Sunday, February 25, 2024

Lighting 293 Candles on Washington’s Cake—Part IV First in Peace


 In retirement at Mt. Vernon Washington and Martha greet visiting French generals, just some of a steady stream of visitors.

Note—We left George Washington resigning his commission before Congress.  Today the veteran comes home.

When George Washington rode up to his beloved Mt. Vernon in May of 1783 he had not seen it in nearly eight years.  After receiving his commission from the Continental Congress as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775 he had ridden post haste to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take up his duties.  He had stayed with his Army throughout the long war.  Unlike other senior officers, he never took a furlough and thanks to his amazingly robust constitution had never fallen seriously ill with any of the many camp malaise that laid low many requiring convalescent leave.  Nor, despite often exposing himself to danger and being an easy-to-spot target with his commanding 6’2” frame on his usual huge grey charger, was he ever seriously wounded.  After the disastrous Long Island and New York City campaigns, Martha would come up from Virginia to visit him in winter quarters, but he had never dared a separation from the Army.

He was luckier than many returning veterans.  The home plantation had escaped the ravages of war.  Banastre Tarletons raiders had never reached it in their rampages across Virginia.  Martha was not only a devoted wife, but she was a capable estate manager with the help of experienced overseers and many skilled slave craftsmen, the condition of the property was as good as could be imagined.  Of course, the war had disrupted the markets for his crops and other products and the economy of Virginia was a wreck.    There would be many long rides around the property and directing his slaves to make repairs and improvements up to his high standards. 

There was also desk work to attend to.  He meticulously assembled all of his expense records and submitted them to Congress for re-imbursement.  You will recall that Washington’s pledge to serve at no pay was a key point in winning the votes to be elected.  Now he expected to collect about $450,000.  If that does not seem out of line to modern eyes for eight years away at war, it was a jaw dropping figure in the 18th Century.  Washington’s accounts included receipts for the most trivial purchases—quills and ink, for instance and bootblack—but were somewhat vague on larger expenses including hauling his extensive baggage and the expenses of Martha’s annual visits.  He also picked up the expenses of his official family—the rotating cast of young pets, aides, and staff officers who shared his mess and usually quarters.   In a pinch the General had also personally assumed some expenses for the Army.  It added up.  Congress swallowed hard and eventually ponied up mostly in bonds and extensive land grants.

Washington also entertained a steady stream of old comrades, admirers, political connivers, and speculators offering golden opportunities.  He gently turned aside most of the politicians but sometimes entered into some speculation or another in Western land or a favored scheme.    He treasured his contact with his former officers and kept up a voluminous correspondence with many including Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, and the Marquis de Lafayette in France.

His ties with his officers led to the establishment of an enduring and from the beginning controversial organization.

Semi-legendary Roman Republic hero Cincinnatus was called from his plow to be Consul and dictator to meet a crisis and retired back to his farm when the emergency passed.

From the moment that he told his brother officers that he was retiring from the Army and public service in his famous Farewell at New Yorks Frauncis Tavern, the classical allusion loving educated elite who made up many of those officers began comparing him to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a patrician farmer of the early Roman Republic who gave up his plow to accept dictatorial powers as Consul and Magister Populi to meet an emergency.  After leading Rome to victory over an aggressor, he voluntarily gave up power and returned to the farm.  The humble act was even in antiquity so unusual that the name of Cincinnatus was remembered and revered long after the details of the crisis he met were but foggy memories.  

Even before the emotional meeting at the Fraunces Tavern Henry Knox, the former Boston bookseller, connected Cincinnatus with a society of Revolutionary officers that would honor Washington’s example of humble, selfless service.  A dinner meeting was called in May at Mount Gulian, also known as the Verplanck House chaired by another Washington favorite, Hamilton.  The dinner is often cited as the founding meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati. 

Continental officers, but not Militia or Volunteers, with three years service in the war or who were on active service at war’s end were eligible for membership.   Also eligible were senior officers of the French Army and Navy who had been involved in the Yorktown campaign and naval actions off the coast and in the Caribbean.  Most controversially, membership could be passed on to eldest sons by the traditional feudal rule of primogenitor.  Many critics felt that smacked of aristocracy and some feared it opened the gate to the creation of an American hereditary nobility.

But the idea was a success and by the end of 1783 functioning chapters were up and running in all thirteen states and King Louis XVI ordained the French Society of the Cincinnati, which was organized on July 4, 1784.  Almost half of the eligible 5,000 men had enrolled in chapters by year’s end.  Members proudly wore and displayed an Order medal featuring an eagle on a blue, white, and buff ribbon.  

