George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major General Horatio Gates, 4 January 1778

To Major General Horatio Gates

Valley forge Jany 4th 1778


Your Letter of the 8th Ulto came to my hands a few days ago; and, to my great surprize informed me, that a copy of it had been sent to Congress—for what reason, I find myself unable to acct; but, as some end doubtless was intended to be answered by it, I am laid under the disagreeable necessity of returning my answer through the same channel, lest any member of that honble body, should harbour an unfavourable suspicion of my having practiced some indirect means, to come at the contents of the confidential Letters between you & General Conway.1

I am to inform you then, that Colo. Wilkenson, in his way to Congress in the Month of October last, fell in with Lord Stirling at Reading; and, not in confidence that I ever understood, inform’d his Aid de Camp Majr McWilliams that Genl Conway had written thus to you “Heaven has been determined to save your Country; or a weak General and bad Counsellors2 would have ruined it”—Lord Stirling, from motives of friendship, transmitted the acct with this remark—“The inclosed was communicated by Colo. Wilkenson to Majr McWilliams, such wicked duplicity of conduct I shall always think it my duty to detect.”

In consequence of this information, and without having any thing more in view than merely to shew that Gentn that I was not unapprized of his intrieguing disposition, I wrote him a Letter in these words. “Sir—A Letter which I received last night contained the following paragraph.

“In a Letter from Genl Conway to Genl Gates he says ‘Heaven has been determined to save your Country; or a weak Genl and bad Counsellors would have ruined it—I am Sir & ca.”3

Neither this Letter, nor the information which occasioned it, was ever, directly, or indirectly, communicated by me to a single Officer in this army (out of my own family) excepting the Marquis de la Fayette, who having been spoken to on the subject by Genl Conway, applied for, and saw, under injunctions of secrecy, the Letter which contained Wilkensons information—so desirous was I, of concealing every matter that could, in its consequences, give the smallest Interruption to the tranquility of this army, or, afford a gleam of hope to the enemy by dissensions therein.

Thus Sir, with an openness and candour which I hope will ever characterize and mark my conduct, have I complied with your request. the only concern I feel upon the occasion (finding how matters stand) is, that in doing this, I have necessarily been obliged to name a Gentn whom I am perswaded (although I never exchanged a word with him upon the subject) thought he was rather doing an act of Justice, than committing an act of infidility; and sure I am, that, till Lord Stirlin⟨gs⟩ Letter came to my hands, I never knew that Genl Conway (who I viewed in the light of a stranger to you) was a corrispondant of yours, much less did I suspect that I was the subject of your confidential Letters—pardo⟨n⟩ me then for adding, that so far from conceiving, that the safety of the States can be affected, or in the small⟨est⟩ degree injured, by a discovery of this kind; or, that I should be called upon in such solemn terms to point out the author, that I considered the information as coming from yourself; and given with a friendly view to forewarn, and consequently forearm me, against a secret enemy; or, in other words, a dangerous incendiary; in which character, sooner or later, this Country will know Genl Conway. But—in this, as in other matters of late, I have found myself mistaken. I am Sir yr Most Obedt Ser⟨v⟩t

Go: Washington

ALS, NHi: Gates Papers; copy, written and signed by GW, enclosed in GW’s letter to Henry Laurens of this date, DNA:PCC, item 154; ADfS, DLC:GW; copy, ScHi: Henry Laurens Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. The mutilated text is supplied in angle brackets from the copy in DNA:PCC. A note on the cover of the copy in ScHi reads: “I would wish this to be shewn only to His Excellency the president.”

2GW inserted an asterisk at this place and wrote at the bottom of the page: “One of whom, by the bye, he was.”

3On 27 Oct. 1777 Gates’s aide-de-camp James Wilkinson, who was traveling to York in order to inform Congress of the victory at Saratoga, stopped at Stirling’s headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania. While there Wilkinson provided Stirling’s aide-de-camp Maj. William McWilliams with his own version of the contents of Conway’s letter. McWilliams passed Wilkinson’s remarks on to Stirling (who had a feud of his own with Conway), and on 3 Nov., Stirling, noting that “such wicked duplicity of Conduct, I shall alway’s think it my duty to detect,” sent GW a copy of Conway’s alleged remarks. About two days later GW sent Conway a chilly note quoting the passage he had received from Stirling, and Conway replied on 5 Nov. claiming that it was not a true extract from his letter to Gates. Conway also spoke to Wilkinson about the affair and then informed Stirling that Wilkinson had declared that the passage did not appear in his letter to Gates (see Conway’s statement in Hammond, Sullivan Papers description begins Otis G. Hammond, ed. Letters and Papers of Major-General John Sullivan, Continental Army. 3 vols. Concord, 1930-39. In Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, vols. 13–15. description ends , 2:1–2). Stirling then wrote Wilkinson on 6 Jan. 1778 requesting a clarification as well as a copy of Conway’s letter, but on 4 Feb. Wilkinson replied in evasive terms and refused to furnish a copy of the letter (see Wilkinson to Congress, 22 Feb. 1778, containing copies of letters from Stirling to Wilkinson of 6 Jan. and Wilkinson to Stirling of 4 Feb., DNA:PCC, item 78; for the repercussions of this affair on relations among Wilkinson, Stirling, and Gates, see GW to Stirling, 21 Mar. 1778, Wilkinson to GW, 28 Mar. 1778, and Nelson, Stirling description begins Paul David Nelson. William Alexander, Lord Stirling. University, Ala., 1987. description ends , 122–23). It was not until 16 Feb., when John Fitzgerald sent GW a copy of a passage from the letter that he had procured from Henry Laurens, that GW was able to read a portion of what Conway had actually written, though the letter already had been perused by some members of Congress. Laurens claimed that the passage originally cited by Stirling did not exist, but the extract he gave Fitzgerald was not calculated to reassure GW of Conway’s benevolence (see also Conway to GW, 27 Jan., n.1).

Relations between GW and Gates had been strained since the autumn of 1777, when Gates had neglected to inform GW directly of the victory at Saratoga and resisted GW’s requests for troop reinforcements (see Alexander Hamilton to GW, 6, 10 Nov. 1777, and Horatio Gates to GW, 7 Nov. 1777). Their barely concealed mutual dislike increased as they debated Conway’s letter through the winter (see GW to Gates, 9 and 24 Feb. 1778, and Gates to GW, 8 Dec. 1777, 23 Jan. and 19 Feb. 1778). The growing hostility between GW and Conway meanwhile instigated uneasiness and sometimes bitter debate in American military and political circles. GW’s aides took an active part in the dispute and may have encouraged GW to suspect that Conway, Gates, former quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin, and others were intriguing against him (see Conway to GW, 31 Dec. 1777, and GW to Henry Laurens, 2 Jan. 1778; see also Alexander Hamilton’s virulent condemnation of the “vermin” Conway and the “monster” of faction in his letter to George Clinton of 13 Feb. 1778, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 1:428).

GW was clearly sensitive to any open or implied criticism of his military leadership. It does not appear, however, that he believed an organized faction was plotting against him, although he was well aware of the dissatisfaction being voiced against him by some people (see, for example, Benjamin Rush’s letter to Patrick Henry of 12 Jan., printed in Patrick Henry to GW, 20 Feb., n.1). There is no evidence to indicate that the so-called Conway Cabal, which historians considered for many years to have been an organized conspiracy to displace GW as commander-in-chief, actually existed.

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