© Don Troiani
the Commander-in-Chief's Life Guard, 1777

A Brief Profile of the Continental Army

© 1999 -- 2021 - John K. Robertson and Bob McDonald


© Don Troiani
General George Washington

While the troops had spent November and December of 1782 building their “log hut city” at New Windsor, major events that would affect the army were taking place in Philadelphia. A deputation of senior officers had gone to the capital city to finally resolve the pension issue, but the real engineers of what would come to be known by the misnomer of “the Newburgh Crisis” were not soldiers, but purely and fully politicians. It is well that key among these so-called “Nationalists” in the Congress was the unequaled mind of Alexander Hamilton. That which was at stake between late 1782 and mid-1783 was enormous; only slightly arguably, this was the critical phase of the American Revolution.

It is ironic and unfortunate that the present-day general public and even many historians, both professional and avocational, are so strongly preoccupied with the military operations and battles of the Revolution. More than one book or website, in fact, presents the subtitle “1775 - 1781”, reinforcing the misperception that “the Revolution” ended at Yorktown. Just as the initial creation of the American revolutionary movement pre-dated Lexington by at least five years, the entirety of “the Revolution”, of which “the war” was an essential segment, surely extended a full two years following Cornwallis’ defeat. It was during those final two years that the “essential victory” of the Continentals would be achieved, that being the victory over self-interest.

“We began this revolution with very vague and confined notions of the practical business of government, adapted to the narrow colonial sphere, … not of that enlarged kind suited to the government of an INDEPENDENT NATION.”

Published anonymously in all major American patriot newspapers three months before Yorktown, this assessment by Alexander Hamilton provided, to those who would attend, a critically important appraisal. Fiery speeches, boycotts, and tea-dumping riots do not launch a stable, judicious, and free nation. The primary motives, mindset, and talents of insurrectionists are rarely also inclusive of the motives, mindset and talents required of social architects. The “spirit of ‘75” had been charged with much of the former but contained remarkably little of the latter. By the time of Hamilton’s writing in mid-1781, the buoyant enthusiasm of mutual commitments, disinterestedness, and sacrifice which had launched the venture were long gone. Continuing like a paralysis was the “narrow colonial sphere” mentality of thirteen mini-regimes fueled by the rampant pursuit of self-interest. Nothing reinforced this myopia nearly as much as did Yorktown. Thereafter, during the critical final two years, the potential path was clearly visible to what we today term “Balkanization.”

In short, the Nationalist minority of the Congress devised a plan to use the discontent of the army for its own purposes, the primary of which was the development of a strong and financially independent central government having powers commensurate with the term “United States.” The barriers to achieving this were daunting. Beyond the substantial sums owed the army for wages in arrears, and the potential for officers’ pensions, the war debt further encompassed enormous loans payable to France, Holland, and other European financiers as well as a long line of domestic suppliers of the entire realm of war materiel. Under the existing Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress had no power to tax the states or their residents nor to raise revenue in any way other than through the voluntary response of the states to congressional requests. After more than five years of rampant inflation and coping with the managerial and financial bumbling of the Congress, the mood of virtually all the states and the general populace was notably averse to further empowering it or even making good the debts owed the army and the domestic contractors. Thus, the Nationalist faction concluded that its only possible recourse would be to create a crisis that would so intimidate the states that taxing powers would be extended to the Congress. The chosen tool would be the army, the selected strategy being the ruse of a coup D’etat.

Needless to note, this was indeed a high-risk hand that Hamilton, Robert Morris, and the few other fervent Nationalists were willing to play. Although the potential of a military coup was envisioned to be no more than a ploy, the mood of the army was fully real in its grim animosity toward both the Congress and the civilian sector. Among the officer corps, the majority had been literally spending their own small personal resources to remain in the service. The prospect of returning to civilian life as “gentlemen” deeply in debt was a thoroughly discouraging prospect. Perhaps even more unjust was the potential disposition of the army’s rank and file. As 1783 began, the majority of enlisted men were at least a year in arrears of their paltry monthly wages, some exceeding two years' pay due. Few were unaware that confirmation of peace was expected with every arriving ship’s news from London. An equally transparent secret was that the Congress was far from capable of fulfilling its war debts. The result, repeatedly emerging in petitions, threats, and mutinies for at least the prior five years, had been intense bitterness and fatalism. Private Thomas Foster of the 7th Massachusetts Regiment at the New Windsor Cantonment, reflecting on the prospects of returning home penniless, recorded in his diary the typical state of rage to which the Continentals had by now been driven:

“Here we are as yet without any money and to all appear and so like to remain for the army is shamefully neglected on almost every account. But their former zeal for their distressed country carries them through and bears them up under the hardships of a camp life and the cruel usage of their fellow countrymen which have grown cold as to their country’s fate and are wholly bent to engross all they can into their own clutches to gratify their selfish ends.”