The Diamond Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati was the gift of French naval officers to George Washington in 1784 and has been the official insignia of the Society's president general ever since.

Washington initially has some reservations about the organization, especially when some officers did seem to feel that membership should make them eligible for special privileges from the State governments and feeble central  government under the Articles of Confederation.  He discouraged such talk pointing out that Cincinnatus was a model of selfless service and simple republican virtue.  Finally, however, he concluded that even with hereditary membership, it was not an order of nobility since no title, privileges, or property were granted by any state for membership.  In December he allowed himself to be elected President General of the Society and he served in that largely ceremonial position until his death.  Washington almost always wore his Society medal pinned to his coat including his entire time as President.

Controversy over the Order and Washington’s part in it would erupt again during his second term when radical Republican clubs which supported the French Revolution again leveled charges of aristocracy.   The Order of the Cincinnati continues to exist to this day and is open to one lineal descendent at a time of the originally eligible officers.  The members frankly consider themselves an elite but the Order keeps a low profile and is not involved in any political activity.

One of Washington’s prime post-war concerns was his vast western land holdings.  He had received grants for his service in the French and Indian Wars from both the British and from Virginia which claimed western lands stretching from today’s western Pennsylvania all the way to the Mississippi River and theoretically to the Western Ocean. 

On paper he was easily the largest landowner in the new United States.  But he was having a hard time turning vast potential wealth into reliable income.  Part of the problem was that continuing Indian warfare on the frontier prevented settlement of much of his Ohio Valley claims.  But a bigger problem was a combination of squatters who would not pay rent and settlers on the land with conflicting claims.

Washington’s vision was for a kind of feudal empire.  He did not want to sell the land he claimed instead he wanted to offer it to settlers on 999 year leases with a relatively moderate annual rent that would provide Washington and his heirs a steady and reliable income for generations.

So, one fine morning Washington packed his saddle bags, mounted his big horse, and rode out of Mt. Vernon to visit the area he had last seen at Braddocks Retreat back in 1755.  In the years since the mostly trackless wilderness and Native hunting grounds around the headwaters of the Ohio had been settled, more or less, by frontier farmers.  The smoke of chimney fires rose from stump clearings in the forest and spread over valleys and hollows of the hilly country.  The old General would ride up to a cabin and surprise the astonished farm family, often sitting down to supper with them and stretching out his long frame on a palett  by the fire for the night.  He was friendly, but firm.  The settlers he saw as squatters on his land would have to agree to his offer of a 99 year lease or vacate the property and move on.

After years of dispute most of Washington's western land holdings ended up in Pennsylvania, not Virginia.  The area included Ft. Pitt and the newly created Washington County were his claims against squatters was heard.

Of course, the settlers saw things differently.  Many thought they had earned the land by virtue of their sweat and labor and the improvements they had made.  Some had blazed and surveyed their land, filing claims with local courts either unaware of Washington’s claims or believing them to be unenforceable yet others had grant papers from Pennsylvania which along with Virginia and New York all claimed the area.  None were willing to pay rent or vacate.

Washington rode home without satisfaction but he hired lawyers to file suit in recently created Washington County, Pennsylvania against David Reed and other dissenting Presbyterians known as the Seceders for back rent and possession of the land.  In 1786 with an eastern Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice presiding on circuit—an establishment type bound to be sympathetic to a gentleman of property and the Great Man of his era—ruled in Washington’s favor.  The General waived the back rent if the settlers would sign the long leases.  Most declined, lost their land and investments, and moved on.  But Washington was no more successful in getting anyone else to accept the deal and other squatters remained on other plots.

The Western visit would sour the feelings between Washington and the western settlers whether or not they were on his land.  Washington now regarded them as a lawless rabble and they in turn viewed him no longer as the hero of the Revolution, but as oppressor just like the British.  These attitude would come to a head years later in the Whiskey Rebellion and explain Washington’s use of a massive army to enforce taxation on locally produced whiskey.

Back home Washington tried to stay out of politics, but it was not easy.  The weakness of the Articles of Confederation presented him with practical problems, especially the attempt of Pennsylvania and other states to levy internal tariffs on products from other states.  This made it difficult and expensive for him to market his wheat and other crops there or in nearby Maryland.  His protégé Hamilton had his ear with his complaints that the war debts of the Confederation and the several states were crippling commerce, trade, and development.  And he was concerned that the Confederation was so militarily weak—the Continental Army had been dissolved and the equivalent of a single regiment was spread uselessly to small frontier garrisons—that it was unable to protect settlers in the Trans-Allegheny west from continuing Indian warfare. 

