Winter of Discontent

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 7)

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.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus