“Conway Cabal” Against Washington

Thos. Conway “Cabal” Against Washington

A MIDDLE-aged, jolly, dashing soldier of fortune came to America in 1777 and offered his services to the patriot army. He brought along with him no great military skill, but a most amazing capacity for making trouble. The soldier was Thomas Conway, a British subject, who had lived since early childhood in France. There he had joined the army and risen to a colonelcy. when he came here he was joyfully received. The Revolutionists lacked expert officers and they made him a brigadier-general.

The man’s boasts and his dashing ways impressed the simpler statesmen. But George Washington read him at a glance, for a windy, vicious incompetent.

So when congress decided a little later to make Conway a major general the chief sternly opposed such a promotion and gave his reasons for doing so. From that moment Conway was Washington’s sworn foe. One active mischief-maker can sometimes work more harm than a dozen wise men can undo. Conway at once joined Washington’s opponents in congress and the army, and started a campaign for the chief’s overthrow.

He and his associates formed what was known as the “Conway Cabal,” and did all in their power to undermine Washington’s influence. In a series of anonymous letters Conway ridiculed the chief as a coward and as too feeble of mind as a leader. He suggested Gen. Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief in Washington’s place. Not only did Conway and his friends win Gates over to this scheme, but they induced several prominent congressmen to lend their influence to the movement.

It was the Revolution’s dark hour. New York and Philadelphia were in the hands of the British. Washington and his army were starving and freezing at Valley Forge after a summer and autumn of repeated defeats. Men’s hearts grew faint and their allegiance weakened. Conway’s crafty words at such a moment fell on ready ears.

The cabal waxed strong. But for a mere accident it might readily have ended by depriving Washington of power and of placing the command of the patriot armies in the hands of Gen. Gates. And with fussy, inefficient, cowardly old Gates at the head of the American troops American liberty would have been doomed. Here, in brief, is the story of the accident that saved our country:

Gates’ aid, Wilkinson, drank too much one night and babbled to a friend of the chief some of the contents of a letter from Conway to Gates in which Conway had spoken insultingly of Washington. The story was told to Washington, who called Conway to account. Conway rushed to Gates for aid, and Gates tried to get out of the difficulty by branding Wilkinson as a liar.

Wilkinson promptly challenged Gates to a duel. Gates wept on Wilkinson’s shoulder and implored him to withdraw the challenge, speaking of himself as a feeble old man who loved Wilkinson like a father. In this way the frightened old general wriggled out of fighting.

Title: Life of George Washington: Vol. III
Author: Washington Irving
Publisher: Bohn, 1856
Chapter CXIII page 922

Meantime, thanks to the first hint, Washington learned of all Conway’s anonymous letters and other treacheries. The facts were made known to the people.

The cabal was crushed under a storm of public disapproval.

But Conway was not to escape so easily. He was challenged to a duel by Washington’s friend, Gen. Cadwallader, who proceeded to shoot him through the mouth.

Conway, believing himself dying, wrote one more letter. This time to Washington, asking forgiveness for his villainies and declaring the chief to be a “great and good man.” Then he “conditionally” resigned his commission as an officer in the American service. Congress accepted the resignation, unconditionally, and Conway went back to France.

There he styled himself “Count de Conway,” and managed to win an appointment as governor of one of France’s Oriental provinces. He made such a mess of his diplomatic work in his province of the Orient that he almost wrecked the French interests there. He returned to France and became a general in the royal armies.

During the French Revolution he was condemned to death. He was saved only by an appeal to Great Britain (against which he had fought in the American Revolution), but was compelled to flee from France for his life.

After that Conway disappeared from history. He is supposed to have died about 1800 in poverty and exile.

The Gettysburg Times (Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania) Jun 27, 1912

Image and excerpt quoted below is from the Lux Libertas website:

Most historians agree that the so-called “Conway Cabal” was not an organized effort to replace Washington with Gen. Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga or some other general.

But there were some in the Army who felt they were better qualified than the Virginian and several politicians were critical of his performance.

The so-called “cabal” was a lot of mutterings and niggling criticism that finally broke out in the open with the help of an arrogant Irish-born, French-reared soldier of fortune, Thomas Conway. He was recruited in France by Silas Deane and was granted the rank of brigadier general. Washington and many other American officers took an immediate dislike to the boastful Conway.

Read more at the Lux Libertas link above.

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