A fellow Virginian, young James Madison working in concert with Hamilton proposed a conference of states in 1786 to meet at Annapolis to hash out some common problems—a dispute between Maryland and Virginia over navigation rights on the Potomac and Rhode Islands levy of an impost on all traffic on the Post Road that was the only recognized route connecting the Southern states with Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.  In addition, Shays Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts just before the conference convened scaring the hell out of propertied classes in all of the states.  The lack of Federal armed forces meant it took weeks for Massachusetts to mobilize its Militia to quash the rebellion.

Five states clustered around the Mid-Atlantic convened for the meeting but determined that the problems could not be addressed without changes to the Articles of Confederation which severely restricted effective central government.  At Madison’s urging they sent out a call for a new Convention of the states to amend the Articles.  Madison and Hamilton persuaded a reluctant Washington to attend as a Virginia delegate.  His presence and prestige were essential in persuading other states to have the confidence to send delegations.

As President of the Convention, Washington presided over the signing of the Constitution.  All of the delegates present were represented in this painting.  At the foot of the platform are critical actors Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison.

The Convention convened in Philadelphia in May 1787 as delegations dribbled in.  It officially opened on May 25 and Washington, in whom everyone had confidence, was unanimously elected President of the Convention.  He took a high-backed chair with a sun carved on the back to assume his duties Pennsylvania State House also known as Independence Hall.  He presided with even-handed probity through the long deliberations that summer in the very room where he had accepted his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. 

Madison and other members of the Virginia delegation had no intention of simply modifying the Articles.  Instead at the outset of the convention he presented the Virginia Plan for a whole new government.  That plan would become the basis of discussions.  Since the Convention almost immediately exceeded the authority of its call and there was a general fear that public demonstrations would make calm deliberations impossible.  The proceeding would be held in the strictest secrecy.

The stoic Washington was not sanguine as deliberations dragged on through the sweltering heat.  He confided to Hamilton, “I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.”  He seldom interjected himself into the proceedings but when a stubborn minority was putting up a fierce resistance to the powers of the proposed new Federation he privately met with arch anti-Federalist Patrick Henry, the former Revolutionary firebrand and governor of Virginia arguing that the only alternative to the new government would be anarchy. 

When all of the complex compromises were reached however and the proposed Constitution came before each state delegation for a vote, the always proper Washington declined to cast his vote in the Virginia delegation because everyone knew that the enumerated powers of the new Presidency were tailored in the universal expectation that he himself would exercise them. 

After much wrangling a draft of the Constitution was approved and a signing ceremony was set for September 17.  Several delegates were unhappy with the product and left before the signing and three of those remaining refused to sign—Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.   They demanded a Bill of Rights.  Other delegate accepted Madison’s assurance that a Bill of Rights could be added as amendments after the adoption of the basic structure of the government. 

Then there was one last glitch.   Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts suddenly proposed an amendment to lower the size of Congressional Districts from 40,000 to 30,000 citizens.  Washington, who had refrained from participating in debates, spoke in favor mostly to move things along and it carried without further debate.

Then the final vote was taken.  Since Rhode Island had never even sent delegates and three of the four members of the New York Delegation had gone home, Washington announced the results—the document carried by “eleven states, and Colonel Hamilton.”  As presiding officer, he then was first to sign the document followed by other who were present.  Still others added their names later. 

Washington returned once again to Mt. Vernon.  It was known that he approved of the product but since he was expected to be elected President, he abstained from the ratification debates that raged in the states leaving it to Hamilton and Madison to defend the new Constitution with John Jay in the Federalist Papers.  

After ratification was finally complete the old soldier prepared for his new service.

Next— We will have to keep entries on Washington's presidency and final years--at least three more chapters, for another time.


Saturday, February 24, 2024

Lighting 293 Candles on Washington’s Cake—Part III The Long War and Keeping a Republic


As Washington looks on General Benjamin Lincoln accepts the sword of surrender offered by British General Charles O'Hara on behalf of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown ending major combat between armies in North America during the Revolution--but not ending the war itself.

NoteYesterday we left George Washington in winter quarters in January 1777 at the end of a little more than a year and a half of eventful active command of the Continental Army.  .

