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made himself so prominent that the whole affair
passed into history bearing his name, and the
" Conway cabal " has obtained an enduring noto-
riety which its hero never acquired by any public
services. Conway was one of the foreign officers
who had gained the favor of Congress and held the
rank of brigadier-general, but this by no means
filled the measure of his pretensions, and when
De Kalb was made a major-general Conway im-
mediately started forward with claims to the same
rank. He received strong support from the fac-
tious opposition, and there was so much stir that
Washington sharply interfered, for to his general
objection to these lavish gifts of excessive rank


was added an especial distrust in this particular
case. In his calm way he had evidently observed
Conway, and with his unerring judgment of men
had found him wanting. " I may add," he wrote to
Lee, " and I think with truth, that it will give a
fatal blow to the existence of the army. Upon so
interesting a subject I must speak plainly. General
Conway's merit then as an officer, and his impor-
tance in this army, exist more in his own imagina-
tion than in reality." This plain talk soon reached
Conway, drove him at once into furious opposition,
and caused him to impart to the faction a cohesion
and vigor which they had before lacked. Circum-
stances favored them. The victory at Saratoga
gave them something tangible to go upon, and the
first move was made when Gates failed to inform
Washington of the surrender, and then held back
the troops sent for so urgently by the commander-
in-chief, who had sacrificed so much from his own
army to secure that of the north.

At this very moment, indeed, when Washington
was calling for troops, he was struggling with the
utmost tenacity to hold control of the Delaware.
He made every arrangement possible to maintain
the forts, and the first assaults upon them were
repulsed with great slaughter, the British in the
attack on Fort Mercer losing Count Donop, the
leader, and four hundred men. Then came a
breathing space, and then the attacks were re-
newed, supported by vessels, and both forts were
abandoned after the works had been levelled to


the ground by the enemy's fire. Meanwhile Ham-
ilton, sent to the north, had done his work ; Gates
had been stirred, and Putnam, well-meaning but
stubborn, had been sharply brought to his bearings.
Keinforcements had come, and Washington medi-
tated an attack on Philadelphia. There was a good
deal of clamor for something brilliant and decisive,
for both the army and the public were a little dizzy
from the effects of Saratoga, and with sublime blind-
ness to different conditions, could not see why the
same performance should not be repeated to order
everywhere else. To oppose this wish was trying,
doubly trying to a man eager to fight, and with his
full share of the very human desire to be as suc-
cessful as his neighbor. It required great nerve to
say No ; but Washington did not lack that quality,
and as general and statesman he reconnoitred the
enemy's works, weighed the chances, said No deci-
sively, and took up an almost impregnable position
at White Marsh. Thereupon Howe announced
that he would drive Washington beyond the moun-
tains, and on December 4th he approached tho
American lines with this highly proper purpose.
There was some skirmishing along the foot of the
hills of an unimportant character, and on the third
day Washington, in high spirits, thought an attack
would be made, and rode among the soldiers direct-
ing and encouraging them. Nothing came of it,
however, but more skirmishing, and the next day
Howe marched back to Philadelphia. He had of-
fered battle in all ways, he had invited action ; but


again, with the same pressure both from his own
spirit and from public opinion, Washington had
said No. On his own ground he was more than
ready to fight Howe, but despite the terrible temp-
tation he would fight on no other. Not the least
brilliant exploit of Wellington was the retreat to
the shrewdly prepared lines of Torres Vedras, and
one of the most difficult successes of Washington
was his double refusal to fight as the year 1777
drew to a close.

Like most right and wise things, Washington's
action looks now, a century later, so plainly sensible
that it is hard to imagine how any one could have
questioned it; and one cannot, without a great
effort, realize the awful strain upon will and temper
involved in thus refusing battle. If the proposed
attack on Philadelphia had failed, or if our army
had come down from the hills and been beaten in
the fields below, no American army would have
remained. The army of the north, of which men
were talking so proudly, had done its work and
dispersed. The fate of the Revolution rested
where it had been from the beginning, with Wash-
ington and his soldiers. Drive them beyond the
mountains and there was no other army to fall
back upon. On their existence everything hinged,
and when Howe got back id Philadelphia, there
they were still existent, still coherent, hovering on
his flank, cooping him up in his .lines, and leaving
him master of little more than the ground his men
encamped upon, and the streets his sentinels pa-


trolled. When Franklin was told in Paris that
Howe had taken Philadelphia, his reply was, " Phi-
ladelphia has taken Howe."

