Winter of Discontent

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

George Washington’s troops could easily be followed as they trudged through the wintry expanse of southeastern Pennsylvania in late December 1777. The soldiers, many of them ragged and shoeless, left bloody footprints in the snow, marking the grueling progress of this army of the American Revolution toward winter quarters at Valley Forge.

There was no shelter for the men when they reached the exposed, hilly landscape of that misnamed redoubt, actually a plateau Washington chose largely for its defensibility. (A nearby hollow had once been the site of a smithy, hence the designation.) Tents provided their only barrier against frost and wind. Their commander in chief insisted that he, too, would shelter in a tent until his troops were able to cut down trees and construct log huts for themselves.

Washington despaired for the fate of his army. “The whole of them,” said his comrade-in-arms, Gen. John Sullivan, were “without watch coats, one half without blankets, and more than one third without shoes . . . many of them without jackets . . . and not a few without shirts.” None had enough to eat; some had gone hungry for days. Exhausted and ill, men were deserting in great numbers, heading home to their families and farms. It was a dark moment for the Revolution and for Washington. From his makeshift headquarters, he wrote to warn Congress: “unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place . . . this army must inevitably. . . starve, dissolve or disperse.”

At that instant, says Revolutionary-era historian Edmund Morgan, Washington was indeed “giving Congress the facts of life: you can’t fight a war without an army. He was operating at a big disadvantage; the state militias offered larger bounties than Congress did for serving in the Continental army.”

Yet even as Washington attempted to keep his army from disintegrating, he found himself challenged on another front. Prominent figures in the independence movement—most notably, some members of Congress—had begun to question his very fitness to command. Over the course of the next several months—until mid-March—Washington would be plagued by a small but vocal contingent calling for his ouster. They engineered a very real distraction at a moment of grave crisis.

More than two years before, on June 15, 1775, Congress had unanimously chosen the tall, 43-year-old Virginia plantation owner and gentleman farmer “to command all the continental forces, raised or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty.” During the French and Indian War two decades earlier, he had proved himself a courageous and levelheaded officer, serving under British command and as a colonel in the Virginia militia.

Washington had immediately justified the confidence placed in him by bringing order to the hodgepodge of militia contingents he led in what was becoming America’s war of national liberation. From disarray and muddle, he created an American army and, in March 1776, orchestrated its first significant achievement, besieging the British and causing them to withdraw from Boston, the principal redcoat base in America at the time. “This was the moment,” says historian John Ferling, author of the definitive Washington biography, The First of Men, “that George Washington first captured the imagination of the American people.”

But after Boston, his army suffered a series of serious reverses, including defeat at BrooklynHeights on August 27, 1776, and the loss of New York. “At this point,” says Ferling, “Washington was on the run. He nearly got trapped two or three times. During this period the British, under the command of General Howe, could have defeated him.”

Washington’s daring strikes against the enemy at Trenton on December 26 and Princeton on January 3, 1777, in New Jersey, boosted morale, but otherwise had little lasting military importance. Then came Brandywine Creek, in Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1777, where Washington failed to stop the British from advancing on Philadelphia, the capital of the Revolution. Members of Congress, who faced execution if taken prisoner, fled the city. This fiasco was followed by the Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, on October 4, where the Continental army snatched defeat from the jaws of victory through blunders in the field. Washington’s four-pronged attack for taking the city proved too complex for inexperienced troops to carry out. As his soldiers maneuvered in a dense fog, they accidentally fired on one another. Given this turn of events, few in Congress observed the progress of the war without growing anxiety.

In the small Pennsylvania market town of York, about 100 miles west of Philadelphia, where Congress reconvened, there was talk that the commander in chief was indecisive and overly dependent on the advice of his senior subordinates. Congressman Thomas Burke of North Carolina decried what he called the “want of abilities in our superior officers and want of order and discipline in our army.” Pennsylvania’s new attorney general, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, a former congressman, charged that Washington was responsible for “such blunders as might have disgraced a soldier of three months’ standing.” In a moment of despair, John Adams, although ever fearful that a tyrant might emerge to fill the gap left by the discarded British king, pleaded in his diary while en route from Philadelphia to York, “Oh, Heaven! grant Us one great Soul! . . . One leading Mind would extricate the best Cause, from that Ruin which seems to await it.”

Suddenly, it seemed, that desperate prayer had been answered: a patriot paladin appeared on the scene. Less than nine weeks before Washington’s troops retreated to Valley Forge—the main column arrived there on December 19—the Continental army had scored a decisive victory. On October 17, at Saratoga in eastern New York, American forces, under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates, inflicted the first major defeat of the war on the redcoats, their German mercenary auxiliaries and Indian allies. For Gates, the 49-year-old English-born son of a duke’s housekeeper, it was a moment of both tactical and symbolic triumph. The dashing John Burgoyne, campaigning down from Canada to split the states and crush the Revolution, was ignominiously forced to surrender himself and his army to the gruff, battle-hardened American, himself a former British officer. “One cannot underestimate the importance of Saratoga,” says Ferling. “It is this victory that induces France to come into the war.”