The British musicians had it right when they played The World Turned Upside Down on October 19, 1781.  On that day British forces commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis marched out of their fortifications at Yorktown, Virginia between ranks of Continental Army and French troops. Cornwallis, feigning illness, dispatched Irish born Brigadier General Charles OHara to do the distasteful duty.  O’Hara attempted to offer the sword of surrender to the senior French officer, the Comte de Rochambeau who declined pointing to General George Washington.  Washington, irked at Cornwallis’s breach of decorum, likewise refused to accept the sword from an inferior officer.  He chose his subordinate, General Benjamin Lincoln, who had been humiliated at the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, to accept the sword.  7,087 British and German mercenary officers and enlisted men and 840 sailors from the British fleet in the York River lay down their arms.

Modern historians accurately emphasize that the victory at Yorktown would have been impossible except for the large French Army under Rochambeau and the presence of the French Fleet under the Comte de Grasse at sea.  After the patriotic hagiography of Washington in the 19th Century, it has become fashionable to decry the Continental commander’s generalship, particularly in light of his long string of battlefield losses to the British—especially the disastrous Long Island campaign.  But Washington was masterfully in command of the operation from the time the allies reached agreement in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Since the moral boosting but small victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington’s main achievement had been just keeping his army in the field against a far superior force through terrible deprivation and brutal winters at Valley Forge and Morristown, with poor material support from a Congress with no power to levy taxes in to pay for the war. 

On the battlefield in personal command, Washington’s record was at best mixed.  In 1777 he lost the Battle of Brandywine allowing Major General Lord William Howe, Commander in Chief of His Majestys Forces in North America, to capture Philadelphia and also lost an attempt to go on the offensive at Germantown.  He was able to deter the always slow and timid Howe from marching his army up the Hudson to join up with Gentleman Johnny Burgoynes invasion force from Canada.  A northern Army under Horatio Gates with the notable assistance of Benedict Arnold was able to destroy Burgoyne’s army in battles around Saratoga—a turning point in the war which encouraged the French to enter the conflict.  But because he was not on the scene, Washington would get scant credit in his role as over-all Commander in Chief.

Washington reams General Charles Lee a new one and dismisses him on the spot before rallying his fleeing troops at the Battle of Monmouth--a tactical stalemate that none-the-less turned the British back to New York.

The Battle of Monmouth in June of 1778, one of the largest field battles of the war, ended up at tactical tie after the early stages of the Continental attack against an army under new British commander Sir Henry Clinton were bungled by Washington’s old rival for command, General Charles Lee who he angrily relieved in the field.  Washington rallied his fleeing troops and snatched a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.  Despite not being beaten in the field, however, Clinton was discouraged and retreated to New York achieving Washington’s more important strategic mission—keeping the Continental Army in intact to fight another day.

In 1779 Clinton moved up the Hudson but was checked by a counter-offensive by outnumbered Continental units under General Mad Anthony Wayne.  Skirmishes at Verplancks Point and at Stony Point showed that the Continental infantry had become formidable and were an enormous boost to morale.  With the Continental also still in possession of key fortifications on the Hudson, Clinton was forced to turn back again.

While Washington went into another brutal winter encampment a Morristown, New Jersey, Clinton and much of his Army sailed south where they took Savannah from troops under General Benjamin Lincoln.  As much of the fighting shifted south, Washington’s influence in Congress was at its low point and he could not get his choice of Nathaniel Greene to take command there approved.  Instead, they appointed the official victor of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, who had been involved in plots to replace Washington in over-all command.  Gates failed badly and was finally replaced by Green who initiated a Fabian strategy of hit-and-run attacks and engaging in bloody battles which the British technically won but sustained heavy losses.  The British, now under Cornwallis after Clinton returned to New York, were forced to retreat north into Virginia where the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s young favorite, was playing cat and mouse with British raiders under Tory Col. Banastre Tarleton and turncoat Benedict Arnold.

The winter of 1780-81 instead of concentrating the army in one encampment as in the past, Washington dispersed his regiments to towns around New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in order to supplement inadequate rations from Congress with foraging opportunities.  On New Years Day, 1781 veteran troops of the Pennsylvania Line, some of the finest troops in the Army under the command of Anthony Wayne, mutinied.  They had not been paid by Pennsylvania since enlistment.   In fact, the only money most had ever seen was a paltry $20 enlistment bonus, far less than that paid by other states.  They had enlisted for “three years or the duration of the war” and figured that their enlistments expired on the First.  They resolved to march on Philadelphia to demand back pay.  One officer was killed trying to prevent it.  A committee of sergeants was elected to present their petition and negotiate.  They organized themselves into units and set off on an orderly march.  

The Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line on New Year's Day 1781 was more orderly than this illustration.  One officer was shot trying to prevent the men from leaving camp, but most marched away peacefully and in good order.