But, with the exception of Franklin, contempo-
rary opinion in the month of December, 1777, was
very different from that of to-day, and the cabal
had been at work ever since the commander-in-
chief had stepped between Conway and the exor-
bitant rank he coveted. Washington, indeed, was
perfectly aware of what was going on. He was
quiet and dignified, impassive and silent, but he
knew when men, whether great or small, were plot-
ting against him, and he watched them with the
same keenness as he did Howe and the British.

In the midst of his struggle to hold the Delaware
forts, and of his efforts to get back his troops from
the north, a story came to him that arrested his at-
tention. Wilkinson, of Gates's staff, had come to
Congress with the news of the surrender. He had
been fifteen days on the road and three days get-
ting his papers in order, and when it was proposed
to give him a sword. Dr. Witherspoon, canny Scot
as he was, suggested that they had better " gie the
lad a pair of spurs." This thrust and some delay
seem to have nettled Wilkinson, who was swelling
with importance, and although he was finally made
a brigadier-general, he rode off to the north much
ruffled. In later years Wilkinson was secretive
enough ; but in his hot youth he could not hold his
tongue, and on his way back to Gates he talked.
What he said was marked and carried to head-


quarters, and on November 9th Washington wrote
to Conway :

" A letter which I received last night contained the
following paragraph, — * In a letter from General Con-
way to General Gates he says, " Heaven has determined
to save your country, or a weak general and bad coun-
sellors would have ruined it.'" I am, sir, your humble
servant,' " etc.

This curt note fell upon Conway with stunning
effect. It is said that he tried to apologize, and he
certainly resigned. As for Gates, he fell to writ-
ing letters filled with expressions of wonder as to
who had betrayed him, and writhed most pitiably
under the exposure. Washington's replies are
models of cold dignity, and the calm indifference
with which he treated the whole matter, while
holding Gates to the point with relentless grasp,
is very interesting. The cabal was seriously shaken
by this sudden blow. It must have dawned upon
them dimly that they might have mistaken their
man, and that the silent soldier was perhaps not
so easy to dispose of by an intrigue as they had
fancied. Nevertheless, they rallied, and taking ad-
vantage of the feeling in Congress created by
Burgoyne's surrender, they set to work to get con-
trol of military matters. The board of war was
enlarged to five, with Gates at its head and Mifflin
a member, and, thus constituted, it proceeded to
make Conway inspector-general, with the rank of
major-general. This, after Conway's conduct, was
a direct insult to Washington, and marks the high-
est point attained by his opponents.


In Congress, too, they became more active, and
John Jay said that there was in that body a party
bitterly hostile to Washington. We know little of
the members of that faction now, for they never
took the trouble to refer to the matter in after
years, and did everything that silence could do to
have it all forgotten. But the party existed none
the less, and significant letters have come down to
us, one of them written by Lovell, and two anony-
mous, addressed respectively to Patrick Henry and
to Laurens, then president, which show a bitter and
vindictive spirit, and breathe but one purpose. The
same thought is constantly reiterated, that with a
good general the northern army had won a great
victory, and that the main army, if commanded in
the same way, would do likewise. The plan was
simple and coherent. The cabal wished to drive
Washington out of power and replace him with
Gates. With this purpose they wrote to Henry
and Laurens; with this purpose they made Con-
way inspector-general.