Gates’ success greatly lifted American spirits. But his victory also drew attention to the fact that Washington, his superior officer, could claim no equivalent battle honors. Within Congress, criticism of Washington’s performance escalated. Perhaps, some legislators suggested, the victor at Saratoga would make a better commander in chief than the general who had not prevented the British from taking Philadelphia.

Massachusetts Congressman James Lovell was scarcely alone in his view, as he wrote Gates, “The army will be totally lost unless you . . . collect the virtuous band who wish to fight under your banner.” Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, contrasted Gates, “exulting in the success of schemes planned with wisdom and executed with vigor and bravery,” with Washington, “outgeneralled and twice beaten.”

Most of the delegates at York, however, along with the majority of the Continental army’s officers and its ordinary soldiers, continued to esteem their commander in chief. They were well aware that it was Washington who had kept the army from dissolving, despite the paucity of resources provided by either the strapped and deeply shaken Congress or the newly independent states. When it was suggested to hulking Gen. Daniel Morgan, whose corps of riflemen had played a decisive role at Saratoga, that a handful of senior officers intended to resign unless Washington was removed, he unhesitatingly responded, “Under no other man than Washington as Commander-in-Chief would I ever serve.”

Washington knew well that he was blamed, in certain quarters, for the poor performance of his army. But he was faced with far more pressing matters. He had troops to feed, clothe, prepare for battle—and, most important, inspire: he understood that he must rally his remaining troops—about 11,000 all told at Valley Forge—and dissuade them from deserting. The commander of the Continental army was, according to Philander D. Chase, editor of The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, “astute enough to take a longer view of things. He understood that criticism, fair or unfair, real or apprehended, was part of the price that he had to pay to remain an effective leader and to achieve the aims of the Revolution.”

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.

At first, Washington, too, had been impressed by Conway’s credentials. Over time, however, he had come to believe that the French officer’s “importance in this Army, exists more in his imagination than in reality.” What troubled him most was Congress’s readiness to promote Conway over the heads of Washington’s own loyal brigadiers. Many of his officers, he warned, would refuse to serve under Conway and would simply go home. “I have been a slave to the service,” Washington informed Virginia Congressman Richard Henry Lee on October 17, 1777. “But it will be impossible for me to be of any further service if such insuperable obstacles are thrown in my way.”

While some in Congress would have welcomed Washington’s resignation in favor of Gates, the prospect of sowing confusion in the ranks, or even of causing an already demoralized army to disband, was alarming. The Continental army embodied the Revolution.

At this juncture, during the fall of 1777, Washington prevailed and Congress failed to act on Conway’s promotion. But Congress also, at this moment, reorganized its Board of War. That Congressional committee, charged with overseeing the struggle for independence, was in fact composed of members who possessed little understanding of military matters. Until then, the board had intervened only minimally when it came to the army. Now the committee would include senior officers; Washington, the commander in chief, was not consulted about whom they would be.

It was rumored that Conway might be among them. From the moment of his arrival in America in the spring of 1777, Conway had found that the organization of the Continental army clashed with his European understanding of how military units should be commanded, trained and deployed. He did not hesitate to express his deprecating views. After Congress, acting on the basis of Washington’s firm intercession, had failed to support his promotion to major general, Conway stepped up his campaign to defame the commander in chief. He informed General Gates that he wished to serve under him because “the more I see of [Washington’s] army the less I think it fit for general action.”

Recognizing the delicacy of the situation, Congress did not name Conway to the board. But it did appoint Thomas Mifflin, the army’s former quartermaster general. Once Washington’s friend, Mifflin had differed sharply on strategy and was now among the general’s most acerbic critics. He jealously asserted that the commander’s “favourites . . . had an undue influence on him” and told Gates that Conway’s criticism of Washington contained “just sentiments.”

But the most significant appointment to the board turned out to be none other than the hero of Saratoga himself: it was a decision bound to create problems. Ever since his victory only a matter of weeks earlier, Gates had behaved disdainfully toward Washington, his superior officer. He even failed to formally notify the commander in chief of the triumph at Saratoga. Instead, Gates reported directly to Congress, a gesture that implied he claimed equal status with Washington. He had been slow to respond to Washington’s request that some of Gates’ troops, no longer essential for much-reduced northern operations, be released to the south, where they were desperately needed. Now Gates emerged as the leader of the board that would superintend the operations of Washington and his ragtag army.

