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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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.”


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