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The American Revolution
Revolutionary War: Groping Toward Peace 1781-1783
The Newburgh Conspiracy, December 1782-March 1783

In retrospect, it may fairly be said that the greatest danger to the success of the American Revolution after Yorktown was the potential disintegration of the Continental Army. Mystery shrouds the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, so named because the Continental Army officers who sent a memorial of grievances to Congress were stationed at Newburgh, New York. Some scholars believe that nationalists in Congress actually encouraged these officers in hopes of providing the Congress with greater powers relative to the states. Others believe that these nationalists simply took advantage of the situation. It has even been suggested that George Washington knew of the conspiracy in advance, but the evidence is thin. From the documents below, what are the officers' grievances? How does Washington deal with the situation? How does Washington appeal to his officers?

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The memorial from the officers of the army [page 290-93].

To the United States in Congress assembled.

The address and petition of the officers of the army of the United States,

Humbly sheweth, that we, the officers of the army of the United States, in behalf of ourselves and our brethren the soldiers, beg leave, with all proper deference and respect, freely to state to Congress, the supreme power of the United States, the great distress under which we labor.

At this period of the war it is with peculiar pain we find ourselves constrained to address your august body, on matters of a pecuniary nature. We have struggled with our difficulties, year after year, under the hopes that each would be the last; but we have been disappointed. We find our embarrassments thicken so fast, and have become so complex, that many of us are unable to go further. In this exigence we apply to Congress for relief as our head and sovereign.

To prove that our hardships are exceedingly disproportionate to those of any other citizens of America, let a recurrence be had to the paymaster's accompts, for four years past. If to this it should be objected, that the respective states have made settlements, and given securities for the pay due, for part of that time, let the present value of those nominal obligations be ascertained by the monied men, and they will be found to be worth little indeed; and yet, trifling as they are, many have been under the sad necessity of parting with them, to prevent their families from actually starving.

We complain that shadows have been offered to us while the substance has been gleaned by others.

Our situation compels us to search for the cause of our extreme poverty. The citizens murmur at the greatness of their taxes, and are astonished that no part reaches the army. The numerous demands, which are between the first collectors and the soldiers, swallow up the whole.

Our distresses are now brought to a point. We have borne all that men can bear--our property is expended--our private resources are at an end, and our friends are wearied out and disgusted with our incessant applications. We, therefore, most seriously and earnestly beg, that a supply of money may be forwarded to the army as soon as possible. The uneasiness of the soldiers, for want of pay, is great and dangerous; any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects.

The promised subsistence or ration of provisions consisted of certain articles specified in kind and quantity. This ration, without regard, that we can conceive, to the health of the troops, has been frequently altered, as necessity or conveniency suggested, generally losing by the change some part of its substance. On an average, not more than seven or eight-tenths have been issued; the retained parts were, for a short time, paid for; but the business became troublesome to those who were to execute it. For this, or some other reasons, all regard to the dues, as they respected the soldiers, has been discontinued (now and then a trifling gratuity excepted). As these dues respected the officers, they were compensated, during one year and part of another, by an extra ration; as to the retained rations, the account for several years remains unsettled; there is a large balance due upon it, and a considerable sum for that of forage.

The clothing was another part of the soldier's hire. The arrearages on that score, for the year 1777, were paid off in continental money, when the dollar was worth about four-pence; the arrearages for the following years are unliquidated, and we apprehend scarcely thought of but by the army. Whenever there has been a real want of means, any defect in system, or neglect in execution, in the departments of the army, we have invariably been the sufferers, by hunger and nakedness, and by languishing in an hospital.

We beg leave to urge an immediate adjustment of all dues; that as great a part as possible be paid, and the remainder put on such a footing as will restore cheerfulness to the army, revive confidence in the justice and generosity of its constituents, and contribute to the very desirable effect of re-establishing public credit.

We are grieved to find that our brethren, who retired from service on half-pay, under the resolution of Congress in 1780, are not only destitute of any effectual provision, but are become the objects of obloquy. Their condition has a very discouraging aspect on us who must sooner or later retire, and from every consideration of justice, gratitude and policy, demands attention and redress.