Although Washington surely must have been offended by this high-handed treatment, he refused to engage in a squabble over the appointments. Whatever his complaints about Congress’s shortcomings in providing supplies and pay for his men, he recognized the legislature’s authority over the military wing of the Revolution.

Substantial changes, too, in the character of the Congress that had ringingly declared American independence more than a year earlier, on July 4, 1776, intensified the divisiveness. Many of the original founding fathers had already left the legislature or were soon to depart. Thomas Jefferson had returned to Virginia to assist its transition from a royal colony to an independent state. Benjamin Franklin was in Paris seeking French assistance for America in the war. John Adams was preparing to join him there. Twenty-one-year-old Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide-de-camp, angrily demanded, “The great men who composed our first council; are they dead, have they deserted the cause, or what has become of them?”

Among the new delegates, few were as gifted, or would prove as memorable, as their predecessors. Much time was wasted in futile bickering. Henry Laurens of South Carolina, president of Congress during much of its York exile, grumbled, “Some sensible things have been said [here], and as much nonsense as ever I heard in so short a space.” Charles Carroll of Maryland complained, “We murder time, and chat it away in idle impertinent talk.”

Meanwhile, detractors in Congress were becoming increasingly critical of Washington. After visiting York, Lafayette returned to Valley Forge and declared himself outraged by “stupid men who without knowing a single word about war, undertake to judge you.”

The move to replace the commander in chief with Gates—or even, it was muttered, with Conway—came to a head early in 1778 after the Continental army had arrived at the glacial hell of Valley Forge. One of every four soldiers who wintered in that place would die there. Even hardened veterans, among them Albigence Waldo of Connecticut, an army surgeon who had served since 1775, were appalled by what they saw: “There comes a soldier,” Waldo wrote, “his bare feet are seen thro’ his worn-out shoes, his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings, his Breeches not sufficient to cover his nakedness. . . . He crys . . . I am Sick, my feet lame, my legs are sore, my body covered with this tormenting Itch.”

Reluctantly, Washington sent troops to seize food from nearby farmers. Already weighed down with dire anxieties, he suffered another blow. On December 13, he learned Congress had reversed itself and decided to appoint Conway to the Board of War, as inspector general of the army. What was more, Congress elevated Conway to the rank of major general—the promotion previously denied because of Washington’s objections.

Conway wasted no time in presenting himself at army headquarters, where, predictably, he was received with cold formality. Washington informed Conway that the newly conferred rank—a promotion the commander in chief dryly referred to as “extraordinary”—would offend many senior officers; he then asked to see specific instructions Conway had received from the Board of War. When Conway failed to produce such a communiqué, Washington had him shown out.

Upon his departure from Valley Forge, Conway sent Washington a letter barbed with sarcasm and self-justification, complaining their meeting had been a reception “as I never met with before with any general during the course of thirty years in a very respectable [French] Army.”

His patience exhausted, Washington decided to confront the Conway issue. He passed the new inspector general’s comments on to Congress, along with a bitter rebuttal of each accusation. Washington denied that he had received Conway with anything less than “proper respect to his official character” as an appointee of Congress. Nevertheless, he concluded, “My feelings will not permit me to make professions of friendship to a man I deem my enemy.”

All the while, despite reports from friends that members of Congress were maneuvering to install Gates in his place, Washington had not sought to clash with the victor of Saratoga. He refused to believe that the new president of the Board of War was conspiring against him. “Being honest himself,” Joseph Reed, Washington’s former military secretary wrote, “he will not readily suspect the virtue of others.” However, recognition of the challenge to his position became unavoidable.

Washington’s trusted friend Dr. James Craik, a senior army medical officer, wrote to inform him that although “they dare not appear openly as your enemies . . . the new Board of War is composed of such leading men as will throw such obstacles and difficulties in your way as to force you to resign.” Without consulting Washington, Gates’ board secured Congressional approval of a campaign to pursue the English into Canada (the plans were later aborted). Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, forwarded to Washington a disturbing anonymous letter warning that “unless a Moses or a Joshua are raised up in our behalf, we must perish before we reach the promised land.”

Increasingly exasperated by such taunts, Washington told a friend he would be happy to resign his command. “There is not an Officer in the Service of the United States,” he declared, “that would return to the sweets of domestic life with more heart felt joy than I should.” But he would do so, he added, only if the will of the people ordained it: he feared destabilizing consequences if he stepped down.

The unkindest cut, however, came from those who suggested he had concealed the appalling condition of his army in order to deflect criticism of his command. “My Enemies take an ungenerous advantage of me,” Washington protested to Henry Laurens. “They know I cannot combat their insinuations, however injurious, without disclosing secrets it is of the utmost moment to conceal.” Had they known its state, the redcoats, a mere 18 miles away in Philadelphia, might well have launched an attack.

