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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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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