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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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.”


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