Within six weeks after the above diary entry was penned, the plot was ready to be triggered. If the Nationalist faction was willing to play such a potentially fatal game with the army as the great lever, what “safety net” did they have in mind to stem the possible torrent? Their complete reliance was placed upon the commander-in-chief. But, even here, the ploy required hazardous risk. Knowing full well that General Washington would take no part in, nor even tolerate, the threatening of the Congress and the states by the army, the cabal architects chose to keep him uninformed. This was a demonstration of both enormous risk and also enormous confidence in the general, relying on his ability to pull a fully frustrated and enraged officer corps and the rank and file back from the precipice of a military junta.

On the morning of March 10, 1783, the New Windsor camp was electrified by the appearance of an anonymous “address to the officers” being distributed through multiple copies. Its key content was both direct and staggering in portent:

“After a pursuit of seven long years, the object for which we set out is at length brought within our reach. … Have you not more than once suggested your wishes, and made known your wants to Congress, wants and wishes, which gratitude and policy should have anticipated rather than evaded? And, have you not lately, in the weak language of entreating memorials, begged from their justice, what you could no longer expect from their favor?

If this then be your treatment while the swords you wear are necessary for the defence of America, what have you to expect from peace, when your voice shall sink and your strength dissipate by division, when those very swords, the instruments and companions of your glory, shall be taken from your sides, and no remaining mark of military distinction left you but your wants, infirmities and scars? Can you then consent to be the only sufferers by this revolution and, retiring from the field, grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt? Can you consent to wade through the vile mire of despondency and owe the miserable remnant of that life to charity, which hitherto has been in honor? If you can, go, and carry with you the jest of tories and the scorn of whigs; the ridicule and, what is worse, the pity of the world!

Go, starve and be forgotten! But, if your spirits should revolt at this; if you have sense enough to discover and spirit sufficient to oppose tyranny under whatever garb it may assume, whether it be the plain coat of republicanism or the splendid robe of royalty; if you have yet learned to discriminate between a people and a cause, between men and principles: awake, attend to your situation, and redress yourselves! If the present moment be lost, every future effort is in vain, and your threats then will be as empty as your entreaties now.

The anonymous address then moved on to suggest that one final and very threatening petition be delivered to the Congress by a committee of chosen officers, the primary message as to unmet grievances being clear and loud: “that, in any political event, the army has its alternatives. If peace, that nothing shall separate you from your arms but death; if war, that, courting the auspices and inviting the direction of your illustrious leader, you will retire to some unsettled country, smile in your turn, ‘and mock when their fear cometh on’.” To assure the most timely action being taken, the address called for a meeting of all the officer corps the following day.

There it was, in a nutshell. If the Congress would not make good on its debts and the proposed pension funding, the army would either take up arms to wrest those payments or would leave the nation undefended. If peace, civil war; if continued war with the British, mass desertion. In either case, the total mutiny of the army en masse. Anticipating General Washington’s condemnation, the address simply dismissed his authority of command, asserting that the mutineers should do no more than “court” his auspices and “invite” his direction, otherwise ignoring his assured opposition. In another thinly veiled reference to their commander, the address warned the officers should “…suspect the man who would advise to more moderation and longer forbearance.”

