Conway Cabal



At that time occurred that episode in our history known as the "Conway Cabal"- a conspiracy to ruin the reputation of Washington, and to make Gates the commander-in-chief of the armies, of which intimations have been given in this work from time to time. The conspirators labored in secret, by means of forged and anonymous letters, and slanderous reports, to weaken the public confidence in Washington as a leader. Failing to effect their object by these means (for he was every day rising higher and higher in public esteem), it was determined to abridge his influence and extend that of Gates, by creating a new Board of War, with the latter officer as president. This was effected late in November, 1777. The Board was invested with large powers, and by delegated authority, assumed the control of military affairs, which properly belonged to the province of the commander-in-chief. It was evident that the Congress intended to make Gates the master-spirit of the war, for, by a resolution, that body instructed their president to inform the general of his appointment to an office "upon the right execution of which the success of the American cause does eminently depend," and that it was the "intention of Congress to continue his rank as major-general in the army, and that he officiate at the Board, or in the field, as occasion may require." His partisans in the Congress hastened to assure him that he would soon be the virtual commander-in-chief.

The conspiracy to this end was made more active when, at the middle of October, Washington wrote a letter to Richard Henry Lee, in which he spoke plainly concerning Brigadier-General Conway, a French officer of Irish lineage, who, it was rumored, was about to be appointed by the Congress a major-general in the Continental Army. "It will be as unfortunate a measure as ever was adopted," Washington wrote. "I may add, 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. The duty I owe my country, the ardent desire I have to promote its true interests, and justice to individuals, require this of me. General Conway's merit, then, as an officer, and his importance in the army, exists more in his own imagination than in reality; for it is a maxim with him to leave no service of his own untold, nor to want anything which is to be obtained by importunity." Washington's chief reasons for apprehending disaster from the promotion of Conway, was the fact that he was the youngest brigadier in the army, and his exaltation over all the eldest would create dangerous dissatisfaction. "In a word," he wrote, "the service is so difficult, and every necessary so expensive, that almost all of our officers are tired out. Do not, therefore, afford them good pretexts for retiring. No day passes over my head without applications for leave to resign. Within the last six days, I am certain twenty commissions at least have been tendered to me." He added: "I have undergone more than most men are aware of, to harmonize so many discordant parts; but it will be impossible for me to be of any further service, if such insuperable difficulties are thrown in my way."

Conway was informed of Washington's opposition to his promotion. His malice was aroused, and he became such a conspicuous instrument in promoting the conspiracy of Gates, that the affair became known as "Conway's Cabal." His pen and tongue were exceedingly active. He wrote anonymous leteers to the members of Congress, to the Patrick Henry (then governor of Virginia), and., it is believed, to the presidents of the several State Legislatures, filled with the complaints, insinuations and false statements, in which the recent disasters to Washington's army were attributed to the incapacity and ill-timed policy of the commander-in-chief. He did his best to sow the seeds of discontent among the officers of the army, and succeeded in a degree. He caused several officers to write letters to Gates that fed the conspirator's vanity and confirmed his hopes of success in his undertaking. Conway him-self and wrote to Gates, saying in substance: "Heaven has been determined to save your country, or a week general and bad counsellors would have ruined it." Colonel Joseph Reed wrote to him: "This army, notwithstanding the efforts of our amiable chief, has, as yet, gathered no laurels. I perfectly agree with that sentiment which leads to request your assistance." General Sullivan, Washington's second in command, who sell knew the opinion of his chief and other officers concerning Conway-of Greene and others who had pronounced him "worthless"- was induced to write to a members of Congress in favor of the French officer being appointed inspector-general of the army, with the rank of major-general; and the impetuous Wayne expressed his intention to "follow the line pointed out by the conduct of Lee, Gates and Mifflin." Mr. Lovell, a delegate in Congress from the Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Gates, which, after threatening Washington with "the mighty torrent of public clamor and vengeance," said: "How different your conduct and your fortune! this army will be totally lost unless you come down and collect the virtuous band who wish to fight under your banner.: Again Lovell wrote: "We want you in the different places; we want you most near Germantown [in the Washington's place]. Good God, what is situation we are in! how different from what might have been justly expected!" Dr.Benjamin Rush, in a letter to Patrick Henry, a little to Patrick Henry, a little later(to which he did not at its head, said: "A Gates, a Lee, or a Conway, would in a few weeks render them an irresistible body of the men. Some of the contents of this country." Henry showed his contempt for the anonymous writer, by his silence, and by sending the letter to Washington. Rush's hand-writing betrayed him.