When Clinton heard of the mutiny, he offered the men immunity and parole plus enrolment bonuses and standard Regular Army pay if they would switch sides.  But the men refused and declared their loyalty to the new nation.  Washington and Wayne were sympathetic to the men and wrote in their behalf to both Congress and the government of Pennsylvania.  Eventually the crisis was averted due to loans arranged by financier Robert Morris.  Pennsylvanian agreed to discharge the three year men who did not accept a new, more generous, re-enlistment bonus. Approximately 1,250 infantrymen and 67 artillerymen were discharged.  Some later returned to the service for new bonuses.  Only 1,050 remained on the rolls.  Some regiments were disbanded and their remaining officers and men transferred to other units.  Almost everyone was given a furlough to go home with instructions to assemble with their new regiments which were each posted to different towns.  Almost all came back.  By spring Wayne was able to take command and march his men out for another campaign season.

The close thing, which had sent Congress into a panic, was indicative of Washington’s struggle keeping his army together and effective.

The years of effective stalemate between Washington’s main army and Clinton in New York was the background when Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island along with a formidable French fleet under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, and $20,000 in coin for the cash strapped Continental Army.  Together Washington and the French hashed out the plan to move swiftly to trap Cornwallis’s army in Virginia before Clinton could re-enforce it.  The audacious details of moving two entire armies—4,000 Continentals and 5,000 French—by a combination of forced march and sail all the way from Newport to Virginia were mostly the work of Washington himself.

The result was that the trap was successfully sprung, a text book siege and gallant final assault, plus the French fleet fighting off the Royal Navy and preventing re-enforcements.  The world was indeed turned upside down.  But the war was not over.  Clinton still had a large Army in New York and fighting on the western Frontier continued with ever greater cruelty and brutality on both sides. 

But the American Revolution was now another world war, an extension of a long series of European and colonial conflicts between the British and the French.  The interests of both nations in the Caribbean, Africa, and India were now in play in addition to the fate of American Independence.  The treasuries of both countries were being bled dry and their military and naval forces stretched to the limit.  In Paris Benjamin Franklin and John Adams now had leverage to open negotiations to end the war with recognition of U.S. Independence.  But the process would take time.

Under the circumstances neither Washington nor Clinton wanted to risk their armies wastefully.  They went into a long period of wary, watchful waiting.

But the Continental Army was idle and hungry.  An idle, hungry army is a very dangerous thing.

The aftermath of other revolutions won by rebel armies after protracted wars would come to similar cross roads.  It almost never ended well.  Usually the victorious General would place himself at the head of his troops and overthrow what civil revolutionary authority there was, declaring himself President, Dictator, or Monarch and consolidating his power by lavishing the spoils of war on his officers and men.  Other times revolutions devolved into bitter civil war.  Almost never did it end with civil government intact and hardly a shot fired in anger.

One man, General Washington himself, prevented calamity in one of the most important acts of his distinguished career and one that is little remembered today.  This is what happened.

The bulk of the Army had been encamped at Newburgh, New York to keep the British Army under close surveillance and bottled up in New York City since March of 1782.  As another winter approached, all eyes turned to Congress where proposals to provide pensions when the Army was inevitably disbanded were being debated.

In 1780, to squelch earlier discontent among the troops, Congress had pledged to, on the model of the British, put all officers on half-pay for the rest of their lives.  Now the treasury, such as it was, was empty and with no power to compel the states to fund the government under the new Articles of Confederation, there was no way to make good on that promise.  Worse, in January Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris announced that the coffers were empty and that he was suspending paying the Army.

Previously Morris, a financier and one of the wealthiest men in the new nation, had met such emergencies by personally guaranteeing notes—and buying many of them himself.  That he refused to do so at this juncture was part a plan of a faction of Congress known as the Nationalists to put pressure on the new government to assert limited powers of taxation, notably the ability to levy an import duty or impost.  This was bitterly opposed by a larger block of Congress and many states had passed instructions to their delegates forbidding them to vote in favor of payments of pensions fearing that it would force the adoption of taxation.

The Nationalists, who included Morris, Gouverneur Morris of New York, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton who had left the Army to take a seat in Congress from New York, backed the impost plan not only to meet obligations to the Army, but to pay the many debts Congress amassed during the Revolution.  They hoped that a possible crisis involving the Army might force Congress to move.  They were in more or less confidential communication with officers in the Army, including some senior commanders.