Unsurprisingly, the body of reliable documentary evidence of this dangerous conspiracy is far from robust or detailed. Any particularly inflammatory evidence was likely destroyed, and virtually all of the main participants certainly had little to say about their roles in later years. There does remain, however, enough documentation scattered through various manuscript files to verify the basic players and their actions. The board of officers that traveled to Philadelphia in December 1782 was led by Major General Alexander McDougall, who was accompanied by Colonels Walter Stewart and John Brooks. McDougall’s primary correspondent back at New Windsor, and apparent “manager” of the initial development of the final petition effort but not the later more nefarious activities, was artillery commander Henry Knox. Within the papers of both officers, but particularly those of the latter, are several quite clear and yet slightly cryptic letters between the two, complete with pseudonyms, McDougall’s being “Brutus.” It is a virtual certainty that the two anonymous addresses were crafted at the headquarters of Major General Horatio Gates, the army’s second in command and the immediate commander of the New Windsor Cantonment. It was not until many years after the event that the Gates connection emerged through the testimony of Quartermaster General Timothy Pickering, his writings leaving it unmistakable that the actual author of the incendiary addresses was Major John Armstrong, one of Gates’ aides de camp. Lastly, the primary conduit between the Philadelphia planning headquarters and the army on the Hudson was Colonel Walter Stewart, long a distinguished officer of the Pennsylvania Line.

The important aspect of these known involvements is not exactly who did what, but the fact that many of the most senior command members of the army immediately beneath General Washington were actively involved with the plot or, minimally, were to some degree aware of its development. Gates, of course, had been a long-term adversary and thorn in the side of the commander, but Henry Knox was assuredly among his most trusted subordinates. The key point is that contrary to some interpreters’ contention that the Newburgh Conspiracy was never more than a tempest in a teapot, the involvement of Knox, Gates, Pickering, and Mc Dougall certainly demonstrates that the possibility of some action more vigorous than the petitioning of the Congress was known in Newburgh as being considered by the more aggressive congressional faction in Philadelphia. This connection, in fact, was providential in that General Washington was almost assuredly kept informed of the early developments by Knox and, during the final few days before the crisis, by Colonel Brooks when he returned from the capital city.

Much less is known of the “management” of the crisis by Washington, but several pieces remain. In the memoirs of both Colonels Philip Van Cortlandt of New York and Rufus Putnam of Massachusetts, mention is made of their being called to a confidential meeting with the commander. It is therefore obvious that, contrary to the popular version of General Washington “winging” his reaction, that response was probably very carefully considered, planned, and orchestrated. The first step was an answer to Armstrong’s address of March 10 in Washington’s general orders of the next day. Therein, the commander simply denied that the officers should meet that day per the address’s invitation, calling instead for a general meeting of the officer corps at the Temple or “new building” on the 15th. Critically, the wording of the orders of the 11th suggested that the officers should meet, debate the matter, and prepare a report for the commander. Implicitly, then, Washington would not be personally in attendance, the senior officer present presiding, this being a not unusual arrangement.

Although the general orders of the 11th quite clearly communicated the General’s “…disapprobation of such disorderly proceedings…”, Washington’s response resulted in the second anonymous address appearing in camp on the 12th, this regarding the commander’s comments as being supportive. Although the general orders did indeed call for a meeting to discuss the report of the committee just returned from Philadelphia, and did request a report of the officers’ opinions regarding any future actions, the tone of the comments was far from being as in accord as Armstrong now manipulated them to be:

“The General Orders of yesterday which the weak may mistake for disapprobation, and the designing dare to represent as such, wear in my opinion a very different complexion, and carries with it a very opposite tendency.

Till now, the Commander in Chief has regarded the steps you have taken for redress with good wishes alone: his ostensible silence has authorized your meetings, and his private opinion has sanctified your claims. Had he disliked the object in view, would not the same sense of duty, which forbade you from meeting on the third day of the week, have forbidden you from meeting on the seventh? Is not the same subject held up for your discussion, and has it not passed the seal of office, and taken on the solemnity of an order? This will give system to your proceedings, and stability to your resolves. It will ripen speculation into fact; and, while it adds to the unanimity, it cannot possibly lessen the independency of your sentiments.”

Long before the term would become recognizable, Armstrong and others involved at Gates’ headquarters were “spinmeisters” indeed. From the commanding general’s clearly negative characterization of an ad hoc meeting, the “spin” had been placed on it that the meeting was simply rescheduled. Far more duplicitously, the remarkable interpretation was now lathered on that the meeting to discuss resistance to the Congress had “…passed the seal of office, and taken on the solemnity of an order...”, resulting in “…system to your proceedings, and stability to your resolves.” The Gates propaganda mill had converted Washington’s order to a full, albeit questionably logical, stamp of approval and endorsement.

