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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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.”


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