When they turned from intrigue to action, how- '
ever, they began to fail. One of their pet schemes
was the conquest of Canada, and with this object
Lafayette was sent to the lakes, only to find that no
preparations had been made, because the origina-
tors of the idea were ignorant and inefficient. The
expedition promptly collapsed and was abandoned,
with much instruction in consequence to Congress
and people. Under their control the commissariat
also went hopelessly to pieces, and a committee of


Congress proceeded to Valley Forge and found
that in this direction, too, the new managers had
grievously failed. Then the original Conway let-
ter, uncovered so unceremoniously by Washington,
kept returning to plague its author. Gates's corre-
spondence went on all through the winter, and with
every letter Gates floundered more and more, and
Washington's replies grew more and more freezing
and severe. Gates undertook to throw the blame
on Wilkinson, who became loftily indignant and
challenged him. The two made up their quarrel
very soon in a ludicrous manner, but Wilkinson in
the interval had an interview with Washington,
which revealed an amount of duplicity and perfidy
on the part of the cabal, so shocking to the for-
mer's sensitive nature, that he resigned his secre-
taryship of the board of war on account, as he
frankly said, of the treachery and falsehood of
Gates. Such a quarrel of course hurt the cabal,
but it was still more weakened by Gates himself,
whose only idea seemed to be to supersede Wash-
ington by slighting him, refusing troops, and de-
clining to propose his health at dinner, — methods
as unusual as they were feeble.

The cabal, in fact, was so weak in ability and
character that the moment any responsibility fell
upon its members it was certain to break down,
but the absolutely fatal obstacle to its schemes was
the man it aimed to overthrow. ^The idea evidently
was that Washington could be driven to resign.
They knew that they could not get either Congress


or public opinion to support them in removing him,
but they believed that a few well placed slights and
insults would make him remove himself. It was
just here that they made their mistake. Washing-
ton, as they were aware, was sensitive and high-
spirited to the last degree, and he had no love for
office, but he was not one of those weaklings who
leave power and place in a pet because they are
criticised and assailed. He was not ambitious in
the ordinary personal sense, but he had a passion
for success. Whether it was breaking a horse, or
reclaiming land, or fighting Indians, or saving a
state, whatever he set his hand to, that he carried
through to the end. With him there never was
any shadow of turning back. When, without any
self-seeking, he was placed at the head of the Rev-
olution, he made up his mind that he would carry
it through everything to victory, if victory were
possible. Death or a prison could stop him, but
neither defeat nor neglect, and still less the forces
of intrigue and cabal.

When he wrote to his brother announcing Bur-
goyne's surrender, he had nothing to say of the
slight Gates put upon him, but merely added in a
postscript, " I most devoutly congratulate my coun-
try and every well-wisher to the cause on this sig-
nal stroke of Providence." This was his tone to
every one, both in private and public. His com-
plaint of not being properly notified he made to
Gates alone, and put it in the form of a rebuke.
He knew of the movement ajiaiust him from the


beginning, but apparently the first person he con-
fided in was Conway, when he sent him the brief
note of November 9th. Even after the cabal was
fully developed, he wrote about it only once or
twice, when compelled to do so, and there is no evi-
dence that he ever talked about it except, perhaps,
to a few most intimate friends. In a letter to
Patrick Henry he said that he was obliged to allow
a false impression as to his strength to go abroad,
and that he suffered in consequence ; and he added,
with a little touch of feeling, that while the yeo-
manry of New York and New England poured into
the camp of Gates, outnumbering the enemy two to
one, he could get no aid of that sort from Pennsyl-
vania, and still marvels were demanded of him.

Thus he went on his way through the winter,
silent except when obliged to answer some friend,
and always ready to meet his enemies. When
Conway complained to Congress of his reception at
camp, Washington wrote the president that he was
not given to dissimulation, and that he certainly
had been cold in his manner. He wrote to Lafay-
ette that slander had been busy, and that he had
urged his officers to be cool and dispassionate as to
Conway, adding, " I have no doubt that everything
happens for the best, that we shall triumph over all
our misfortunes, and in the end be happy ; when,
my dear Marquis, if you will give me your company
in Virginia, we will laugh at our past difficulties
and the folly of others." But though he wrote thus
lightly to his friends, he followed Gates sternly


enough, and kept that gentleman occupied as he
drove him from point to point. Among other
things he touched upon Conway's character with
sharp irony, saying, " It is, however, greatly to be
lamented that this adept in military science did
not employ his abilities in the progress of the cam-
paign, in pointing out those wise measures which
were calculated to give us ' that degree of success
we could reasonably expect.' "

