The Newburgh Conspiracy

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Sunday, October 27, 1782. Mist and intermittent sheets of cold rain shrouded the granite spine of Butter Hill as it stretched west from the Hudson River above West Point toward the distant Shawangunk mountain range. Farmers, working neat, stonewalled fields, watched the storm without noticing anything unusual along the mountain’s crest. At dusk, however, the rain eased and the mist lifted to reveal something new and strange. High on the mountain hundreds of small lights flickered like fireflies. Highlanders were puzzled, then exclaimed, “They’re campfires. It’s the army. Back for the winter.”

They were right. Washington’s northern wing of the Continental Army had marched from its summer camp near Peekskill, New York, to Constitution Island, ferried across the Hudson, then climbed the steep mountain. This night would be the last the army would spend on an open, rain-soaked field. In the morning it would march to nearby New Windsor to build its final winter camp.

The campsite, about four miles southwest of Washington’s Newburgh headquarters, was well chosen. Butter Hill (now called Storm King Mountain) protected it from sudden attack, yet it lay within a forced march of West Point, with its crucial command of the Hudson. It also lay near main roads from New England and mid-Atlantic supply bases.

At dawn villagers watched the ragged army closing on New Windsor. The infantrymen drew a mixed response. After more than seven years fighting most Americans still opposed the war or were neutral. Others ignored political considerations to trade with the British. Even those who stood squarely for independence were not terribly happy about having hardened veterans camped nearby, destroying wood lots, fouling streams, practicing “midnight requisitions” upon nearby farm stock. So the loose-striding infantrymen and the watching civilians eyed each other warily.

The New Windsor C antonment quickly became the most substantial American camp of the war. Its fourteen to fifteen regiments totaled some seven to eight thousand men, but throughout the winter many were furloughed, and sickness struck one out of eight of the rest. Units came from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. Away from the main camp, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Canadian regiments protected the Highlands’ approaches. Others rotated two-week tours “on the lines” facing British outposts in Westchester.

More than seven hundred log huts, each built by soldiers from whatever material lay at hand, marked the camp’s sixteen thousand acres. Washington warned that “any hut that will be built irregularly...shall be demolished.” As promised, he had several nearly completed huts torn down. But veterans learned quickly, and Washington soon felt able to take pleasure in “the present comfortable and beautiful! situation of the troops....”

During the next ten months several historical firsts occurred at the camp’s central building. On a hill overlooking the regimental areas, soldier-artisans erected a large building to be used for administrative and social functions, and for brigade-size chapel services on Sundays. Chaplains called it the “Temple”; adjutants referred to it as the “Public Building”; the riflemen simply called it the “new building.” By whatever name, it served the army well. It was the first chapel built by American soldiers. It sheltered an awards board, which granted three sergeants purple, heart-shaped medals of valor, the first time in any army that enlisted soldiers were so honored. From its steps Washington’s adjutants announced the cease fire ending the war.

And here, on March 15,1783, Washington’s officers met for what the historian James Thomas Flexner saw as “probably the most important single gathering ever held in the United States.” That gathering involved mutiny. Mutiny by Washington’s officers.

Some historians call the incident the “Newburgh Addresses”; others know it as the “Newburgh Conspiracy.” Simply stated, it was a chain of events culminating in a meeting to decide whether the officers would trust Congress to redeem overdue pay and pension claims or whether they would open the national treasury with the army’s bayonets. In every successful armed rebellion the generals eventually must decide whether to yield to civil authority or opt for military dictatorship. The choice they make frames that country’s future. For America the hour of decision fell in the last, bitter winter of the war.

Washington’s concern for his camp’s appearance was not for aesthetics alone. Having commanded the army for more than seven years—outlasting three British counterparts—he knew his regiments well. And he sensed that the army’s morale, particularly that of its officers, was as low now as it had been at any other time during the war—even the dark winter days of Valley Forge. He expected trouble. Keeping everyone busy might help.