Winter of Discontent- page 4 | History | Smithsonian
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Winter of Discontent

Even as he endured the hardships of Valley Forge, George Washington faced another challenge: critics who questioned his fitness to lead

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In addition, Washington was engaged in planning offensive campaigns against a powerful, well-supplied foe. “The British were indeed formidable,” says Ferling. “They had defeated the French in the French and Indian War; they also had the best navy in the world.”

 

To add to Washington’s concerns, for months he had contended with an assortment of European military officers, most of them French, who had converged on America to volunteer their services. They were recruited in Paris by Silas Deane, America’s first official diplomat.

 

Some of the officers Deane commissioned may have shared the principles that had sparked the American Revolution. But most had signed on to further their own military careers, hoping to leapfrog into higher ranks back in Europe. Washington welcomed some of those volunteers, who would prove of great value to the American cause. Notable among them were the Marquis de Lafayette, the 19-year-old French nobleman who became one of Washington’s most trusted aides; Friedrich von Steuben, the German soldier who would transform Washington’s ragged army into a disciplined fighting force at Valley Forge; and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish military engineer who contributed greatly to the American victory at Saratoga.

 

But some foreign officers who laid claim to senior command in the Continental army were a nuisance or worse—none more so than Col. Thomas Conway. He would figure prominently among Washington’s detractors, whom history would come to designate the Conway Cabal. A French officer of Irish origin, the 42-year-old Conway, high browed, thin lipped and supercilious, made it plain that he had come to America “to increase my fortune and that of my family.” He was a seasoned soldier who joined the French Army at the age of 14. Gen. John Sullivan, under whom he served in the ill-fated Battle of Germantown, believed “his knowledge of military matters in general far exceeds any officer we have.”

 

Congress quickly awarded Conway the rank of brigadier general; his military background and charisma earned him many an admirer in York. When he threatened to return to France unless promoted to major general, more than a few congressmen, convinced that Washington needed experienced commanders, took up Conway’s cause.

 

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