Poor Gates did not find these letters pleasant
reading, and one more curt note, on February 24th,
finished the controversy. By that time the cabal
was falling to pieces, and in a little while was dis-
persed. Wilkinson's resignation was accepted, Mif-
flin was put under Washington's orders, and Gates
was sent to his command in the north. Conway
resigned one day in a pet, and found his resigna-
tion accepted and his power gone with vmpleasant
suddenness. He then got into a quarrel with Gen-
eral Cadwalader on account of his attacks on the
commander-in-chief. The quarrel ended in a duel.
Conway was badly wounded, and thinking himself
dying, wrote a contrite note of apology to Wash-
ington, then recovered, left the country, and dis-
appeared from the ken of history. Thus domes-
tic malice and the " bitter party " in Congress
failed and perished. They had dashed themselves
in vain against the strong man who held firmly
both soldiers and people. " While the public are
satisfied with my endeavors, I mean not to shrink
from the cause." So Washington wrote to Gordon


as the cabal was coming to an end, and in that
spirit he crushed silently and thoroughly the fac-
tion that sought to thwart his purpose, and drive
him from office by sneers, slights, and intrigues.

These attacks upon him came at the darkest
moment of his military career. Defeated at Brandy-
wine and Germantown, he had been forced from
the forts after a desperate struggle, had seen Phila-
delphia and the river fall completely into the hands
of the enemy, and, bitterest of all, he had been
obliged to hold back from another assault on the
British lines, and to content himself with baffling
Howe when that gentleman came out and offered
battle. Then the enemy withdrew to their com-
fortable quarters, and he was left to face again the
harsh winter and the problem of existence. It was
the same ever recurring effort to keep the Ameri-
can army, and thereby the American Revolution,
alive. There was nothing in this task to stir the
blood and rouse the heart. It was merely a ques-
tion of grim tenacity of purpose and of the ability
to comprehend its overwhelming importance. It
was not a work that appealed to or inspirited any
one, and to carry it through to a successful issue
rested with the commander-in-chief alone.

In the frost and snow he withdrew to Valley
Forge, within easy striking distance of Philadel-
phia. He had literally nothing to rely upon but
his own stern will and strong head. His soldiers,
steadily dwindling in numbers, marked their road
to Valley Forge by the blood from their naked feet.


They were destitute and in rags. When they
reached their destination they had no shelter, and
it was only by the energy and ingenuity of the
General that they were led to build huts, and thus
secure a measure of protection against the weather.
There were literally no supplies, and the Board of
War failed completely to remedy the evil. The
army was in such straits that it was obliged to seize
by force the commonest necessaries. This was a
desperate expedient and shocked public opinion,
which Washington, as a statesman, watched and
cultivated as an essential element of success in
his difficult business. He disliked to take extreme
measures, but there was nothing else to be done
when his men were starving, when nearly three
thousand of them were unfit for duty because
" barefoot and otherwise naked," and when a large
part of the army were obliged to sit up all night
by the fires for warmth's sake, having no blankets
with which to cover themselves if they lay down.
With nothing to eat, nothing to burn, nothing
wherewith to clothe themselves, wasting away from
exposure and disease, we can only wonder at the
forbearance which stayed the hand of violent seiz-
ure so long. Yet, as Washington had foreseen,
there was even then an outcry against him. Never-
theless, his action ultimately did more good than
harm in the very matter of public opinion, for it
opened men's eyes, and led to some tardy improve-
ments and some increased effort.

