Brigadier General Thomas Conway, serving in the main Continental Army under General George Washington sat down one evening in Pennsylvania and penned a letter. Many a general officer on many a night during the American Revolution did the same thing. However, Conway’s missive was addressed to Major General Horatio Gates, commanding general of the northern army and recent victor at Saratoga. Conway was frustrated at slights he perceived he had received from Washington, including the latter’s blocking of his promotion to major general, even though over twenty fellow brigadier generals had seniority. That did not matter to the Irish-born, French army veteran, well versed in military tactics and not shy about acknowledging his expertise to all those who cared—or did not care—to be within earshot. He even showed displeasure at the promotion of another European officer, Baron de Kalb, who Conway outranked on the continent.
One line from that letter, which when heard by certain ears had severe implications in the fall and winter of 1777-1778, much to the demise of Thomas Conway, said,
“Heaven has been determined to save your Country, or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruined it…”
Under the flickering glow of a candle in eastern Pennsylvania, Conway unwittingly tied his name to what historians have labeled the “Conway Cabal.”
Precedence and military decorum dictated that news of a battlefield victory would travel first to the commander-in-chief and then through his headquarters to the governing political body. After the pivotal victory of Saratoga, Gates sent an adjutant, Major James Wilkinson, with his official report of the engagements to the Continental Congress. The young officer, treating the assignment more leisurely than timely, stopped off at the headquarters of another Continental general, Major General William Lord Stirling, for a night of revelry and drinking with the latter’s staff. During that night of imbibing, Wilkinson let slip the above quotation about “weak generals” to Major William McWilliams of Stirling’s staff and referenced a letter that Conway had written to Gates.
McWilliams dutifully notified Stirling who in turn wrote to Washington out of “motives of friendship” informing the Virginian that,
“The inclosed [referring to the quote referenced above] was communicated by Colonl. Wilkinson
to Majr. McWilliams, such wicked duplicity of conduct I shall always think it my duty to detect.”
Washington, in turn, informed Conway that he was aware of the contents of the letter and the phraseology used in reference to him. The Irishman replied two days later on November 5, admitting that he wrote the letter to Gates but denying that he ever used the term “weak general” to describe Washington.
Yet Conway could not resist giving another adverse opinion to Washington, this time disparaging the staff of the general. After referring to Washington as brave, Conway was critical that he was “influenced by men who were not equal to him in point of experience, knowledge or judgment.”
Nine days after penning his reply to Washington, Conway submitted his resignation to the Continental Congress as a bluff. Conway had spent his time, when not training or on the battlefield, making connections with congressmen and currying favor with anti-Washington military officers. True enough, Congress did not accept the resignation and on the advice of the Board of War, which was approved on October 17, 1777, promoted Conway into the position of inspector general which came with the rank of major general. Ten days later, Gates was appointed president of the Board of War, with Thomas Mifflin, former quartermaster general, one of the members appointed as well.
In December, as the Continental army prepared to settle into their winter cantonment, Conway rode into Valley Forge. Conway’s reception after his arrival near the end of the year was received by Washington with a distant demeanor. The commander was stiff in his personal meetings with Conway but remained formal and professional, limiting his contact to dire necessity. With Washington’s attitude toward Conway as icy and stiff as the trees that began to fall to make winter huts, Conway began to melt. When Washington inquired about how the new inspector general was going to handle the business assigned to him by the Continental Congress, Conway responded that if the commander found it “disagreeable” he would be willing to return to Europe. Washington retorted with his commitment to adhering to the dictates of the Continental Congress and their decisions.
Although he arrived at Valley Forge on December 29, by January 2, Washington had forwarded to the Continental Congress the latest missive sent to him by Conway. In the letter, the new inspector general wrote,
“We know but the great Frederick in Europe and the great Washington in this continent. I
certainly never was so rash as to pretend to such a prodigious height. By the complexion of your letter and by the reception you have honored me with since my arrival, I perceive that I have not the happiness of being agreeable to your Excellency and that I can expect no support in fulfilling the laborious duty of the Inspector General.”
