This Day in History: George Washington puts down the Conway Cabal
On this day in 1777, George Washington faces the possibility of mutiny. One of his officers had been working to undermine him—but now General Washington knew what was going on.
He wrote Brigadier General Thomas Conway, bringing things out into the open.
“[A] Letter which I receivd last Night,” Washington wrote, “containd the following, paragraph. . . . ‘Heaven has been determind to save your Country; or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruind it.”
In other words, Washington was telling Conway: You’ve been bad-mouthing me behind my back, and now I know about it.
Yikes! Conway couldn’t have been too happy about THAT.
So what had been going on? Was it an actual insurrection or just discontent and grumblings in the army? It’s hard to know, and historians still disagree on the scope of the so-called Conway Cabal. Either way, Washington was facing a tough time. His army was then in Valley Forge. He’d had several bad battle outcomes even as one of his generals, Horatio Gates, was basking in the admiration he’d earned for a stunning victory at Saratoga.
Some people were beginning to think that Gates would be a better Commander-in-Chief than Washington.
Meanwhile, an officer by the name of Thomas Conway was dissatisfied for his own reasons. As early as October 1777, he’d been trying to get a promotion to Major General, but Washington was opposed. He didn’t think too much of Conway, writing that “his importance in this Army, exists more in his own imagination than in reallity.” Moreover, such a promotion would bypass other officers in the army, leading to discontent and possible resignations.
Conway was angry about the perceived slight. He dashed off a letter to Gates, hinting that Washington should be replaced. “Heaven has been determind to save your Country,” Conway wrote, “or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruind it.”
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Washington soon heard about the letter. There were other signs of trouble, too, and the General was already beginning to suspect that some people were trying to remove him.
For one thing, Gates never reported his Saratoga victory directly to Washington. Instead, he reported it to Congress, leaving Washington to wonder what was going on with his own army. Moreover, a fair amount of griping was going on behind the scenes, and a Board of War was created to oversee Washington. Gates was appointed the President of that Board, and Conway was appointed its Inspector General.
You can imagine that Gates and Conway were able to create a lot of trouble for Washington in their new positions. Apparently, they hoped to make things so uncomfortable that he’d resign.
The Conway Cabal came to an end almost as quickly as it began. Gates had been too quick to accuse others of stealing the Conway letter—even as he tried to claim there was nothing wrong with that letter! In mid-January, Gates couldn’t (or wouldn’t) produce Conway’s letter for Congress. In the meantime, more Congressmen and army officers were catching on to what was happening. They rallied behind Washington. They needed him—and they knew it.
“The Conway Cabal achieved exactly the opposite of what had been intended,” historian James Thomas Flexner concludes, “Like a lightning rod, it released harmlessly fears, doubts, and resentments that might otherwise, as the long years of indecisive war rolled on, have massed until Washington was struck down. . . . [Instead,] Washington was recognized as the indispensable man.”
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)
James Thomas Flexner, Washington, the Indispensable Man (1974 reprint)
John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007)
Letter from Brigadier General Thomas Conway to General George Washington (Nov. 5, 1777)
Letter from General George Washington to Brigadier General Thomas Conway (Nov. 5, 1777)
Letter from George Washington to Richard Henry Lee (Oct. 16, 1777)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (2016)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)
Thomas Fleming, Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge (2015) (Kindle edition)