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A Gulf of Civil Horror

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Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City
Saturday, March 8, 1783

Colonel Timothy Pickering was no longer a busy man now that the war was over. Not many of the officers or soldiers were. Another harsh New England winter had reduced the army to spending their time building huts and cabins throughout the encampment when they weren’t huddled around a fire or conducting their daily training drills. As Quartermaster General, it was Pickering’s job to oversee the training and quartering of the troops, though by now his training regimen had fallen into more of a routine to keep order and remind the men they were still an army than in being an exercise to prepare them for any more actual combat. And while it had been another cold winter, it was not nearly as devastating as in years past; the French had provided generous funds and other provisions so Congress could at least afford to feed and clothe the men. The camp was better suited and had built most of the structures they needed last summer, leaving Pickering, like all the rest of the soldiers, with nothing to do but wait.

It had been months since the fighting had all but ended. The final battle against the British occurred in October 1781, when General Cornwallis was forced to surrender at Yorktown. Peace negotiations with Britain were ongoing half a world away, though hearsay was that a treaty was nearing completion. Potentially King George could have in fact already signed it by now, but it took weeks for news to travel across the Atlantic. Word of peace could arrive tomorrow, or in a year. And despite the fact that there had been one or two minor skirmishes here and there, for all intents and purposes the war was over. Congress knew it, the men knew it, the country knew it. Pickering prayed to God that official word would arrive before planting season, in time for the men to go home to their farms. They could not disband the army until the treaty was signed and the last of the redcoats were on ships sailing for England. That was what they were waiting for.

It was all Pickering could do to keep himself and the men busy, or at least occupied, for as the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.

Training drills had become perfunctory. Rebuilding and maintaining the troops’ quarters had become more of a chore than a necessity. And the first signs of spring had made their mark on the landscape, warming the air and melting the snow. The men were growing tired and impatient. Brought on by boredom, and the desire to be reunited with their families and move on with their lives, a shadow of rebellion was forming over the camp. There was something else, too.

A BANG! from outside his cabin interrupted Pickering from his thoughts. Immediately recognizing the sound of a pistol firing, he set his quill back in its ink bottle, put aside the letter he had been writing, and stood to go find the source of the noise.

A hundred yards away, Pickering saw a group gathered together, looking on at something in their midst. He hurried closer. “What happened?” asked a soldier when he hit the wall of onlookers, but Pickering ignored the man and shouldered his way through the crowd.

Suddenly the throng around him began to part. Pickering looked up and saw a head and pair of shoulders floating over the men, coming his way. He recognized them as belonging to their beloved General, George Washington. The giant of a man looked livid, having apparently been at the center of whatever dispute had just occurred. Pickering, like the others, scooted out of Washington’s way as his long legs strode past, a hush falling over the crowd. Pickering turned his head the other way and glimpsed a distressed looking man fallen to the ground before being blocked out of sight again by the crowd. Pickering caught the man standing next to him by the elbow and whispered in his ear. “Did you see what happened?”

“Aye,” the man responded, slightly louder now to be heard over others who had begun whispering and talking again, now that Washington had left. “That chap over there,” he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, at, Pickering presumed, the man who had fallen on the ground, “he owed some money to a bloke from Virginia, and they got in a tussle over it. General Washington broke ‘em up by firing his pistol in the air.”

“Ah,” Pickering said, quickly forming an image in his mind’s eye. “Another gambling incident.” Washington hated the practice and had issued orders for gambling in all forms to be forbidden in the army. That didn’t keep a number of the men from still playing cards when they had a few empty hours, which was common these days.

“I don’t think so, sir,” the man said. “I believe he owed him a fair loan. He wouldn’t pay it; General Washington got angry and picked him up by his coat, then the bloke mentioned Robert Morris’ resignation, and the General must’ve not heard the news yet, because then he just dropped him and walked off.”

Pickering did a double take. “Did you say Robert Morris resigned?”

“Aye, word arrived from General Gates’ camp about an hour ago. Now that’s curious; if General Gates knew, why not General Washington?”

