By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Americana Corner: The Newburgh conspiracy, part 2
tom hand new

Washington reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of glasses to assist his efforts. The men had never seen this indomitable man wearing spectacles and it surprised them to see him looking old and vulnerable.

 By early 1783, America was close to finalizing its peace agreement with England, but the Confederation Congress had some issues to resolve with its own discontented Continental Army At that moment, the internal threat of mutiny appeared worse than the external one posed by British forces.

The soldiers were encamped near Newburgh, New York and morale was low A group of politicians, led by Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris, called the “nationalists” because of their desire to see a stronger national government, was stirring up trouble in the ranks. They hoped to use this unrest to further their own desires to gain taxation powers at the federal level.

Under the current Articles of Confederation, only the states could raise revenues.

The nationalists soon found a willing accomplice amongst the officers in General Horatio Gates, George Washington's second-in-command. Gates was an interesting character who had a long history of being somewhat less than honest and trustworthy.

Gates had been the commander of the Northern Army during the Saratoga campaign in 1777. When the actual fighting took place, General Benedict Arnold led the men on the field of battle to victory while Gates stayed in his tent. However, when completing his after-action report of the battle, Gates failed to mention Arnold and claimed the victory for himself.

In 1778, Gates had led the so-called Conway Cabal, an effort to discredit General Washington and get Congress to replace the revered leader with Gates.

Fortunately for America, this scheme failed, and Gates was disgraced.

Then in 1780, Gates, as commander of the Southern Army, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the British at Camden, SC.

He was removed from his command and eventually went their own separate ways. He also requested all officers meet the following day to discuss their next steps.

General Washington quickly responded and called the summons “irregular” and “disorderly” He also asked that the meeting be delayed until March 15 to give emotions time to subside. The Gates’ crowd and the other officers agreed to this postponement. Importantly, Washington implied he would not attend the meeting.

At noon on the appointed day, Gates opened the session but was soon superseded when General Washington unexpectedly entered the room. He was not a gifted writer nor a great speaker, but he had a presence unlike any other and when he spoke people listened.

The great man had prepared a speech, now known as the Newburgh Address, which mentioned all the reasons why taking matters into their own hands would be a mistake for the officers, the Army, and the nation.

He urged the men to be patient and give Congress a chance to remedy the problem and insisted the civilian leadership would not let them down.

He closed his prepared statement by asking the group, ”.. .in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes.. .to overturn the liberties of our Country’’ Upon concluding this speech, General Washington did not feel he had reached his audience.

Consequently, he quickly retrieved a letter from his friend Congressman Joseph Jones to reiterate how Congress was doing all it could to help. Unfortunately, the writing was too small, and the General could not read it.

It ended up on Washington's staff in Newburgh, an unhappy and troublesome subordinate.

In any event, Gates was willing to cooperate with the nationalists and soon had his own subordinates working behind the scenes.

On Monday, March 10, 1783, an anonymous letter (later determined to have been written by Major John Armstrong, Gates’ aide-decamp, with two other Gates’ aides copying and distributing it) circulated around the Newburgh encampment.

It complained about Congress’s unfulfilled promises and suggested the Army should refuse to disband until its requests were met. The writer, who identified himself as “Brutus,” argued the officers would be powerless once they The General said, ’’Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service to my country’ Needless to say, there were many tears in the audience and professions of faith in the Commander’s position on the matter. General Washington had carried the day. Stay tuned to find out the aftermath and why it matters to us today.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Tove of country leads me.

Tom Hand is an alumnus of West Point and lives on Ford Plantation. He has his own website, americanacorner. com, and encourages you to take a look.

Sign up for our E-Newsletters