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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
If his campaign moved slowly in Philadelphia, Morris also had problems in Newburgh. Washington was the best choice to handle the army’s role. Most of the officers genuinely respected and admired him; only he and Henry Knox had the broad support needed. The conspirators agreed, however, that Washington never would sanction their plan. They turned to Knox. By letters and through several briefings by General McDougall, Morris urged Knox to use the army to force congressional action. He even suggested that a limited mutiny might be necessary but added that if it happened, Knox had to be ready to snuff it out. To Morris’ dismay, Knox remained silent. Knox knew Washington would never use the army as a political weapon, and it seemed he would not oppose Washington. Morris and Hamilton decided to look further.
They approached General Horatio Gates, Washington’s second-in-command. Politically minded and ambitious, Gates felt that he had never received proper credit for his victory at Saratoga. He disliked Washington and earlier had worked behind the scenes to replace him. His plan had failed, and the sourness between the two generals never sweetened. Gates’s staff included young, ambitious officers. They would support him. And Gates, known to the army as “Granny,” could be manipulated by skilled politicans. The plotters were dubious about Gates, but they had no one else on whom to gamble.
“To Morns’ dismay, Knox remained silent.”
“On Saturday, March 8, Stewart visited Gates s headquarters. No one knows what they said to one another...”
The game began quickly. Congress again rejected commutation. On February 21 Knox finally wrote McDougall, “I consider the reputation of the American Army as one of the most immaculate things on earth....[W]e should even suffer wrongs and injuries to the utmost verge of toleration rather than sully it in the least degree.” To Morris he added the warning that the army would exert no pressure except when directed by the “proper authority.” And about the same time, Washington answered a cautious, testing letter from Hamilton.
The general had been only too aware of his army’s discontent. And friends had alerted him to rumors in Philadelphia. Congressman Jones reported hearing of “dangerous combinations in the Army” made up of “those who are abandoned enough to use their arts to lessen your popularity...in hopes...[you] will prove no obstacle to their ambitious design. ”
Hamilton’s letter had come hard on the heels of Jones’s warnings. He stressed the injustice to the army and his fear that peace, surely coming soon, would end hope of a settlement. He reported suggestions “by others” that the army force its claim by bayonet. The problem there was to “keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation.” Again a wellcontrolled little mutiny. Hamilton concluded by warning his former commander “to take the direction of the Army’s anger” as many officers felt Washington’s past efforts lacked “sufficient warmth.”
This is a particularly interesting letter. It clearly suggested Washington use the army to pressure Congress but warned of the danger of a mutiny pressed too far and of Washington’s losing his own influence unless he took a stronger hand in the game. Why did Hamilton alert Washington to the challenge to his leadership? Perhaps he hoped to cover his bet on the weaker Gates. If Gates had to lead the army to mutiny, then could not call a halt, even a weakened Washington would be awfully nice to have around.
Washington’s answer was characteristically direct. He described himself as caught between the “sufferings of a complaining Army on one hand, and the inability of Congress and tardiness of the States on the other....” He would just have to “pursue the same steady line of conduct which [had] governed [him] hitherto; fully convinced that the sensible, and discerning part of the Army cannot be unacquainted...of the services [he had] rendered it....” He reminded his former aide that the commander in chief should be kept abreast of Congress’ plans as “the adoption of Military and other arrangements that might be exceedingly proper in some circumstances would be altogether improper in others.” Involving the army in civil matters, he concluded, “would be productive of Civil commotions and end in Blood....God forbid we should be involved in it.”
Studying Washington’s and Knox’s letters, the conspirators knew they had to find a more amenable general. Gates would be their man in Newburgh.
Walter Stewart, a Pennsylvania colonel who had been politicking in Philadelphia during the winter, became their emissary. On Saturday, March 8, Stewart visited Gates’s headquarters. No one knows what they said to one another, but as the storm broke the following Monday and involved work by Gates’s aides from the eighth on, Stewart’s visit seems significant.