Among those was one of Washington’s favorite officers, General Henry Knox who was encouraged to draft a memorial to Congress signed by other senior officers of such impressive stature that they could not be dismissed as mere malcontents.   After expressing dissatisfaction with the suspension of pay, the memorial offered a compromise on the pension issue.  Instead of half pay for a life time, they indicated the Army would be satisfied with a lump sum payment.  It concluded with a not very veiled threat that “that any further experiments on their [the army’s] patience may have fatal effects.”  Private messages were also sent to Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln, himself recently out of the Army and the officer delegated by Washington to receive the surrender of the British at Yorktown, that made clear the dangerous state of moral in the Army.

The memorial was delivered to Congress by General Alexander McDougall and Colonels John Brooks and Matthias Ogden in late December 1782.  McDougall and Brooks lingered in Philadelphia to lobby Congress and monitor the situation.  They met with a special committee in early January to explain the seriousness of the situation.  That committee reported to the whole body on January 22 at which time Robert Morris shocked Congress by announcing his resignation in despair of the body acting.  The nationalists twice tried to pass legislation calling for pensions at full pay to end on a specific date as an alternative to the original lifetime half pay or the Army’s immediate lump sum.  On February 4 Congress rejected the proposal for the second time.

General Horatio Gates, the victor in the Saratoga campaign with the significant assistance of Benedict Arnold, was the second senior officer in the Army but was involved with the Newburgh conspirators and was not trusted by Washington.  He sat helplessly at the meeting of officer who Washington masterfully won over with a dramatic gesture.

Brooks hastened back to Newburgh to rally the officer corps for more decisive action.  McDougall wrote Knox under the significant pseudonym Brutus suggested that the Army refuse to disband when peace was announced until their demands were met.  That action would be virtual mutiny in the face of an order from Congress to demobilize.  Knox was sympathetic but non-committal.

Meanwhile other dissenting forces in the Army became involved.  That included the staff of Washington’s chief rival General Horatio Gates, the victor at Saratoga and a clique of younger officers long dissatisfied with Washington’s leadership and outside the thrall of the cult of personal loyalty to him.  Nationalists in Congress may have believed that these officers might be the core of a coup d’état should it become necessary.

By mid-February rumors that a peace treaty was at hand swirled around both the capital in Philadelphia and the camp in Newburgh, bring the situation closer to crisis.  Hamilton wrote privately to Washington, his patron in the Army and who was said to regard him, like the Marquis de Lafayette as a son.  Taking advantage of the relationship, Hamilton warned the General of the dangers in his camp and urged him to “take the direction” of the army’s anger—in other words be ready to assume command of a coup against Congress.

Shocked, Washington wrote back that he sympathized with the plights of both the Army and of Congress but flatly said that he would be no part of a plan to use the Army as a threat to the civil government in contradiction to the republican principles on which the war had been conducted.

On February 21 Knox dashed the hopes of Congressional Nationalists that he would lend his prestige to a threat not to disband the Army undoubtedly after consultation with Washington.  In letters he expressed again sympathy for the Army’s plight but declared he would not participate in any mutiny or revolt and expressed the hope that the Army would only be used “against the Enemies of the Liberties in America.”

Without the support of Washington and Knox—indeed with their declared opposition—the Nationalists turned their attention to Gates as their best bet for a man on a white horse.  They sent Gates a signal of their support should he decide to move with Pennsylvania Colonel Walter Stewart, returning to duty after an illness.  He arrived in camp on March 8 and met with Gates.  Rumors about an impending demonstration of some kind swirled through the camp.

On March 10 an unsigned letter, later attributed to Major John Armstrong, Jr. who was an aide to Gates, began circulating in camp calling for a meeting of field grade officers the next day, March 11 at 11 am.

As soon as Washington got wind of it he denounced the “disorderly... and irregular nature” of the anonymously called meeting in his general orders of the day on the morning of the 11th.  Without explicitly banning the meeting, he proposed his own meeting of officers on March 15.  The letter was carefully worded to give the impression that Washington himself would not attend.  Instead, he directed the meeting to be chaired by the “senior officer present” knowing full well that would be Gates.

The next day a second anonymous letter appeared claiming that Washington’s endorsement of a meeting on the 15th was a signal the General would support a threat in force to Congress.  Washington was furious.

For the next three days the camp was awash in rumors and whispered plot.

On the appointed time on Saturday, March 15 the officers assembled in the New Building or Temple which had just been constructed and was the largest facility in camp capable of hold such a meeting.  As expected, Gates took the chair.  Shortly after he called the meeting to order, Washington suddenly and unexpectedly appeared and asked permission to address the assembly. 

