Boots & Sabers

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2209, 15 Mar 21

Washington Ends the Newburgh Conspiracy

On this day, Washington saved our nation again. Truly the Indispensable Man.

And here, on March 15,1783, Washington’s officers met for what the historian James Thomas Flexner saw as “probably the most important single gathering ever held in the United States.” That gathering involved mutiny. Mutiny by Washington’s officers.

 

Some historians call the incident the “Newburgh Addresses”; others know it as the “Newburgh Conspiracy.” Simply stated, it was a chain of events culminating in a meeting to decide whether the officers would trust Congress to redeem overdue pay and pension claims or whether they would open the national treasury with the army’s bayonets. In every successful armed rebellion the generals eventually must decide whether to yield to civil authority or opt for military dictatorship. The choice they make frames that country’s future. For America the hour of decision fell in the last, bitter winter of the war.

 

Washington’s concern for his camp’s appearance was not for aesthetics alone. Having commanded the army for more than seven years—outlasting three British counterparts—he knew his regiments well. And he sensed that the army’s morale, particularly that of its officers, was as low now as it had been at any other time during the war—even the dark winter days of Valley Forge. He expected trouble. Keeping everyone busy might help.

 

[…]

He rode to the cantonment. All seemed calm, but a sixth sense sharpened by many crises warned him that it was not. Long-shared camaraderie seemed strained. Officers swept off their hats in salute but avoided his eyes and did not smile. This was new. An unmistakable hostility lurked near the surface. The officers seemed almost embarrassed by his presence.

[…]

 

Washington shuffled his papers. He had labored over his speech. But it held long, involved, cumbersome sentences. When spoken, the muscle was lost in the flesh of ornate composition. Washington could not match Brutus as a writer.

In desperation he took a letter from a pocket of his regimentals. In it Congressman Jones praised the army and pledged his support. Perhaps this would help. As Washington opened the note, there was a murmur among his officers. Washington took that as impatience. He cleared his throat and attempted to read.

 

He could not. The script was too small. His eyes could not focus. The dim letters blurred. Helplessly he fumbled in another pocket for his spectacles. As he donned them, the murmur increased. Again he thought it impatience. He adjusted the spectacles. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”

 

It was enough. They’d not been impatient. The murmur was one of sympathy, understanding, affection. In their eight years together they had never seen Washington wear spectacles. He had seemed tired and worn before. Now he seemed older and vulnerable. He was only fifty but had aged this week. He had problems they didn’t even know about. If he still trusted the Congress, they could do no less.

 

Few heard as Washington haltingly read from Jones’s letter. No matter.

 

When he stopped, the officers crowded about him in reassurance and contrition. Some wept. Others simply stood, stunned and silent, as the general left the room.

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2209, 15 March 2021

1 Comment

  1. Merlin

    At the time of Washington’s address the notion of civilian supremacy over the military was taking a backseat (as in third row seats) to the primacy of the states over federalism.

    By that point in the war the Treasury was well beyond broke and the Continental Congress had no way to levy taxes to pay for Washington’s war effort. Entire regiments had been retired for lack of means. Recruitment and retention of troops for the Continental Army was nonexistent. The various states had always paid more and provided better means for their own militias and were benefitting from Washington’s loss of talent and experience as enlistments expired. States were ignoring resolutions from the Continental Congress pleading for resources.

    The complex dynamics of distrust between the states and the crown, the states and a new federalism, and the colonist and loyalist militias simultaneously trying to burn each other out of existence made for an incredibly brutal atmosphere. Had Washington’s address to his officer corps not bought him an additional six months or so of time, the likelihood is that his Continental Army would have dissolved and been absorbed into the already better resourced state militias. There can be plenty of speculation on how that would have worked out.

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