We regard the act of Congress respecting half-pay, as an honorable and just recompense for several years hard service, in which the health and fortunes of the officers have been worn down and exhausted. We see with chagrin the odious point of view in which the citizens of too many of the states endeavor to place the men entitled to it. We hope, for the honor of human nature, that there are none so hardened in the sin of ingratitude, as to deny the justice of the reward. We have reason to believe that the objection generally is against the mode only. To prevent therefore, any altercations and distinctions which may tend to injure that harmony which we ardently desire may reign throughout the community, we are willing to commute the half-pay pledged, for full pay for a certain number of years, or for a sum in gross, as shall be agreed to by the committee sent with this address. And in this we pray, that the disabled officers and soldiers, with the widows and orphans of those who have expended or may expend their lives in the service of their country, may be fully comprehended. We also beg, that some mode may be pointed out for the eventual payment of those soldiers who are the subjects of the resolution of Congress of the 15th May, 1778.

To the representation now made, the army have not a doubt that Congress will pay all that attention which the serious nature of it requires. It would be criminal in the officers to conceal the general dissatisfaction which prevails, and is gaining ground in the army, from the pressure of evils and injuries, which, in the course of seven long years, have made their condition in many instances wretched. They therefore entreat, that Congress, to convince the army and the world that the independence of America shall not be placed on the ruin of any particular class of her citizens, will point out a mode for immediate redress.

Headquarters, 12th March, 1783 [page 294].

Sir,--It is with inexpressible concern I make the following report to your Excellency:--Two days ago anonymous papers were circulated in the army, requesting a general meeting of the officers on the next day. . . .

About the same time another anonymous paper, purporting to be an address to the officers of the army, was handed about in a clandestine manner. . . .

To prevent any precipitate and dangerous resolutions from being taken at this perilous moment, while the passions were all inflamed, as soon as these things came to my knowledge, the next morning, I issued the enclosed order, No. 3 [see below]. And in this situation the matter now rests.

As all opinion must be suspended until after the meeting on Saturday, I have nothing further to add, except a wish that the measures I have taken to dissipate a storm, which had gathered so suddenly and unexpectedly, may be acceptable to Congress; and to assure them that in every vicissitude of circumstances, still actuated with the greatest Zeal in their Service, I shall continue my utmost Exertions to promote the welfare of my Country under the most lively expectation, that Congress have the best Intentions of doing ample justice to the Army, as soon as Circumstances will possibly admit.

With the highest Respect and Esteem, etc.

GENERAL ORDERS [pages 297-98].

Head-Quarters, Newburgh, Tuesday, March, 11, 1783.

The Commander in Chief, having heard that a general meeting of the officers of the army was proposed to be held this day at the new building, in an anonymous paper which was circulated yesterday by some unknown person, conceives, although he is fully persuaded that the good sense of the officers would induce them to pay very little attention to such an irregular invitation, his duty, as well as the reputation and true interest of the army, requires his disapprobation of such disorderly proceedings. At the same time he requests the general and field-officers with one officer from each company, and a proper representation from the staff of the army, will assemble at 12 o'clock on Saturday next, at the new building, to hear the report of the committee of the army to Congress. After mature deliberation, they will devise what further measures ought to be adopted as most rational and best calculated to attain the just and important object in view. The senior officer in rank, present, will be pleased to preside, and report the result of the deliberations to the Commander in Chief.

Cantonment, 15 March, 1783 [page 307-10].

The officers of the army being convened agreeably to a general order of the 11th instant, the Hon. Major-General Gates, president, his Excellency the Commander in Chief was pleased to address the meeting as follows:

"Gentlemen,--by an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together. How inconsistent with the rules of propriety, how unmilitary and how subversive of all order and discipline, let the good sense of the army decide.