Adding his own note to the packet sent to congress, Washington insisted that his professional manner in working with Conway was never affected by his personal attitude toward the conniving Irishman. He also stated that no support was ever withheld from Conway in his attempt to fulfill his duties.
As Conway’s tenure with the main Continental army unwound quickly, the inspector general became aware that Wilkinson was the leak of the “weak general” letter. Conway informed Mifflin of the intelligence and in turn, Mifflin warned Gates to be more scrupulous with his correspondence.
Gates, now installed as the Board of War president, weighed into the saga, still uncertain if Wilkinson was, indeed, the leak. In a letter to Washington, Gates asked for assistance in “detecting the wretch who may betray me, and capitally injure the very operations.” The victor of the Battles of Saratoga was certain that his “letters have been stealingly copied.”
Unbeknownst to Gates, Washington was unaware that Conway and the victor of Saratoga were in correspondence together. Washington’s response to Gates described how the events unfolded and ended with how it was a form of justice to Gates instead of slander or betrayal of the Board of War president that Washington reported what had come to his attention in the manner that he did. Furthermore, Washington was in favor of “concealing every matter that could, in its consequence give the smallest interruption to the tranquility of this Army” or any “gleam of hope to the enemy by dissensions therein.” He had not shown the letter from Stirling to anyone save the Marquis de Lafayette who gave his word to keep the matter secret.
With his impromptu letter to Washington, Gates had revealed more than Washington had originally known. In an attempt to clear their names of any potential wrongdoing and a besmirch on their honor, Conway and Gates traveled to York for an audience with the Continental Congress. However, they refused to reveal the basis of this imbroglio, the “weak general” letter. Lafayette, taking the matter upon himself to speak for the French, who had signed an alliance with the rebelling colonies, made the connection that his countrymen and king thought Washington and the cause of American independence were intertwined. No other commander of the Continental military would suffice to the French according to the young officer. This was coupled with a stack of written protests from other generals in regards to Thomas Conway. Those being Conway’s promotion and issue with Wilkinson’s selection for the secretary position with the Board of War as, like Conway, the selection jumped the young officer over more senior colonels. All this acrimony added up to topple what was a loosely organized attempt to oust Washington. Instead, the episode fizzled in the faces of the anti-Washington clique. Gates was chastened and Conway’s tenure with the main army briefly came to an end.
The fallout though was just beginning. Gates challenged Wilkinson to a duel, which never materialized. Gates continued in service until the defeat at Camden in South Carolina in August 1780. Thomas Mifflin resigned from the board and his commission as major general yet would continue to provide advice to the Continental Congress throughout the rest of the war in an ad hoc position. Wilkinson, who had started the whole affair with his drunken chatter and who had been tabbed to be secretary of the Board of War, was forced to resign in March 1778.
As for Conway, he was transferred to the Hudson Highlands to a second-in-command position for an invasion that never happened. On April 22, 1778, Conway tried the same tactic of submitting his resignation to the Continental Congress, hoping for a similar outcome as before, a better role, and a possible change of scenery from New York. Instead, congress accepted it. On July 4, 1778, Conway stepped ten paces with General John Cadwalader who had challenged the Irishman to a duel over the slanders against Washington. Cadwalader shot Conway through the cheek. Although not a mortal wound the gunshot took time to heal. During this time Conway did issue an apology, in writing, to Washington before setting sail back to France.
The “Conway Cabal” a loosely organized effort to oust Washington ended with what one modern historian of this era viewed as a positive for the independence movement. Washington navigated the possible intrigues with a skill that would serve him well as the first president of the United States of America. In the present, the “cabal” showed the grasp over the army that Washington enjoyed. Couple that with the addition of French aid due to the newly signed alliance and the ingredients were there that made it possible to win the war.