- Historic Sites
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
He rode to the cantonment. All seemed calm, but a sixth sense sharpened by many crises warned him that it was not. Long-shared camaraderie seemed strained. Officers swept off their hats in salute but avoided his eyes and did not smile. This was new. An unmistakable hostility lurked near the surface. The officers seemed almost embarrassed by his presence.
He regretted their anger but understood it. Still they all had to yield to civil authority or the war had been for nothing. He would say that in open meeting, then see whether “Brutus” would debate the issue.
Just before noon, March 15, Washington rode to the Public Building. Many horses waited at the long hitching rail. Inside, hundreds of officers crowded the benches.
General Gates, on the stage, began the meeting. Washington’s completely unexpected appearance, however, halted his introductory remarks.
The word quickly spread. Excited talk was replaced by the shuffling of boots, the rattling of shifted scabbards, the crash of benches accidentally overturned as the officers rose. Then there was complete silence. Gates quickly yielded the floor.
Washington faced his officers. He bade them be seated, then took papers from his tunic. His aides, mindful of his dimming vision (during the past week he had been trying a pair of bifocals in the privacy of his office), had copied his notes in large script. His strong farmer’s hands flattened the sheets. The deep-set blue eyes slowly scanned the room. He knew most of the officers well. Now they disappointed him. Some seemed angry or sullen. Some welcomed him. Most just seemed embarrassed, like children caught doing something wrong yet determined to do it anyway. The estrangement remained.
“At the New Windsor Cantonment our army waited for the peace treaty while its soldiers’ minds and wills were turned from thoughts of mutiny and military power to civilian authority.”
Anger edged his voice. He quickly branded the anonymous summons “unmilitary” and “subversive.” The officers’ claims were valid, however, so he had sanctioned the meeting to discuss their mutual problem.
He turned to the anonymous letters. Their author, he said, was persuasive, but lacked “a regard to justice, and love of country.” He pressed his attack: “I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty.” How then, he asked, could they question his concern?
Many of Brutus’ arguments, he continued, were valid; his recommendations, however, were not. They were ruinous. Washington suggested, for example, that they consider the fate of their families and property if the army left the field to the British. As for using force to win their claims, he charged, “What can this writer have in view...? Can he be a friend to the Army? Can he be a friend to this Country?” Pitting the army against civil authority would, Washington continued, invite civil war—the end to all they had fought for. No, he concluded, neither of Brutus’ alternatives was acceptable. They must not give up what they had earned on a hundred battlefields.
Now his voice was calm, reassuring, persuasive. The solution, he suggested, was continued patience and trust that Congress would redeem its pledges.
Washington turned to his last notes. Moderation and patience would not come easily. They never had. But, he concluded, “By thus determining and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to...your wishes....[Y]ou will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; and you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say...had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining. ”
That ended his formal speech. He had read it all. And it had failed. He knew it had failed. They were not persuaded.
Washington shuffled his papers. He had labored over his speech. But it held long, involved, cumbersome sentences. When spoken, the muscle was lost in the flesh of ornate composition. Washington could not match Brutus as a writer.
In desperation he took a letter from a pocket of his regimentals. In it Congressman Jones praised the army and pledged his support. Perhaps this would help. As Washington opened the note, there was a murmur among his officers. Washington took that as impatience. He cleared his throat and attempted to read.
He could not. The script was too small. His eyes could not focus. The dim letters blurred. Helplessly he fumbled in another pocket for his spectacles. As he donned them, the murmur increased. Again he thought it impatience. He adjusted the spectacles. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”