His sudden appearance caused quite a stir—and for one of the few times in his experience in the Army the greeting was not unanimously adulatory. Younger officers and those who had not personally served close to him hooted and jeered.  Gates must have been none to glad to see his commander, but had no choice but to allow him to speak.

Washington came to the front of the room and turned to face his officers.  He gave a short speech with unusual heat and passion, a departure from his carefully cultivated image of lofty probity.  He had carefully drafted the statement, but gave it without notes as if extemporaneously.   He called upon the assembly to oppose anyone “who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.”

"I have grown not only gray, but nearly blind in the service of my country"  Washington told his brother officers at Newburgh bringing many to tears and diffusing a potential mutiny or coup against Congress.

Then he drew sheets of paper folded in half length-wise from inside his coat. It was a letter from a member of Congress, he said.  He fumbled with the paper and seemed to have difficulty reading it.  He then drew from another pocket a new pair of spectacles.  Almost no one except his closest aides had yet seen him wear them.  He slowly unfolded them and perched them unsteadily on his nose.

“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”  Many of the officers wept.  The sympathy and sentiment of the room swung immediately to Washington.  After reading the letter, which really added little to the issue at hand, the General bowed and left the building without waiting for a response.  He didn’t have to wait.  The conspiracy or potential coup or whatever had been afoot collapsed.

A motion was made to denounce the anonymous letters.  It passed virtually unanimously with only Colonel Timothy Pickering protesting.  Other motions affirmed the loyalty of the Army.  A committee consisting of General Knox and Colonel Brooks was appointed to draft a final resolution which expressed the “utmost confidence” of the Army in Congress and the “disdain and abhorrence” for the irregular proposals circulated earlier.

How much of the proceedings that morning were carefully stage-managed in advance by Washington and Knox and how much was happy accident is hotly debated by historians.  I am in the camp that recognizes Washington as a brilliant tactician.  The old fox knew exactly what he was doing.

General Washington accompanied by his slave is pictured with the rolled up speech delivered before his officers at Newburgh.  Painting by John Trumbull.

The speech went down in history as the Newburgh Address, but it was a bit of stage business that carried the day.

Meanwhile Washington sent copies of both the anonymous letters and his address to Congress which was debating, yet again, the pension issue.  Even steadfast opponents now realized how narrowly disaster had been averted.  The Nationalist now saw an opportunity.  They advised the creation of a committee to study the intelligence and come up with a solution.  Shrewdly, they stacked the committee with steadfast opponents of any pension plan.  But presented with mounting evidence of deep dissatisfaction in the Army and the prospect that in the future Washington might not be able to so deftly turn aside open rebellion, one anti-pension delegate, Eliphalet Dyer of Connecticut, now came forward with a proposal for a lump-sum payment, including arrears pay.

As finally approved, the pension plan called for half-pay for five years, mirroring the solution proposed by Knox and twice rejected before.  The payment was not in cash, but in government bonds, highly speculative securities many thought would be worthless.  Many officers sold their bonds to speculators for pennies on the dollar.  But those who held onto the bonds were made whole.  Thanks to the adoption of the Constitution, the new ability of the nation to levy import duties and all of the taxes, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s determination to fully pay off Revolutionary War debt, the bonds were redeemed by the government at full value in 1790.

But Congress was not yet out of the woods.  Discontent spread to the still uncompensated non-commissioned officers and there was some minor rioting in camp and talk of marching on Philadelphia to claim their back pay.  Once again the specter of the Army refusing to disband was raised.

On April 19, eight years to the day since the Battles of Lexington and Concord, with news of a final Peace Treaty confirmed, Washington declared the war over.  Congress quickly ordered him to disband the Army and voted each enlisted man and non-commissioned officer three months pay.  Since there were still no funds in the treasury, Robert Morris stepped up $800,000 in notes on his personal accounts to the troops.  Many soldiers, in need of cash just to get home, sold their notes to speculators at deep discounts.  The notes, whether retained by the soldiers or by the speculators were also paid off by Hamilton.

Soldiers left camp over the next few months either on a furlough from which they never expected to be recalled or outright discharged.  The notes were given them upon their separation.  This caused difficulties when a Pennsylvania regiment was swept by rumors that they would be discharged before getting their notes.  They departed camp and marched on Philadelphia in June, sending Congress scurrying to Princeton, New Jersey.  There is evidence that some supporters of the Newburgh plot also had a hand in this dangerous mini-uprising including Walter Stewart, John Armstrong, and Gouverneur Morris.

The crisis passed.  The Army was formally disbanded in November except for small garrisons at West Point and on the frontier.

