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The Conway Cabal was the only major political threat to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The “cabal,” or secret political group, consisted of several senior military officers who aimed to supplant George Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Thomas Conway, for whom the group is name, wrote several letters to the Second Continental Congress and others criticizing George Washington.
The Case Against Washington
In late 1776 and 1777, the Continental Army had experienced a series of significant setbacks, first in disastrous battles in and around New York City, and later at Brandywine Creek and Germantown near Philadelphia. Following the Battle of Brandywine Creek, British forces occupied Philadelphia, causing Congress to flee west to York, Pennsylvania. As Washington took up winter quarters with the Continental Army at Valley Forge, and as conditions there deteriorated for the army, some members of Congress began questioning whether Washington was fit for Commander-in-Chief. Some pointed to Horatio Gates, who took credit for the Patriot victory at Saratoga, as a possible replacement.
Collusion Between Conway and Horatio Gates
Thomas Conway, who served as the army’s inspector general at the time, and who served under Washington in the Philadelphia campaign, wrote a letter to Congress criticizing Washington and lobbying for this own promotion. Washington opposed the promotion of the Irish-born Conway, whom he considered arrogant. He also thought Conway’s promotion would anger those within his ranks that had served longer. In addition, Conway wrote a letter to Horatio Gates that alluded to Washington as a poor general and that it would be better served with Gates in charge. Washington received word of the letter, which caused him to believe his subordinate generals were seeking to supplant him. Washington became so famously annoyed by the sniping and letters that he threatened to resign from the army if it continued. Much to Washington’s chagrin, Congress would actually promote both Conway and Gates to the Board of War. Gates was named president of the Board of War and Washington’s relationship with both men took turns for the worse.
Washington Wins in the End
Eventually, however, because most of Washington’s contemporaries fully supported him, Congress reluctantly was forced to give full public support for Washington, short-circuiting any plots to remove Washington from command.
In the end, Conway resigned from the army and was later injured in a duel by a Washington supporter. Horatio Gates remained in the army, but his reputation was permanently marred. Gates would nearly be charged with cowardice after the Battle of Camden, which effectively ended his military career.