In the moment of this summons, another anonymous production was sent into circulation, addressed more to the feelings and passions than to the reason and judgment of the army. The author of the piece is entitled to much credit for, the goodness of his pen; and I could wish he had as much credit for the rectitude of his heart; for, as men see through different optics, and are induced by the reflecting faculties of the mind, to use different means to attain the same end, the author of the address should have had more charity than to mark for suspicion the man who should recommend moderation and longer forbearance, or, in other words, who should not think as he thinks, and act as he advises. But he had another plan in view, in which candor and liberality of sentiment, regard to justice and love of country, have no part; and he was right to insinuate the darkest suspicion to effect the blackest design. That the address is drawn with great art, and is designed to answer the most insidious purposes; that it is calculated to impress the mind with an idea of premeditated injustice in the sovereign power of the United States, and rouse all those resentments which must unavoidably flow from such a belief; that the secret mover of this scheme, whoever he may be, intended to take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool deliberative thinking, and that composure of mind which is so necessary to give dignity and stability to measures, is rendered too obvious, by the mode of conducting the business, to need other proof than a reference to the proceeding.

Thus much, gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe to you, to shew upon what principles I opposed the irregular and hasty meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last, and not because I wanted a disposition to give you every opportunity, consistent with your own honor, and the dignity of the army, to make known your grievances. If my conduct heretofore has not evinced to you that I have been a faithful friend to the army, my declaration of it at this time would be equally unavailing and improper. But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country; as I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty; as I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits; as I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the army; as my heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises, and my indignation has arisen when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it, it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to its interests. But how are they to be promoted? The way is plain, says the anonymous addresser. "If war continues, remove into the unsettled country; there establish yourselves and leave an ungrateful country to defend itself."--But who are they to defend? Our wives, our children, our farms and other property which we leave behind us? or, in this state of hostile separation, are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed) to perish in a wilderness with hunger, cold and nakedness? "If peace takes place, never sheath your swords," says he "until you have obtained full and ample justice." This dreadful alternative of either deserting our country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our arms against it, which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into instant compliance, has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea. My God! what can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures?. Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country? Rather is he not an insidious foe? Some designing emissary, perhaps, from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and separation between the civil and military powers of the continent? and what a compliment does he pay to our understandings, when he recommends measures, in either alternative impracticable in their nature? But, here, gentlemen, I will drop the curtain, because it would be as imprudent in me to assign my reasons for this opinion, as it would be insulting to your conception to suppose you stood in need of them. A moment's reflection will convince every dispassionate mind of the physical impossibility of carrying either proposal into execution. There might, gentlemen, be an impropriety in my taking notice, in this address to you, of an anonymous production; but the manner in which that performance has been introduced to the army, the effect it was intended to have, together with some other circumstances, will amply justify my observations on the tendency of that writing.

With respect to the advice given by the author, to suspect the man who shall recommend moderate measures and longer forbearance, I spurn it, as every man who regards that liberty and reveres that justice for which we contend, undoubtedly must; for, if men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us. The freedom of speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent, we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter. I cannot, in justice to my own belief, and what I have great reason to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this address, without giving it as my decided opinion, that that honorable body entertain exalted sentiments of the services of the army, and from a full conviction of its merits and sufferings, will do it compleat justice: that their endeavours to discover and establish funds for this purpose have been unwearied, and will not cease till they have succeeded, I have not a doubt.

But, like all other large bodies, where there is a variety of different interests to reconcile, their determinations are slow. Why then should we distrust them, and, in consequence of that distrust, adopt measures which may cast a shade over that glory which has been so justly acquired, and tarnish the reputation of an army which is celebrated through all Europe for its fortitude and patriotism? And for what is this done? To bring the object we seek nearer? No, most certainly, in my opinion it will cast it at a greater distance. For myself, and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being induced to it from principles of gratitude, veracity and justice, a grateful sense of the confidence you have ever placed in me, a recollection of the cheerful assistance and prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under every vicissitude of fortune, and the sincere affection I feel for an army I have so long had the honor to command, will oblige me to declare, in this public and solemn manner, that in the attainment of compleat justice for all your toils and dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my country, and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my services to the utmost extent of my abilities.

While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of in your favour, let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained. Let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an army, they will cause all your accounts to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions which were published to you two days ago; and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power to render ample justice to you for your faithful and meritorious services. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.

By thus determining, and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes; you will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings: and you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind--"had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining."

Head-Quarters, Newburgh, 18th March, 1783 [pages 300-05].