To Pickering, the better question was, why had Morris resigned? Robert Morris was well known as one of the wealthiest businessmen in Philadelphia, and an active supporter of the war. As the Superintendent of Finance, the Articles of Confederation gave him responsibility over handling the financial matters of Congress, the army, and much more. His resignation was troubling, especially now, of all times. The army expected payment for their services, Morris was head of the committee charged to oblige. In the past, Congress had forgotten them time and time again; this news made him worried it was happening once more.

The crowd was quickly dispersing, including the man Pickering had questioned. He made to return to his quarters, but as he mulled over this distressing bit of news, he decided he would head toward Gates’ camp instead. He fetched his horse and rode the three-mile distance through the sloshy ground.

He tied his horse to a tree stump outside the second camp and hadn’t finished stretching his legs when a man Pickering recognized walked up to him and extended a hand.

“Major Armstrong,” Pickering addressed the man, shaking his proffered hand. “What is General Gates having you do for him these days? Fetch water for his dogs? Put on puppet shows to entertain the men?” Major John Armstrong Jr. was one of General Gates’ aides. The two had met when Armstrong had come to Pickering in need of parchment for Gates, who meant to write a letter to Brigadier General Henry Knox, giving Knox his recommendation on what military tactics he should have used, rather than follow Washington’s orders at the battle of Trenton, despite Washington’s crushing victory.

Armstrong chuckled. “I should say you owe me a glass of scotch for insulting our work,” he responded. “You know there is still much business to attend to before this war is over.”

“So the rumors are true, then? Robert Morris has resigned?”

“Indeed they are,” Armstrong said, slapping Pickering on the shoulder. “Come, let us talk of these matters inside. I am glad to see you, we could use a mind like yours for this.”

Pickering wasn’t sure what Armstrong meant by that, or why he didn’t seem as concerned about this news as he should have been, yet he let him lead him to his tent near the center of camp. Armstrong folded back the flap and allowed Pickering to enter first. There were three other men inside, standing in a circle, talking amongst themselves. The discussion halted when they looked up and saw them entering.

“Gentlemen,” Armstrong said, “this is Timothy Pickering, an acquaintance of mine. This is Christopher Richmond, William Barber, and William Eustis,” He pointed at each of the men in turn, and Pickering shook hands with them.

“Timothy Pickering, the Quartermaster General?” the one named Richmond asked.

“The very same,” Pickering said.

The three men gave a respectful nod. “Good, good.” Richmond gave Pickering’s hand an extra pump.

Armstrong cleared his throat. “Now now, we are meeting here not as soldiers, but as concerned citizens.” Armstrong scooted a wooden chair out from his desk to take a seat. On this cue, the other men found places to sit. One took a footstool, one sat on a rug covering the ground. Pickering leaned back and placed some of his weight on the desk. Everyone now more comfortable, Armstrong continued. “We all know that there is only one reason why Morris would resign: it is because he knows Congress won’t pay us. After all these years and this nation giving its best blood to bring independence to these states, the greedy politicians can’t get off their fat arses to pay us. They have never cared about the soldiers, or the army, they merely use us for their own gain. They profit on the war and then leave us to starve, freeze, and die of malaria.”

“Here!” the three men shouted. Pickering warily nodded in agreement.

Armstrong’s voice rose. “I have heard, in my many conversings with General Gates, that the General knew Robert Morris to be a wise man, one who understood and empathized with the many plights of this army. He is a true patriot, who unlike the rest of Congress, has given all that he has to the cause of liberty, for as you know, Morris was a self-made, wealthy businessman. The rumor is he has given so much of his wealth and plenty to the cause that he is near bankrupt, and the rest of the stubborn politicians refusing to reach into their own purses for even a penny has fanned his anger to the boiling point.

“For a truth, General Gates confided in me that Congress has shut down Morris’ repeated attempts to pass legislature for the rightful payment of this army. I surmise that once King George signs the treaty, Congress expects us to disband so that they might forget about us, for once we lay down our arms, we have no more power to exact our proper dues.”

Barber slammed his fist into his open palm. “Those fools! Those drunken fools! What do they take us for?”