While Washington hoped that the British commander, Lord William Howe, remained ignorant of the extent of the patriot army’s vulnerability as it bivouacked on frozen ground, members of Congress began arriving at Valley Forge to survey conditions for themselves. A shocked John Harvie of Virginia told Washington, “My dear General, if you had given some explanation, all these rumors [denigrating Washington] would have been silenced a long time ago.”

Within Congress, a growing recognition of Washington’s extraordinary leadership at Valley Forge—not only was he preventing the Continental army from dissolving, he was some-how inspiring his men under the cruelest of conditions—made a profound impression. Joseph Jones, a congressman from Virginia and a long-standing friend to Washington, wrote to offer his support: “The same equal and disinterested conduct, the same labor and attention, which you have manifested in the public service from the first of the contest, will shield and protect you from the shafts of envy and malevolence.”

Still, Washington decided the time had come to take up the festering matter of a letter that Conway had written to Gates that autumn, which referred to a “weak general” who might prove the ruin of America.

He had learned of the letter when one of Gates’ own aides had disclosed its contents to an officer loyal to Washington. When Gates discovered that the letter had been leaked to Washington, he wrote to him, demanding the identity of the “wretch” who had “stealingly copied” his private correspondence. Bent on dramatizing his challenge to the commander in chief’s integrity, Gates sent a copy of this letter to Congress.

It would prove an enormous blunder. Washington was, quite rightly, able to take the high ground when he replied to the slander. Why, he inquired of Congress, would anyone want to add needlessly to the burdens on the beleaguered legislature, pestering it with details of a personal disagreement? He pointed out that he had learned of the malicious Conway letter to Gates through an indiscretion by one of Gates’ own aides. Washington added that he had not previously gone public with the matter because he was “desirous . . . of concealing every matter that could give the smallest interruption to the tranquillity of this army.” In the end, the episode caused the hero of Saratoga, and Conway along with him, to appear small-minded and vindictive.

But what conclusively undermined Washington’s critics was the recognition that, whatever his shortcomings, Washington remained the individual who most represented the cause of liberty in the minds of the American people and its army. Mercy Otis Warren reported to her husband, Continental Navy Board member James Warren, that “The toast among the soldiers” is “Washington or no Army.” Thomas Paine, the conscience and primary propagandist of the Revolution, expressed the fervent hope that he could “shame [Washington’s critics]” or at least “convince them of their error.”

Congressman Jones accurately foretold that whatever the conspirators had intended, “it will redound to their own disgrace.” Men who had spoken belittlingly of the commander in chief would later deny they had ever held him in anything but the highest regard. Gates soon tried to effect a reconciliation with Washington, but his attempt was rebuffed. Congress later removed him from the Board of War and assigned him to a succession of field commands. His reputation as a military hero would soon come to grief in South Carolina where, at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780, his troops were routed by the British. During a hasty retreat, Gates’ undisguised anxiety for his own personal safety made him an object of ridicule among his men. “The general’s frantic dash from the scene,” says historian John Ferling, “proved his ruination.”

Mifflin also suffered a measure of disgrace. Charged with having contributed to the troops’ hardships at Valley Forge through mismanagement of funds as quartermaster general, he was forced to resign from the Board of War. He denied conspiring against Washington, insisting he had always “dearly loved and greatly admired” him.

As for Conway, who was scarcely the most significant figure in the Conway Cabal—despite the name by which it became known—Congress acted with crushing decisiveness. Still denied a senior command in the army, he offered his resignation April 1778 and was surprised when it was accepted. Before returning to France, he wrote Washington “You are in my eyes the great and the good man. May you long enjoy the love, veneration and esteem of these States, whose liberties you have asserted by your virtues.” In that, at least, his wish would be realized.

Historians disagree over the significance of the attacks on Washington. In his monumental biography of Washington, Douglas S. Freeman stated that “the imperative reason for defeating [the cabal] was to keep the Army and the country united in the hard battle for freedom.” But Ferling tends to minimize its importance. “I don’t really think the cabal existed as an organized conspiracy,” he says. “It existed more in Washington’s mind than in reality.” Certainly, Washington was convinced that a “malignant faction” had conspired to remove him. So, too, was Patrick Henry, who, along with others, feared for the patriot cause if such efforts had succeeded. Whatever the strength of those who considered Washington a liability, it is impossible to calculate the consequences for the Continental army, the American Revolution and the embryonic United States of America had their sentiments found greater resonance in Congress—and forced or provoked the man who would later be called the Father of the Country to resign his command.

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