But Washington had one last appearance before his officers which was also critical in staving off the hopes of some that they could become a hereditary class of American aristocrats.

Washington entered New York City to wild cheers after seeing the signal that the last British ship had taken sail in 1783.

It was only nine days after the English under Sir Guy Carlson, Commander-in-Chief of all British Forces in North America, sailed out of New York Harbor.  On the way out an enraged gunner on one of the ships let go one final round on Patriot crowds jeering on Staten Island.  The ball plunked pitifully in the water well short of its target.  Barring some skirmishing by Native allies on the frontier that was the last shot of the war.  The American Revolution was essentially over and to the world’s surprise the upstart Colonies were the victors.

Washington was hovering outside the city with many of his staff officers and top commanders waiting to take control of the last bastion of British power in the fledgling states. 

Although Carlson had received orders from London to evacuate in August, he informed the President of Congress in a letter that it would take weeks to complete the task because he would also be taking with him all of the Tory refugees who could reach the city—eventually 29,000 of them—and slaves who had escaped into British lines after they were promised freedom.   By the treaty ending the war, the slaves were supposed to be returned to their “rightful owners” but despite the objections of  Southern members of Congress, the new government was eager enough to see the Red Coat army gone that they were willing to wink at this breach of the treaty.

With the refugees and former slaves safely aboard, Carlton finally loaded his garrisons and set sail on November 27.

Washington refused to enter the city until his scouts confirmed that all the troops were gone and an English ensign flying from a high pole on the Battery Park was hauled down and replaced by American colors.  That was hard because the British had greased the pole. Numerous attempts were made before the flag was finally hauled down and the Stars and Stripes were nailed to the pole.

Immediately upon spying the new flag, Washington entered the city at the head of his troops and paraded down Broadway to the Battery.

Washington did not plan to stay long in New York after securing the city.  Like all soldiers, he was eager to return home.  But he had a few loose ends to wrap up first.

In the more than two years since the last major battle, the defeat of Cornwalliss army at Yorktown, Washington had to keep his army together and in the field until a treaty could be concluded and the British left.  But with the immediate military threat removed, Congress had been even more reluctant than usual to support the troops with supplies, provisions, and pay.  With victory at hand actual privation stalked the Army as it had in the bleakest days of the war.

Moral not only suffered, but mutiny brewed.  Although many veterans had been mustered out, fresh levies had taken their place.  A band of Pennsylvania troops stationed at Lancaster moved to march on the capital at Philadelphia.  They entered the city unobstructed and were joined by members of the local garrison who trapped Congress in the State House. 

Although the mutiny was quelled and the emergency passed, Washington was mortified.  He was also concerned by similar sentiments being voiced even among his closest circle of brother officers.  Many wanted their beloved commander to seize the government and rule as either a dictator—or even a king—who would dispense favors and honors among them.

Virtually unique in all history, Washington, the victorious commander, would have none of it.  He sincerely believed in civilian government and civilian authority over the military, even though it caused him no end of vexations. 

He decided to call his officers together for a “final farewell” before departing the city.  He chose the Frauncis Tavern, one of the few meeting places with food and drink in the city large enough for the gathering.  The tavern on Pearl Street had been built as the elegant mansion for a wealthy merchant but had been a popular gathering point since before the Revolution. 

                     Washington's Farewell to his officers set an example of modest retirement.

At noon on December 4, 1782, the day designated by Congress for the disbandment of the Continental Army, General Washington entered the Long Room of the tavern where 80 of his officers, including most of those to whom he was personally connected, were assembled.  It was an emotional scene.  It was described in 1830 in a memoir by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge.  Although some historians doubt the accuracy of such recollections long after the fact, most believe that something very like the scene he described actually took place:

At 12 o’clock the officers repaired to Fraunces Tavern in Pearl Street where General Washington had appointed to meet them and to take his final leave of them. We had been assembled but a few moments when his excellence entered the room. His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

After the officers had taken a glass of wine General Washington said “I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” General Knox being nearest to him turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.

Then, without much further ceremony or the need for pointed commentary, the offers rose to escort their commander to a barge that took him to New Jersey.  From there he rode to Annapolis, Maryland where Congress was sitting after the mutiny scare in Philadelphia.  There he submitted a final report and tendered his resignation.  Then on to retirement at Mount Vernon.

These final displays were the example to his officers and troops.  There would be no military coup, no dictatorship, no new American royalty and aristocracy.

It was an act more profound in many ways than any battlefield victory.

Tomorrow—First in Peace.