If the content of this second address did not enrage Washington with its transparent manipulations, it almost surely would have convinced him that he was engaging in a duel of wits with unarmed opponents. In addition, the surviving evidence in after-the-fact correspondence with Hamilton demonstrates that the General was at least partially aware of the source of these addresses. While likely unaware (and unconcerned) that Armstrong’s pen was the vehicle, he fully suspected Gates’ headquarters to be the wellspring and knew of Stewart’s role as liaison from Philadelphia. Perhaps most importantly, it should be pointed out that Knox never supported the concept of a potential aggressive step to be taken against the Congress, this being clearly stated in one of his letters to McDougall.

In line with the overall hushed aura surrounding the entire “Newburgh Crisis”, there is remarkably little documentation of events during the two days between the appearance of the second anonymous address and the designated Saturday meeting. As noted, though, post-event writings of Van Cortlandt, Putnam, as well as of Colonel John Brooks of the 7th Massachusetts Regiment very strongly suggest that Washington closely and carefully planned his strategy, likely using his selected officers of highest trust as intermediaries to monitor camp attitudes and test possible resolutions.

At the appointed hour on Saturday, the Ides of March, one officer from each company and all field officers assembled at the large frame “new building” which had been constructed by the rank and file as a place of worship within the camp and which quickly had come to be termed “the Temple” or “the Temple of Virtue.” Seated on crude benches and standing along the walls, the men in the single room were charged with old animosities and, among many, with new expectations. Again, the historical record is very sparse as to the specific opinions and intentions of all but a very few of the attendees. Given, however, the course of prior events, the immediate prospects of a thoroughly discouraging resolution, and the electrifying words of the first anonymous address, it is virtually certain that the primary mood was intense anger toward the Congress and the civilian countrymen.

While a significant segment of historians hold the opinion that little or no potential for an actual coup existed due to the likely nonsupport of the rank and file, such perspective neglects several critical factors. First, the true state of rage within the army has rarely been documented. Only through very recently discovered contemporary letters and diaries have we learned that the final months at New Windsor were marked by near-continuous desertions, literal riots, and officers and other authority figures being hanged in effigy. All these were actions of the rank and file. Second, to-date world history was fully replete with rebellions being sequentially followed by factions fomenting counter-rebellions. The concept of a Spartacus was surely not unknown to both the officers and men. Finally, it needs to be recalled that, by 1783, the Continental Army was primarily composed of men in their late teens and early twenties who had very, very little to lose. Most were New Englanders, and it was particularly in New England that the concept of social contracts was most prevalent. The army regarded the Congress as having entered into a contract with them, a contract that had been repeatedly and grossly broken. With peace about "to break out,” the ensuing days or weeks could represent their final basis for gaining justice. Given all these factors, the risk of an explosive end to the American experiment was, indeed, very real.

The men in the Temple had just been called to order by the presiding officer, Major General Gates, when a stir began to rise from the doorway in rear of the podium wall. Unannounced and almost assuredly a surprise to all but a few based on Wednesday’s general orders, George Washington entered the room. Addressing Gates, he requested that he might speak to the assembled officers. (One can only guess at the thoughts and feelings of Horatio Gates at this moment after at least seven years of envying and attempting to undermine the commander-in-chief.) As the General stepped to the podium, he withdrew a prepared statement from his coat. If any in the room had a question of Washington’s position as to the topic at hand, their ignorance was dispelled almost instantly. His words completely condemned the author of the anonymous addresses and his supporters, tore to shreds the purported logic of the arguments and proposals that had been presented, and questioned whether the author, in fact, might be in the employ of the British. With rising emotion, the General recalled the enormous barriers that had been faced and overcome by the army, expressed his amazement that the officer corps of the most heroic and virtuous army known to history could contemplate a course that equated with treason, and spelled out in perfectly clear terms the infamy that would be theirs if beguiled by the false promises of the addresses. It was the most important and skillful address which George Washington had ever made or ever would make. (Because paraphrasing would be a dishonor, the full transcript of Washington’s Address is here linked.)