Worse even than this criticism was the remon-


strance of the legislature of Pennsylvania against
the going into winter - quarters. They expected
Washington to keep the open field, and even to at-
tack the British, with his starving, ragged army, in
all the severity of a northern winter. They had
failed him at every point and in every promise, in
men, clothing, and supplies. They were not con-
tent that he covered their State and kept the Rev-
olution alive among the huts of Valley Forge.
They wished the impossible. They asked for the
moon, and then cried out because it was not given
to them. It was a stupid, unkind thing to do, and
Washington answered their complaints in a letter
to the president of Congress. After setting forth
the shortcomings of the Pennsylvanians in the very
plainest of plain English, he said : " But what
makes this matter still more extraordinary in my
eye is that these very gentlemen should think a
winter's campaign, and the covering of these States
from the invasion of an enemy, so easy and prac-
ticable a business. I can answer those gentlemen,
that it is a much easier and less distressing thing
to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room, by
a good fireside, than to occupy a cold, bleak hill,
and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or
blankets. However, although they seem to have
little feeling for the naked and distressed soldiers,
I feel superabundantly for them, and from my soul
I pity those miseries which it is neither in my power
to relieve or prevent."

This was not a safe man for the gentlemen of


Pennsylvania to cross too far, nor could they swerve
him, with all his sense of public opinion, one jot
from what he meant to do. In the stern rebuke, and
in the deep pathos of these sentences, we catch a
glimpse of the silent and self -controlled man break-
ing out for a moment as he thinks of his faithful
and suffering men. Whatever happened, he would
hold them together, for in this black time we detect
the fear which haunted him, that the people at large
might give way. He was determined on indepen-
dence. He felt a keen hatred against England for
her whole conduct toward America, and this hatred
was sharpened by the efforts of the English to
injure him personally by forged letters and other
despicable contrivances. He was resolved that
England should never prevail, and his language in
regard to her has a fierceness of tone which is full
of meaning. He was bent, also, on success, and if
under the long strain the people should weaken or
waver, he was determined to maintain the army at
all hazards.

So, while he struggled against cold and hunger
and destitution, while he contended with faction at
home and lukewarmness in the administration of
the war, even then, in the midst of these trials, he
was devising a new system for the organization and
permanence of his forces. Congress meddled with
the matter of prisoners and vdth the promotion of
officers, and he argued with and checked them, and
still pressed on in his plans. He insisted that
officers must have better provision, for they had


begun to resign. "You must appeal to their inter-
est as well as to their patriotism," he wrote, " and
you must give them half-pay and full jDay in proper
measure." " You must follow the same policy with
the men," he said ; " you must have done with short
enlistments. In a word, gentlemen, you must give
me an army, a lasting, enduring, continental army,
for therein lies independence." ^ It all comes out
now, through the dust of details and annoyances,
through the misery and suffering of that wretched
winter, through the shrill cries of ignorance and
hostility, — the great, clear, strong policy which
meant to substitute an army for militia, and thereby
secure victory and independence. It is the burden
of all his letters to the governors of States, and to
his officers everywhere. " I will hold the army to-
gether," he said, " but you on all sides must help
me build it up." ^

Thus with much strenuous labor and many fer-
vent appeals he held his army together in some
way, and slowly improved it. His system began to
be put in force, his reiterated lessons were coming
home to Congress, and his reforms and sugges-
tions were in some measure adopted. Under the
sound and trained guidance of Baron Steuben a
drill and discipline were introduced, which soon
showed marked results. Greene succeeded Mifflin
as quartermaster-general, and brought order out of
chaos. The Conway cabal went to pieces, and as

^ These two quotations are not literal, of course, but give the
substance of many letters.


spring opened Washington began to see light once
more. To have held on through that winter was a
great feat, but to have built up and improved the
army at such a time was much more wonderful.
It shows a greatness of character and a force of
will rarer than military genius, and enables us to
understand better, perhaps, than almost any of his
victories, why it was that the success of the Rev-
olution lay in the hands of one man.

After Howe's withdrawal from the Jerseys in the
previous year, a contemporary wrote that Washing-
ton was left with the remnants of an army "to
scuffle for liberty." The winter had passed, and he

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Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeGeorge Washington (Volume 1) → online text (page 14 of 22)