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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
On Sunday, the ninth, Washington attended chapel at the cantonment. Later he corrected Lieutenant Andrew Bradford for marching the guard “in a very irregular and unmilitary manner.” Otherwise all seemed calm. That evening he entertained guests at his headquarters. He seemed calm and relaxed but rather reserved and preoccupied.
The dawn muster on Monday, March 10, scarcely had ended when an anonymous summons circulated among the units. Officers from every staff and company were to meet the following morning at the Public Building to consider Congress’ response to their petition and to vote new measures.
Within hours a second anonymous message appeared. Written Saturday, the eighth, its author identified himself as “Brutus,” a “fellow-soldier.” Having shared their misery for long months, Brutus wrote, his own faith in Congress was gone. That’s why he had called the Tuesday meeting. His words bit deeper: “But faith has its limits as well as temper—and there are points; beyond which neither can be stretched without sinking into cowardice....” Whether its use is valid or not, soldiers react strongly to the word “cowardice.” Brutus’ other words struck home, too. Pledges, he pointed out, didn’t fill stomachs, warm camps, or provide for loved ones. The army deserved better.
“Suspect the man, who would advise to more moderation and longer forebearance,” he said in an obvious reference to Washington, and then went on to argue that, if this was how they were to be treated while still under arms, what could they expect from peace? Once disbanded, the army would be only nine thousand feeble and separate voices.
Pointing to those who prospered at home while the army fought, he asked, “Can you then consent to be the only sufferers by this revolution, and, retiring from the field, grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt?”
Finally he proposed an ultimate resolution to Congress—one written with the point of a bayonet.
Washington studied Brutus’ work. The man had summoned an unauthorized general meeting to advise that, if the officers’ claims were not immediately met, they settle them by force or simply march to the Ohio and let Congress end the war as it could, “and mock when their fear cometh on.” Brutus was skilled. His argument was appealing; its logic and its solutions hard to deny. But Washington knew those solutions could lose the war even as it was nearly won.
At camp, angry officers weighed Brutus’ words. Most approved the meeting, and many leaned strongly toward Brutus’ suggestions. Only the very thoughtful realized the immensity of the act already begun. The line of authority between the military establishment and the civil government was now to be tested.
Washington was caught in the middle. He could not defy Congress’ jurisdiction. Nor could he ignore his officers’ anger. To oppose that anger—even to counsel moderation—could destroy his own authority.
He moved quickly. His general orders referred to the anonymous summons as “disorderly” and “irregular,” but as commander in chief he now authorized the meeting to be held on Saturday, the fifteenth. That left time for reflection. He charged the officers to study the latest report on congressional actions, then “devise...further measures.” As he directed the ranking officer present to report the meeting’s results, all inferred Washington would not attend.
On Tuesday a second Brutus letter to the soldiers defended the writer’s actions. His sentiments were not new, Brutus argued. He had heard them muttered at many campfires. Let them now be spoken aloud. “Till now,” he charged, “the Commander-in-Chief has regarded the steps you have taken for redress with good wishes alone.” Now Washington sanctioned their general meeting. Nevertheless, Brutus added, Washington’s views “cannot possibly lessen the independency of your sentiments.” The challenge was obvious.
Brutus remained anonymous. Much later, Major John Armstrong, aidede-camp to Gates, would admit to writing the three messages; Captain Christopher Richmond and Major William Barber, also of Gates’s staff, copied and distributed them. Gates’s own role and the limits he had set on the action are not clear, but Washington guessed correctly when, in his letter to Hamilton, he attributed much of the army’s sullenness to “the old !even,” clearly referring to Gates’s long-standing discontent.
On Thursday Washington circulated the report on Congress’ action. Its vague assurances for redress “when funds become available” satisfied no one. Washington also wrote to Benjamin Harrison, who was the president of the Congress, to Congressman Jones, and to Alexander Hamilton. All the while, however, he knew they could do nothing in the time remaining. Knox, von Steuben, and other trusted lieutenants offered no solutions. Washington was on his own, as he had been so often during this long war.