“God knows if we know it, every man in this camp knows it,” Richmond growled. “If I don’t get my pay at the end of all this, I will take my musket to Philadelphia myself to get it, at the point of bayonet if I have to!”

“Here!” “Here!”

“What about General Washington?” Pickering cut in over the shouting. “Congress will listen to him, long has he pled our cause and they have acquiesced.”

“Too long, I think,” Armstrong said. “Congress is wearied with his constant and incessant pleadings. He has lost all favor with them, dragging them to do this or that like an ox drags a plow. I tell you, they are tired of it!”

“Besides,” Eustis added, “Washington is too conservative with his demands. Why, if he stormed Congress the way he stormed Cornwallis at Yorktown, he could have them begging to serve his every whim and pleasure. He could be king, but he won’t take a crown if he were offered all the world’s riches and fine lands!”

“Agreed,” Armstrong said. “Washington has done a great service for this country, but he is not fit for the delicacy of the situation.”

“Then we are doomed,” commented Richmond.

The room turned quiet. Pickering found the anger in the room contagious, filling his soul with fury like the others. Although he shared their anger, he did not like the dark mood of the room. He stood and clenched his fists in his pockets. “These are distressing times,” he said. “Even after the war is over, it seems we still must go on fighting tyranny in our midst! Dirty Tories!” Seething, he flipped aside the tent door flap and walked out. Pickering found his way back to his horse and spurred it off in the direction of his camp, hoping to outrun his feelings.

Still inside the tent, Armstrong huddled with his would-be co-conspirators. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I may know something we can do about this.”

 A stormy Sunday’s winds and rains kept all men not posted on duty inside after the morning services. The news about Robert Morris was naturally the leading topic of discussion among the troops, Pickering found as did his rounds. Many of the conversations he either overheard or took part in had little variation from the talk the previous day in Armstrong’s tent. Rumors were flying that it was universally expected the army would not disband until they had obtained justice. Pickering’s experience had taught him that the men regularly got upset about political news, but this time it was affecting them even more than usual. The way he saw it, if they really intended to band together against the highest governing body in the land, the very act was, by definition, treasonous, just though he agreed their case to be. Either this was going to turn out to be all talk and would blow over soon, or mob mentality might take over and this could become a very serious affair.

The next morning, he had no doubt which of the two it would be.

The skies had cleared overnight. The sun’s golden rays twinkled brightly on the rippling Hudson as it rose across the far side of the river. This morning’s general orders were delivered to the adjutant’s office, per usual. As was customary, leading officers were lined up in the small field just outside the office to receive their orders for the day. Pickering waited among them, knowing everyone gathered here was most eager for news on the financial situation. Finally, the papers arrived. The reader stepped up on a log platform with the documents in his hand and read in a loud voice for all the men to hear.

“General orders, March 10, 1783. The Commander in Chief recommends uniformity in the mode of…”

Pickering glossed over the beginning. Many of the orders weren’t new. Reminders of watch shifts, protocols for the division of labor, a slight change in meal times, a note that soldiers should keep their hair clipped short, such minutia hardly concerned him. He felt the men around him grow restless, as did the reader, who hurried through the general orders. Before long, he had reached the end of the parchment.

“With the highest regards and esteem,” he read, “signed, your Commander-in-Chief, George Washington.”

The men, Pickering included, looked around at each other, wearing bemused expressions. That was it?

Clearing his throat, the reader then cried, “I have also received a certain anonymous letter.” He shuffled papers around in his hands and held a new page up to the light. “To the officers of the army: Gentlemen, a fellow soldier, whose interest and affections bind him strongly to you, whose past sufferings have been as great, and whose future fortune may be as desperate as yours—would beg leave to address you.”

Everyone held their breath as the reader continued. This was a peculiar moment. These morning briefings were supposed to be for official orders—for an unnamed soldier to address the officers in a letter like this was, while not unheard of, unusual nonetheless.

The letter quickly turned charged with inflammatory rhetoric. After it recalled the army’s suffering and glory, it compared them with ‘the coldness and severity of government,’ and the country’s ingratitude to the men who had placed it ‘in the chair of independency.’

