hasten on the wings of resentment to assert my wounded honor at the point of my sword and ratify my integrity in blood. . . . May the God of justice help you!” He did precisely that. A duel between him and Gates was set up; just before the meeting Gates asked his former protégé to accompany him into an alley for a last moment of privacy. Gates burst into tears, and Wilkinson relented.

Conway was not so fortunate. On the following Fourth of July, he and Cadwalader looked down pistol barrels at each other on another field of honor. The Welshman wounded him in the jaw; the ball, exiting from the back of Conway’s neck, “stopped his lying mouth.” From what Conway presumed to be his deathbed, he wrote Washington a final note: “My career will soon be over. . . . Therefore, justice and truth prompt me to declare my last sentiments: You are in my eyes the great and good man. May you long enjoy the love, veneration, and esteem of these States whose liberties you have asserted by your virtues.” Washington did not respond. Conway recovered and lived an active life one year longer than Washington himself.

What then are the truth and meaning of the Conway Cabal? Was there a real plot to overthrow Washington’s command? The full truth will never be known. In 1855 Washington Irving, writing his biography of Washington, found the trail cold: “Of the men who showed themselves to be the enemies of Washington, we yet remain in ignorance, and perhaps ever shall be. The record of their deeds is destroyed.” Only a few months after the dust settled, even Washington was trying to assign the episode to oblivion, as he had promised Gates: “Whether any members of Congress were privy to this scheme, and inclined to aid and abet it, I shall not take upon me to say; but am well informed, that no whisper of the kind was ever heard in Congress.” Decades later, however, the Virginian reversed himself: “The attempt was made by a party in Congress to supplant me.” A congressman, Eliphalet Dyer, also denied “the most distant thought of removing Genii. Washington, nor ever an expression in Congress looking that way.”