Most witnesses report that some amount of grumbling and lack of conviction remained in the audience as the General concluded his written comments. As apparent support for the commitment of the Congress to the well-being of the army, Washington withdrew from his coat pocket a recent letter received from a Congressional confidante and began to read. But something was wrong; the commander was struggling and ill at ease. Finally, he set the letter down, concurrently drawing from his waistcoat pocket a spectacles case. Likely no more than a dozen men in the audience had ever seen him wearing the lenses. As he prepared to put on the glasses, in a manner and voice less typically formal and surprisingly apologetic, he said: “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.”

Neither words nor action could have been more appropriately pointed and poignant. For here was the one man who all in the room knew had faced and surmounted challenges to the point of disaster that none could even fully imagine; here was the man who, for nearly eight years had never taken furlough nor even left the army except for essential meetings; here was the man who had ridden between the blazing lines of musketry at Princeton and wrested victory at Monmouth; here was the man that every man in that room knew in his own heart and mind he, himself, aspired to be; here was American virtue; here was the Revolution. And now he was humbling himself as civility would permit to implore them not to hurl their foundling nation into the abyss of civil war, to simply continue the virtue of this army to the end, and to set an example for the world of the disinterested patriot.

Emotion so overtook the General and the audience that he dispensed with the Congressional letter. He folded and returned his papers and spectacles to his pockets and left the room as unceremoniously as he had entered. Finally, the room was silent, except for the weeping of many a man.

As order returned, General Knox made the motion and Colonel Putnam seconded the adoption of a set of resolutions prepared for reporting to the commander-in-chief the opinions of the officers of the army, inclusive of:

“Resolved unanimously, That the officers of the American Army view with abhorrence, and reject with disdain, the infamous propositions contained in the late anonymous addresses to the officers of the army, and resent with indignation the secret attempts of some unknown persons to collect the officers together in a manner totally subversive to all discipline and good order.”

“Resolved unanimously, That the army continue to have unshaken confidence in the justice of Congress and their country, and are fully convinced that the representatives of America will not disband or disperse the army until their accounts are liquidated, the balances accurately ascertained, and adequate funds established for payment. And, in this arrangement the officers expect that the half pay, or commutation of it, should be efficaciously comprehended.”

The potential of a cataclysmic storm had been weathered at the New Windsor camp. Discontent, desertions, and even quasi-mutinous riots episodically erupted during the remaining seven weeks of the main army’s existence. The plight of the rank and file enlisted men hit bottom on May 31, when it was announced in general orders that the Congress had resolved that “the during the war men” were to be only furloughed, not discharged, until final notification of the peace treaty was received from Europe. But, no latter-day Spartacus arose; the army peacefully disbanded. This resolution was never “a given”, and, more importantly, was not universal. Perhaps the most sobering reflection of what could have happened at New Windsor is what did happen in Philadelphia. The remnants of the Pennsylvania Line, upon learning of the delayed discharges and wage payments, marched en masse from their camp near Lancaster, led by several rebellious officers. Their target was the Congress, their aim being to force reparations. In what assuredly must have been one his most humiliating duties, Washington responded to notification by the Congress that it was resultantly in exile at Princeton, New Jersey, and dispatched Major General Robert Howe in command of a detachment of remaining New England troops to quell the Pennsylvania mutineers. Most fortunately, a compromise was reached before Howe arrived lest Continental have been ordered to fire upon Continental. Had this occurred, none could have foreseen the ensuing events.

What Washington’s management of the “Newburgh Crisis” had achieved is nearly incalculable. What did occur in Philadelphia could have erupted with massively greater violence in the camp along the Hudson. Based on the pure odds of history, in fact, an enraged and fully armed body of 10,000 men had rarely been immune to wresting not only their fair due but whatever booty could be gained. New Windsor was the rare exception that provided the eighty absolutely critical years to develop enough of a nation to withstand four years of remarkable civil war carnage and yet survive. The Continental Army’s peaceful disbanding despite unquestionable ill-use and mistreatment provided the time for the creation of the Constitution, the architecture and launching of a governmental structure unique at the time, and the fostering of industrial and financial stability sufficient for survival throughout the national nadir of 1861 to 1865. Through its continued final sacrifice, the Continental Army “paid the dues” that allowed the United States to emerge, survive and flourish, and enabled the dawn of the central social shift in the history of mankind, that from governance through the application of absolutism and might to governance through popular sovereignty and the rule of law. The essential victory of the American Revolution occurred neither at Saratoga nor Yorktown, but in a New York log hut “temple” on the Ides of March 1783.


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