“And peace returns again to bless—whom? A country willing to redress your wrongs, cherish your worth and reward your service? Is this the case? Or is it rather a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries and insults your distresses?”

Pickering was reminded of his conversation in Armstrong’s tent. It was becoming clear to him that the intent of the writer of this letter matched Armstrong’s. One glance showed him the officers in his midst were also nodding in approval.

“If this, then, be your treatment, while the swords you wear are necessary for the defense of America, what have you to expect from peace, when your voice shall sink, and your strength dissipate by division?” There it was, this letter’s true message. When the army gives up its sword, it will give up its power to claim its rightful dues, should the people fail them.

“When those very swords, the instruments and companions of your glory, shall be taken from your sides, can you then consent to be the only sufferers of this revolution, and retiring from the field, grow old in poverty, wretchedness, and contempt? If your spirit should revolt to this, oppose tyranny under whatever garb it may assume; whether it be the plain coat of republicanism, or the splendid robe of royalty!”

The meaning couldn’t be plainer. The letter was calling the army to revolt against Congress if it wasn’t paid. The treasonous language which, till now, had only been heard in whispers, was being uttered openly.

It’s point now clear, the letter moved on to its closing remarks. “A meeting of the general and field officers is requested at the public building, on Tuesday next, at 11 o’clock, to consider the late letter from our representatives in Philadelphia, and what measures, if any, should be adopted, to obtain that redress of grievances which they seem to have solicited in vain.” After delivering one final charge to the army to push Congress to agree to their demands by peace or by war, the letter abruptly ended.

Like a wildfire, copies of this letter spread throughout the entire camp, and its words had sounded in every ear long before the sun had set.

 Pickering was writing in his cabin that afternoon when he heard a knock at his door. “Come in,” he answered. Major Armstrong let himself in. Pickering put aside his quill and rose to meet him. “Major Armstrong, you must be pleased with the direction the mood in this camp is turning.”

“Always straight to the point, aren’t you?” Armstrong replied. “Never any time for small talk?”

“The army has turned me into an efficient man,” Pickering decided. “I don’t always have the time for manners.” He motioned for Armstrong to take a seat across from him, and sat back down at his desk. “Frankly, though, the anonymous letter that arrived this morning has caused my soul to seep into a black abyss, which is what I must blame for my shortness of patience today.”

“Why is that, old friend?” Armstrong asked.

Pickering took a moment to compose his thoughts. “I suppose its intent is just and true, at its core. Congress has wronged this army too many times to count. If it can’t even pay these men for their valiance and courage, this nation would be truly ungrateful. To rise up against our own brethren, though? It undermines the very ideals we have been fighting Britain for.”

“Do you see any other option?”

Pickering sighed. “If Congress refuses to pay, no. No, I don’t.”

The two men sat in silence for a while. Armstrong offered a cigar, Pickering declined, so he lit it and took a deep drag. “Look,” Armstrong said, “I do not like it either, but when Congress dismisses and ignores our service to this country, I see no difference between our republic and Britain’s monarch. If our own government—how did the Declaration of Independence put it? ‘Evinces a design to reduce us under absolute despotism’—we should fight on for our freedom. The revolution must continue until all men are equal.”

Pickering nodded. “No government is perfect. Not even ours.”

Armstrong took a long look around the cabin. “Suppose Congress does renege on their promise to pay us, and the army has no choice but to march on Philadelphia. Would you be with us?”

“Us?” Pickering stated hesitantly.

“Come now, you know where I stand on this issue.” Armstrong folded under Pickering’s stare. “All right, let’s just say I may know the man who wrote the letter. Look, I know it sounds treasonous, but if we want America’s future to be the future we’ve been fighting this entire war for, we have to consider all possibilities. If Washington fails to secure Congress’s support and the army’s payment, we must turn to somebody else who will not fail us. We must turn to General Gates.”

So this was what Armstrong had come to talk about, Pickering realized. The man had always been deeply loyal to Gates.

“Gates has the leadership this army needs right now,” Armstrong was saying. “He will do what we know Washington cannot. He will fight Congress tooth and nail to get this army what it deserves.”