Sir: The result of the proceedings of the grand convention of the officers, which I have the honor of enclosing to your Excellency for the inspection of Congress, will, I flatter myself, be considered as the last glorious proof of patriotism which could have been given by men who aspired to the distinction of a patriot army; and will not only confirm their claim to the justice, but will encrease their title to the gratitude of their country.

Having seen the proceedings on the part of the army terminate with perfect unanimity, and in a manner entirely consonant to my wishes; being impressed with the liveliest sentiments of affection for those who have so long, so patiently, and so cheerfully suffered and fought under my immediate direction; having from motives of justice, duty and gratitude, spontaneously offered myself as an advocate for their rights; and having been requested to write to your Excellency, earnestly entreating the most speedy decision of Congress upon the subjects of the late address from the army to that honorable body; it now only remains for me to perform the task I have assumed, and to intercede in their behalf, as I now do, that the sovereign power will be pleased to verify the predictions I have pronounced of, and the confidence the army have reposed in the justice of their country.

And here I humbly conceive it is altogether unnecessary (while I am pleading the cause of an army which have done and suffered more than any other army ever did in the defence of the rights and liberties of human nature) to expatiate on their claims to the most ample compensation for their meritorious services, because they are perfectly known to the whole world, and because, (although the topics are inexhaustible) enough has already been said on the subject. To prove these assertions, to evince that my sentiments have ever been uniform, and to shew what my ideas of the rewards in question have always been, I appeal to the archives of Congress, and call on those sacred deposits to witness for me. And in order that my observations and arguments in favour of a future adequate provision for the officers of the army may be brought to remembrance again, and considered in a single point of view without giving Congress the trouble of having recourse to their files, I will beg leave to transmit herewith an extract from a representation made by me to a committee of Congress, so long ago as the 29th of January, 1778, and also the transcript of a letter to the President of Congress, dated near Passaic Falls, October 11, 1780.

That in the critical and perilous moment when the last mentioned communication was made, there was the utmost danger a dissolution of the army would have taken place, unless measures similar to those recommended had been adopted, will not admit a doubt. That the adoption of the resolution, granting half-pay for life, has been attended with all the happy consequences I had foretold, so far as respected the good of the service, let the astonishing contrast between the state of the army at this instant, and at the former period, determine. And that the establishment of funds, and security of the payment of all the just demands of the army, will be the most certain means of preserving the national faith and future tranquillity of this extensive continent, is my decided opinion.

By the preceding remarks, it will readily be imagined, that instead of retracting and reprehending (from farther experience and reflection) the mode of compensation so strenuously urged in the enclosures, I am more and more confirmed in the sentiment, and if in the wrong, suffer me to please myself with the grateful delusion.

For if, besides the simple payment of their wages, a farther compensation is not due to the sufferings and sacrifices of the officers, then have I been mistaken indeed. If the whole army have not merited whatever a grateful people can bestow, then have I been beguiled by prejudice, and built opinion on the basis of error. If this country should not, in the event, perform every thing which has been requested in the late memorial to Congress, then will my belief become vain, and the hope that has been excited, void of foundation. And "if," (as has been suggested for the purpose of inflaming their passions) "the officers of the army are to be the only sufferers by this revolution; if retiring from the field they are to grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt; if they are to wade through the vile mire of dependency, and owe the miserable remnant of that life to charity, which has hitherto been spent in honor," then shall I have learned what ingratitude is, then shall I have realized a tale which will embitter every moment of my future life.

But I am under no such apprehensions; a country rescued by their arms from impending ruin, will never leave unpaid the debt of gratitude.

Should any intemperate or improper warmth have mingled itself amongst the foregoing observations, I must entreat your Excellency and Congress, it may be attributed to the effusion of an honest zeal in the best of causes, and that my peculiar situation may be my apology; and I hope I need not, on this momentous occasion, make any new protestations of personal disinterestedness, having ever renounced for myself the idea of pecuniary reward. The consciousness of having attempted faithfully to discharge my duty, and the approbation of my country, will be a sufficient recompense for my services.
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View the original document from the Journals of the Continental Congress in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.