- 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
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.
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.
Even if money existed, the officers knew that their countrymen, many of whom had grown rich while the soldiers fought the war, would never approve continuing veterans’ pensions. So in December, 1782, led by General Henry Knox, the officers drew up another petition to the Congress. It demanded long-overdue pay and suggested that the half-pay-for-life provision be commuted to a one-time lump-sum payment.
From Philadelphia, General Arthur St. Clair had warned Knox to make it very clear that, unless Congress acted quickly, it could expect “a convulsion of the most dreadful nature and fatal consequences.” Following that suggestion, Knox wrote: “We have borne all that men can bear...our property is expended...our private resources are at an end...our friends are wearied...with our incessant applications.” Knox ended the petition with the obvious threat that “any further experiments on their [the army’s] patience may have fatal effects.”
In a private letter, Washington confided to his friend Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia: “The temper of the Army is much soured, and has become more irritable than at any period since the commencement of the War.
“The dissatisfactions of the Army had arisen to a great and alarming height....No part of the community has undergone...hardships, and borne them with the...patience and fortitude, as the Army has done.”
He added: “Hitherto the Officers have stood between the lower order of the Soldiery and the public and… have quelled very dangerous mutinies. [I]f their discontents...rise equally high, I know not...the consequences.” He ended wearily: “The spirit of enthusiasm...is now done away. ”
Major General Alexander McDougall and Colonels John Brooks and Matthias Ogden carried the petition, signed by almost all the officers at the cantonment, to Philadelphia. Superintendent Morris, however, immediately dashed their hopes for a quick and satisfactory response by telling them that Virginia had repealed her earlier ratification of the 1781 impost. As Rhode Island had never ratified the tariff, Virginia’s added rejection killed that legislation. The nationalists had called that impost “the only means of restoring Public Credit, of preventing a Disunion of the States, and saving the Country....” Now that hope seemed dead.
If the officers smelled defeat, however, the nationalists viewed the situation differently. A customs duty remained vital to their plans for national revenue and a strong central government. Now they saw the officers’ petition as their weapon to get it. Its threat of “exhausted patience” was potent. Congress had to find new revenue. Paper money was worthless. More foreign loans were unlikely. A new impost amendment was the only answer. Hamilton assured Washington that “the necessity and discontents of the army presented...a powerful engine”; and Gouverneur Morris predicted, “Depend on it, good will arise from the situation to which we are hastening.”
The “good” had to be reached by a dangerous route. Even now historians cannot agree on the nationalists’ exact plan or the specific roles individuals played in it. Their basic idea, however, was extortion, pure and simple. Let the states yield power to raise funds and satisfy the army, or face mutiny. And, with mutiny, loss of the war. Morris and his associates played a dangerous game. Without risking it, they saw no impost, only continuing erosion of the Confederation. If they tried it, they risked anarchy, civil war, a violent end to the Confederation. They decided to chance it. Let the army threaten, even act. Then the nationalists could force an acceptable impost. What is not clear (and never has been) is how far they were willing to let the army go before stopping it—and how they expected the mutiny genie, once uncorked, to be forced back into its bottle.
Morris had General McDougall open the campaign. The general easily convinced Congress that Washington was sitting on a powder keg, that only a satisfactory response to the army’s petition could prevent an explosion at Newburgh.
While Hamilton drafted a report supporting the army’s claims, Morris offered a new impost proposal. Then, as Congress debated, Morris upped the ante by threatening his own resignation unless “permanent provision for the public debt of every kind” be established. Congress took the bait, but Morris could not win the whole pot. The legislators accepted only the back-pay claims and urged Morris to “make every effort to obtain from the respective states substantial funds, adequate to the object of funding the whole debt of the United States.” Morris had won the responsibility but no authority to carry it out. Our federal bureaucracy worked in strange ways, then as now. As January ended, Congress again rejected Morris’ efforts for commutation and impost.
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.
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.
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.”
It was enough. They’d not been impatient. The murmur was one of sympathy, understanding, affection. In their eight years together they had never seen Washington wear spectacles. He had seemed tired and worn before. Now he seemed older and vulnerable. He was only fifty but had aged this week. He had problems they didn’t even know about. If he still trusted the Congress, they could do no less.
Few heard as Washington haltingly read from Jones’s letter. No matter.
When he stopped, the officers crowded about him in reassurance and contrition. Some wept. Others simply stood, stunned and silent, as the general left the room.
If Gates hoped to regain the initiative, he had no chance. Henry Knox quickly moved to thank the commander for his speech. Then, after a quick review of McDougall’s report, General Ruf us Putnam moved that Knox’s committee prepare new resolutions for the officers’ consideration. In short order the officers resolved their “unshaken confidence” in Washington and in the Congress. The crisis was over.
News of the army’s action swept the states, redounding to the credit of Washington and his officers. The public knew nothing of the political manipulations that had caused the crisis. A congressional committee recommended commuting half-pay pensions to five years’ full pay, a compromise more palatable to Yankee constituents. Within another month Congress accepted a new impost amendment.
The states, however, ratified neither program in time to help the army. New Englanders once more resisted commutation and impost. Meanwhile, peace came at last. Washington ordered a cease fire for noon, April 19, 1783—eight years to the day since the war began. Congress ordered the army disbanded. To save money, Washington quickly furloughed his veterans, the furloughs to become discharges once the peace treaty was ratified. There was no back pay or pension settlement. It would be years before most soldiers saw them. By then many hard-pressed riflemen had sold their country’s IOUs to speculators.
Disillusioned and angry officers and men took up their scant belongings and the weapons Congress authorized them to keep for posterity. The New Windsor Cantonment quickly became a ghost camp.
Much of the Newburgh crisis remains hidden. Those contemporaries—like Washington—who pieced together the puzzle had few facts with which to prove a conspiracy. That is probably just as well. It was better that the world did not know of politicians’ tinkering with the American experiment in democracy. Better yet that it never knew how nearly they succeeded.
“By whatever name, the ‘new building served the army well.”
In the end, what is important about the Newburgh crisis is what did not happen. There was no mutiny, no coup, no military dictatorship. Had the public even considered that imminent possibility, relations between the military and the government it served would have been permanently strained. Once trust between military and civil authorities is broken, it never can be healed. Tyranny attempted once always can be tried again. The precedent that was set was that the first national army of the young republic totally rejected military interference in the government and affirmed its subordination to civil authority. America stood at a real crossroads in March of 1783. That Washington, by personal leadership, persuaded his officers to civil obedience ranks as one of his greatest victories.
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. Here they received the word of peace and disbanded—but not in a victorious march with pomp and show. Like the winter snows they simply melted away—down the mountain roads back to the farms, back to the cities, back to the schools. For the succeeding two hundred years Americans have honored their soldiers and won great wars. But always they have yielded to the civil state. And General Washington left this post to become, not a king, but the President of a democracy.