“He may drive a wedge through the heart of this country while doing it,” Pickering warned.

“A wedge will form if he doesn’t do it,” countered Armstrong. “We were lucky to win this war, and Britain knows it. They will come back, whether it be ten, twenty, or fifty years for now. And when the next war with Britain begins, who will fight it if everyone remembers how Congress forgot its own militia?”

Pickering rested his chin in his hand in thought.

“I want you to see the full import of this moment,” Armstrong said, leaning forward. “In the very likely event that Congress decides not to pay us, there is going to be an uprising of the army. I think that after today’s letter, nothing is stopping that. You are going to have to decide which side of history you want to be on, Timothy. Horatio Gates will be remembered, revered, by generations to come, for bravely fighting tyranny in all forms. George Washington will fade into obscurity and be forgotten. Mark my words, this is how history will remember them! General Gates is this country’s future, and the army will be his glory! Trust me, his camp is where true greatness awaits.”

Pickering wasn’t as certain as his associate. “I will sleep on it, I think,” he told his friend, “and wait and see a little longer. The letter called a summons for tomorrow, and if I know General Washington, he will not stand idly by.”

Armstrong nodded and stood to leave. “I know you are friends with Washington; but you should reconsider if he is up to this challenge. He may have the men’s love, just remember. The purse always has a more powerful effect on history than anything else.”

Pickering bowed his head in thought as his friend departed.

 When the general orders arrived the next morning, the Commander-in-Chief acknowledged the anonymous letter and the meeting it called for that very day; however, while giving the meeting his sanction, he also moved it to Saturday so that it could be held with proper deliberation, letting the passions of the officers cool that reason might prevail. Pickering saw Armstrong once more that week. Pickering reaffirmed that he wanted to see Washington’s response before he picked a side. Armstrong argued that Washington appeared to be on his side. After all, if the General opposed it, why would he go through with holding the meeting? What difference did it make whether it was held on Tuesday or Saturday? Besides, Washington had indicated in his orders that he would not be in attendance anyways. The officer in charge would therefore be General Gates. Armstrong was convinced that Gates would seize this moment to take command of the army, with or without Washington’s approval. To Pickering, it was hard to pick which was the worst of two evils.

Saturday, March 15, 1783
The Temple, Newburgh, NY

The “Temple of Virtue,” “Temple,” or “New Building,” as it was most commonly called, was a 40-by-70-foot lodge resting in a grassy meadow about two miles southwest of the site of General Washington’s office headquarters. Recently built as a meetinghouse for the army, it served many functions: a place of worship, a meeting hall, a commissary and mess hall, sometimes it even held dances and parties. This was where the officer’s meeting was to be held. Pickering had arrived a few minutes early, and he was glad he did. The meeting was scheduled to start at noon; when his pocket watch read five till, the building had already been filled to standing room only.

Outside it was a sunny day, one of the warmest of the year so far, but with no windows, the Temple had to be lit by torch. Pickering was located in a corner of the single large, square room, able to see the lectern at the front. General Gates was standing on the stage, waiting for the meeting to begin. Major Armstrong was seated behind Gates, preparing to take notes of the proceedings. At exactly twelve o’clock, Gates snapped his pocket watch shut, slid it in his coat, and rose to call the meeting to order.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he roared in a booming voice. The talk obediently petered out. “This meeting of the general officers of the army, held to discuss the necessary measures to be taken against Congress to ensure the just payment of this army, is called to order on this, the fifteenth of March, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-three.” Behind him, Armstrong was scratching away on his notes.

Gates cleared his throat. “Our Congress, the high seat of the government of these United States, has betrayed us.” A blast of jeers and boos sounded from the crowd. Pickering observed with reserved caution.

“They treat us like an old horse!” More jeers and yells. “To be shot when its usefulness has ended!” A fleck of spit flew from his lips. The men were pumping their fists in anger, shouting their approval of his words. A tingle of fear shivered down Pickering’s spine. This crowd was ready for blood, and Gates held the men in his hands like a potter kneading clay.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Gates held up his hands to pause the clamoring. “I say Congress cannot hear words, only action!” He smugly stood up straight, with arms clasped behind his back, as the officers banged and yelled below him.

