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Conway Cabal

The Conway Cabal refers to a loosely organized attempt by a group of military officers and members of Congress to remove General George Washington from command of the Continental Army and replace him with Major General Horatio Gates. The supposed leader of this movement was Brigadier General Thomas Conway, an Irish member of the French army who commanded a brigade in Washington's army. Conway was critical of Washington's performance in the Battle of Brandywine and boastful about his own feats at the same engagement. Shortly after Brandywine, Conway wrote Congress requesting a promotion to the rank of major general. Washington protested Conway's promotion and was irritated by the request, believing it would have disastrous effects on the morale of more senior officers.

In October 1777, Conway wrote a letter to encourage Gates' ambitions, arguing that "Heaven has been determined to save your Country, or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruined it." Washington learned of this letter from Lord Stirling who was informed by a member of his staff. Stirling's colleague heard the details of the letter from a drunken James Wilkinson, Gates' aide-de-camp. In response, Washington informed Conway that he was aware of the contents of the letter, to which Conway replied that he never penned the phrase "weak general." Conway added that he believed Washington was influenced by men not equal to him in experience.

On November 14, Conway offered his resignation to Congress. However, instead of accepting the resignation Congress promoted Conway to the newly created position of Inspector General and to the rank of Major General. In addition, a Board of War was created to oversee Washington after some members of Congress, including Samuel Adams, Thomas Mifflin, and Richard Henry Lee, began to question whether Washington could lead the Americans to victory. Conway served with Washington at Valley Forge, and reported to the Board of War, which appointed Gates as its president on November 27, 1777. In response to these developments, Washington distanced himself from Conway. Nonetheless, Washington maintained that his personal dislike for Conway never interfered with their professional relationship.

Conway later discovered that Wilkinson was responsible for leaking the contents of the letter and subsequently informed Gates of the betrayal. In response, Gates wrote Washington a letter accusing someone of stealing his letters with Conway. The phrasing was suspicious, and Washington realized that Gates and Conway had been exchanging multiple correspondence because of the use of the word "letters."

The so-called Cabal collapsed on January 19, 1778 after Gates and Conway refused to hand over the "weak general" letter to Congress. At the same time, Washington's generals sent Congress letters of support for their superior, and the movement to remove Washington from command ended.

James Scythes
Instructor, History
West Chester University

Bibliography
Busch, Noel F. Winter Quarters: George Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge. New York: Liveright, 1974.

Chidsey, Donald Barr. Valley Forge. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1959.