Through the loose tongue of Wilkinson, Gates's favorite aide, Washington that heard of the disparaging words in Conway's letter, and he immediately let that officer know the fact. A personal interview ensured between them, when the Conway justifies his words and made no apology. He afterward boasted to Mifflin of his defiance of the commander-in-chief. Mifflin was then a member of the new board of War, of which the Gates was president. Piqued because of the just complaints of his neglect of the duty as quarter-master-general, by the commander-in-chief, he entered heartily into the conspiracy. When telling Gates of Conway's defiance of Washington, Mifflin said the letter of the French general was "a collection of just sentiments;" and Gates wrote to Conway: "You acted with all the dignity of virtuous solider;" at the same time he expressed a wish that "so valuable and polite an officer might remain in the service." Conway had offered his resignation; the Gates faction in Congress soon procured his appointment, by that made him independent of the commander-in-chief. The conspirators hoped, by these indignities, to cause Washington to resign. But the beloved patriot bore all with the patience. He wrote to henry Laurens form the snows of the Valley Forge: "My enemies take an ungenerous advantage of me. They know the delicacy of my situation, and that motives of policy deprive me of the defence I might otherwise make against their insidious attacks, They know I cannot combat their insinuations, however injurious, without disclosing secrets which it is of the utmost moment to conceal."

After the Conaway's interview with the Washington, the conspiracy took a more vigorous form. In consultation with that officer, and without the knowledge of the chief, the Boards of War arranged a plan for the winter campaign against Canada. Hoping to detach Lafayette from the Washington, they appointed him commander-in-chief of the expedition. The marquis, who was aware of the intrigues, asked Washington's advice in the matter. The chief said it was an honorable position, and advised him to accept the commission. Lafayette went to the Congress, sitting at York, to obtain it, and there he met Gates, Mifflin and other members of the Boards of War, at the table. Wine circulated freely, and toasts were offered. At length the marquis, thinking it the time to show his colors, arose and said: "Gentleman, one toast, I perceive, has been omitted, which I will now propose." They filled their glasses, when he gave: "the commander-in-chief of the American armies." The coldness with which that toast was received, confirmed Lafayette's worst opinions of the men around him. These were heightened when he found that the Conway's was appointed his second in command. He procured the appointment of De Kalb to that position, making Conway the third, which dissatisfied that officer.

The whole expedition was manifestly a trick of Gates to get Lafayette's away from the Washington, and to promote Conway. He had assured the marquis that three thousand troops would await his coming, at Albany, with the ample munitions, and that the Stark by that time would have destroyed the British vessels at St. Johns. Not more than a thousand soldiers, including a regiment which the Gates ordered form the Washington's weak army, were at the Albany when the marquis arrived, and the Stark was waiting for the orders. Clothing and transportation were wanting. Lafayette was disgusted. "I fancy," he wrote, "the actual scheme is to get me out of this part of the count5ry, and the general Conway as chief, under the immediate command of the Gates." The conspirators found they could not use Lafayette, and the expedition was abandoned. Conway's resignation was unexpectedly, by him, accepted by the congress. The leaders in the conspiracy, disconcerted by the events, hastened to declaim all the intention the elevate Gates to the place of Washington in the official station. But the circumstantial proofs of their intentions to do so are too abundant to admit of a doubt. Mercy Warren, a warm personal friend of Samuel Adams, apologized, in her history of the war, for his being found in the company of the conspirators, saying: "Zealous and ardent in his defense of his injured country, he was startled at the everything that seemed to retard the operations of the war, or impede the success of the Revolution." Alexander Hamilton, in the letter to the Governor Clinton in the February, 1778, deplored the weakness of the Congress at the beginning of the year. "America,: he wrote, "once had a representations that would do honor to any age or nations . The present falling off is very high alarming and the dangerous. What is the cause? and how is it to be remedied? are question that the welfare of these States required should be well attended to."





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