All at once, the room went silent. The tall visage of George Washington, seemingly from nowhere, strode to the stage at the front. Gates’ puffed-up demeanor instantly deflated.

"Sir,” Gates uttered, addressing his superior officer, “you were not expected at this meeting.”

Washington stepped on to the platform to tower over Gates. In a quiet voice, almost a whisper, belying his size, he simply replied, “Nevertheless, I am here.”

Gates had no choice but to step aside and let Washington have the floor.

Washington calmly pulled a slip of paper from his coat pocket. “An anonymous letter to the officers of the army,” he read. He paused, looking up. “You have all read this?”

The crowd muttered a general assent.

Washington glanced back down. “Broadside, given to all officers, except your Commander-in-Chief. How inconsistent with the rules of propriety, how unmilitary and how subversive to all order and discipline!” His voice raised sharply with each word. He looked over the officers once more. None in the room could meet his sharp gaze.

He continued. “It calls for the army to take over the government.”

“Yes!” They returned more vocally, this time.

“I quote, ‘If peace comes, never sheathe your swords until you have obtained what is your right.”

“It is our right!” shouted the mob.

“Your right!?” Washington roared above the din. “My god, what can this writer want? Is he a friend to the army?”


“A friend of this country?”


“No, damn him! He’s a foe!”

The men in the room began to murmur their dissent among themselves.

“Perhaps he is an agent from the British!” Washington had to shout over the noise again. “Plotting our ruin by creating discord between the civil and the military!”

One of the men in the crowd raised the nerve to shout back. “If you will not lead us, sir, stand aside!”

“I will not stand aside,” Washington leered, pointing at the man with his finger. “And if you try and silence me, you are asking for a nation in which freedom of speech is taken away, and dumb and silent we are led like sheep to the slaughter!”

No one in the room made a peep after that.

“You will not march on Philadelphia,” Washington ordered, crumpling up the letter and throwing it to the floor. The room was so quiet a dropped pin could have been heard.

“You are men of honor,” said Washington. “You know that if any army be allowed to terrorize civilian government for political ends, the future of this country will be throw into a gulf of civil horror! I know you, I have fought beside you, I have listened to your cries, I’ve grieved with you, and we are bound together in a sacred brotherhood of free men. Be true to it, and you will be true to yourselves! True to the highest aspirations of these United States!”

The General took a sweeping gaze around the room. Though no one dared to speak against him, he could still see the anger in their eyes. Their red faces were lined in mutiny. The tension in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife.

“I have a letter,” Washington said, changing tactics, and extracting another paper from his pockets, “from a member of Congress, and they are trying to do justice to this army!”

Pickering bowed his head. He could feel it in the people around him. They were shifting, shuffling, seething. Washington’s opportunity was passed. Nobody was listening anymore. In another minute or so, Pickering believed they might even attack Washington.

At the moment he had glanced away, Pickering heard the strangest sound come from General Washington. It was a grunt of—surprise? His eyes snapped back to attention.

General Washington was oscillating the paper near and far to his face, squinting, apparently struggling to read it. He held it this way and that, trying to catch the torchlight better. Then, with a befuddled look, he set the paper aside and looked up at the crowd.

“Gentlemen,” he said, in that same quiet, humble voice he used before, “you’ll permit me to put on my spectacles.” He sunk a hand into his coat’s inside pocket. Withdrawing a pair of readers, he clumsily balanced them on his nose. “For you see,” he added, looking over the rim of the lens at his men, “I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in service of my country.”

He picked the paper back up and quietly read it to the men, but Pickering couldn’t hear what was said. The men around him were gasping, whispering, even sobbing. It was a sight unlike any other—their brave commander, who had risked more for this war than any other man—seeing him require assistance to read a simple letter was as shocking to them as if he had suddenly began levitating.

Pickering remembered that when Congress had asked Washington to lead the army, the General had only asked in return that he would not be paid for his services. He loved his country, he loved his men, and Pickering knew they knew it. How could they have forgotten what they were fighting for? Not money, but for freedom, for justice. There was no freedom or justice in staging a coup d’état.

