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The Newburgh Conspiracy
Encamped above the Hudson for the last, hard winter of the Revolution, the officers of the Continental Army began to talk mutiny. It would be up to their harried commander to defend the most precious principle of the infant nation—the supremacy of civilian rule .
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Although the Yorktown victory a year before seemed decisive, the British fleet still owned the Atlantic. Spring reinforcements could make it a whole new war. Washington had to hold his army together. The army, however, believed that the Paris negotiations soon would end the fighting. That happy prospect also brought concerns. Pay was as much as six years overdue. Pensions had not been settled. Appeals to the various states went unanswered or were referred to the Congress. And Congress could not afford a wintering army, let alone consider back pay or postwar benefits.
Washington’s officers were particularly concerned. In 1781 they had agreed to a pension of half-pay for life. The promise, however, seemed, like the national currency, “not worth a Continental.” So long as the army lived, officers saw hope for their claims. Once it disbanded, however, their scattered voices would be politically inaudible. All felt that congressional action had to come before spring, before peace.
Washington repeatedly urged Congress and the states to redeem their pledges. Meanwhile he furloughed hundreds of officers and men and tried to keep the others busy. Baron von Steuben pushed training and inspections. Washington considered raids on Long Island and Manhattan, against Fort Oswego and other lake forts, against the British at Penobscot. He decided against a short visit to Mount Vernon. In seven years he’d been there only briefly during the Yorktown campaign, but now instinct told him to stay close to camp.
As snow covered the Highlands, his problems worsened. Washington reported that his hard-worked horses had been four days without hay, three without grain, fourteen days without feed of any kind. Senior officers could not visit their scattered units, and express riders had to carry dispatches on foot.
Bone-chilling winds blew in from the Atlantic, reddening the cheeks of British grenadiers on Manhattan’s ramparts. They swept upriver, freezing the Hudson. The bitter gusts divided at West Point; some leaped the mountain’s crest to race downhill and make miserable Washington’s Life Guards shivering outside the stone house on Newburgh’s river bluff.
Uniforms were ragged and scant. Promised trousers never arrived. Philadelphia shipped less than half the shirts promised. Soldiers with none were issued one; lots were drawn for the rest. Outposts shared one winter coat among six men.
Food was adequate for veterans but there was little to spare and little variety. Hospitals were full. Shortages affected discipline. Riflemen at cantonment markets squabbled with farmers and merchants. Despite guards, repeated fist fights frightened away civilians. The infantrymen complained bitterly that civilians profited while they suffered. Enterprising soldiers swapped firewood, stolen from woodcutting details. If they were caught, punishment was swift and painful.
On Christmas Day, 1782, ten light infantrymen of the 1st Massachusetts Regiment feasted on eleven stolen geese. The court sentenced each man to receive one hundred lashes and ordered stoppages of pay until fifteen dollars were returned to the farmer. Light infantrymen, the toughest of Washington’s soldiers, could not have relished standing stripped to the waist in the biting wind to receive one hundred lashes but probably laughed at the idea of forfeiting pay they had never received and probably never would.
“By letters, Morris urged Knox to use the army to force Congress to act.”
Desertions increased. Silas Rodgers of the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment, and John Murrow and Benjamin Fisk of the 9th Massachusetts Regiment, caught outside the camp without passes, received one hundred lashes on the spot.
Officers’ morale continued to fall, too. Congress ordered that regiments be reorganized with five hundred officers and men for each regiment. Smaller states had to recruit or lose their regiments. And states refused to recruit. The war was winding down: why pay enlistment bonuses for an army that might not be needed or wanted? Tested leaders, many of them in the field since Bunker Hill, faced loss of their appointments, their pay, their promised pensions and land grants.
The more knowledgeable realized that neither Washington nor the Congress could do much. No one could give what he didn’t have. Under the loose Confederation, Congress could not demand money from the states or collect taxes itself. A national impost duty requested in 1781 by the superintendent of finance, Robert Morris, and his assistant, Gouverneur Morris, and supported by such strong nationalists as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, still had not been ratified. Realizing all that, however, eased no one’s anger.