The True George Washington: Enemies: Conway

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


Thomas Conway was Washington's traducer to Gates. He was an Irish-French soldier of fortune who unfortunately had been made a brigadier-general in the Continental army. Having made friends of the New England delegates in Congress, it was then proposed by them to advance him to the rank of major-general, which Washington opposed, on the grounds that "his merit and importance exist more in his imagination than in reality." For the moment this was sufficient to prevent Conway's promotion, and even if he had not before been opposed to his commander, he now became his bitter enemy. To more than Gates he said or wrote, "A great & good God has decreed that America shall be free, or Washington and weak counsellors would have ruined her long ago." Upon word of this reaching Washington, so Laurens tells, "The genl immediately copied the contents of the paper, introducing them with 'sir,' and concluding with, 'I am your humble servt,' and sent this copy in the form of a letter to Genl Conway. This drew an answer, in which he first attempts to deny the fact, and then in a most shameless manner, to explain away the matter. The perplexity of his style, and evident insincerity of his compliments, betray his weak sentiments, and expose his guilt."

Yet, though detected, Conway complained to the Continental Congress that Washington was not treating him properly, and in reply to an inquiry from a member the General acknowledged that,?

"If General Conway means by cool receptions mentioned in the last paragraph of his letter of the 31st ultimo, that I did not receive him in the language of a warm and cordial friend, I readily confess the charge. I did not, nor shall I ever, till I am capable of the arts of dissimulation. These I despise, and my feelings will not permit me to make professions of friendship to the man I deem my enemy, and whose system of conduct forbids it. At the same time, truth authorizes me to say, that he was received and treated with proper respect to his official character, and that he has had no cause to justify the assertion, that he could not expect any support for fulfilling the duties of his appointment."

In spite of Washington's opposition, Conway's friends were numerous enough in the Congress finally to elect him major-general, at the same time appointing him inspector-general. Elated with this evident partiality of the majority of that body for him, he went even further, and Laurens states that he was guilty of a "base insult" to Washington, which "affects the General very sensibly," and he continues,?

"It is such an affront as Conway would never have dared to offer, if the General's situation had not assured him of the impossibility of its being revenged in a private way. The Genl, therefore, has determined to return him no answer at all, but to lay the whole matter before Congress; they will determine whether Genl W. is to be sacrificed to Genl. C., for the former can never consent to be concern'd in any transaction with the latter, from whom he has received such unpardonable insults."

Fortunately, Conway did not limit his "insulting letters" to the commander-in-chief alone, and presently he sent one to Congress threatening to resign, which so angered that body that they took him at his word. Moreover, his open abuse of Washington led an old-time friend of the latter to challenge him, and to lodge a ball, with almost poetic justice, in Conway's mouth. Thinking himself on the point of death, he wrote a farewell line to Washington "expressing my sincere grief for having done, written or said anything disagreeable to your Excellency.... You are in my eyes a great and good man." And with this recantation he disappeared from the army. A third officer in this "cabal" was Thomas Mifflin. He was the first man appointed on Washington's staff at the beginning of the war, but did not long remain in that position, being promoted by Washington to be quartermaster-general. In this position the rumor reached the General that Mifflin was "concerned in trade," and Washington took "occasion to hint" the suspicion to him, only to get a denial from the officer. Whether this inquiry was a cause for ill-feeling or not, Mifflin was one of the most outspoken against the commander-in-chief as his opponents gathered force, and Washington informed Henry that he "bore the second part in the cabal." Mifflin resigned from the army and took a position on the board of war, but when the influence of that body broke down with the collapse of the Cabal, he applied for a reappointment,?a course described by Washington in plain English as follows:

"I was not a little surprised to find a certain gentleman, who, some time ago (when a cloud of darkness hung heavy over us, and our affairs looked gloomy,) was desirous of resigning, now stepping forward in the line of the army. But if he can reconcile such conduct to his own, feelings, as an officer and a man of honor, and Congress hath no objections to his leaving his seat in another department, I have nothing personally to oppose it. Yet I must think, that gentleman's stepping in and out, as the sun happens to beam forth or obscure, is not quite the thing, nor quite just, with respect to those officers, who take ye bitter with the sweet."

Not long after Greene wrote that "I learn that General Mifflin has publicly declared that he looked upon his Excellency as the best friend he ever had in his life, so that is a plain sign that the Junto has given up all ideas of supplanting our excellent general from a confidence of the impracticability of such an attempt."

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