Pickering could tell, as could Washington, that this sight had had a profound effect on the men. They were shaken. Many of the men were weeping. All thirst for blood and violence had totally lost its momentum. Even General Gates wore shame in his eyes. Washington nodded to his aide, Alexander Hamilton, and quickly finished his speech. Without further remark, he left the building, and a profound silence hung in the air.

Henry Knox stepped up when Gates seemed unable to speak. “I motion a call for vote,” he said. “That the army stays its course, and does not march on Philadelphia.”

Many seconds rang through the room.

“All in favor, say ‘Aye.’”


“All opposed, say ‘Nay.’”

Nothing. The vote was unanimous.

The meeting was quickly brought to a close. An inexplicable feeling lingered in the men’s hearts as the Temple was emptied and they made their way back to their campsites. Pickering still couldn’t believe what he saw. A storming angry mob calmed by naught but a few words of their loving leader. It seemed nearly as miraculous to him as when Christ calmed a raging, stormy sea. That was the respect that this army had for George Washington. A great crisis had been averted. Though it occurred to him that such a complete reversal was a little hypocritical of the men, Pickering was thankful.

 News that peace with Great Britain had been reached arrived at Congress on April 11 and made its way to the army shortly. The Treaty of Paris was officially signed on September 3, and the continental army disbanded not long after. Ultimately, they were recompensed five year’s full pay for their services by Congress. On December 23, Washington arrived at Congress to resign from his commission as Commander-in-Chief, a final act solidifying his loyalty to the republic and also his personal honor. He arrived at his home at Mount Vernon and saluted his beloved wife, Martha, on Christmas Eve.

This glossed over story in American history, despite its neglect, is regarded by historians as a crucial tipping point. This portrayal may put the Continental Congress in a bad light, a light the army would view their motives from—in actuality, Congress was simply, utterly broke. Under the Articles of Confederation, it had limited power to tax, and had already amassed heavy debts to France to support the war. Additionally, America had learned to fear the presence of a standing army, and some of the states held steep reservations against funding a Continental Army, afraid of the connection such an entity had with corrupt bureaucracy. And for good reason. Had the army revolted against its own government, the American experiment would have failed as soon as it had begun. A complete takeover without Washington’s leadership was unlikely—even the greatest army in the world, that of Great Britain, couldn’t corner the congressional body to force a surrender, the land was simply too vast. Washington’s commanding respect of virtually the entire nation, on the other hand, could have potentially made a coup a success. Had he desired it, he could have crowned himself monarch. He was already worshiped by the majority of Americans. Washington’s virtue, humility in greatness, and dedication to the ideals of freedom and democracy saved America at this, as well as at many other moments in its founding.

A comparable chronicle from history is the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Similarly a brilliant general and beloved war hero, his takeover of the military was instrumental in his conduction of the coup d’état that ended the French Revolution. The French Revolution had begun on a similar premise to the American Revolution, but the end result was vastly different: rather than founding a democracy, it became a military dictatorship. Even after the overthrow of Napoleon, France would struggle to imitate America’s level of success in the democratic experiment for many years. It is hard to say America would have had a similar fate had the Newburgh Conspiracy been a success, but we can be certain that military and civil relations would have been strained if Washington had failed to prevent this coup. The United States Constitution would probably never have been created, and the Union would have remained weak and small and relatively unimportant in world events, if it lasted at all under the Articles of Confederation.


The Inside History of the Newburgh Conspiracy: America and the Coup d’Etat, by Richard H. Kohn:

Wikipedia article on the Newburgh Conspiracy:

Story of the Newburgh Conspiracy as told by Professor James Kirby Martin, historian, University of Houston:

Dramatization of the Newburgh Conspiracy (starts at 15:35):

Wikipedia article on Timothy Pickering:

General orders, Monday, March 10, 1783:

Armstrong’s anonymous letter to the army:

Details on the Temple of Virtue:

The Newburgh Address (George Washington’s speech):

On the Newburgh Address, see also:

Details about the Treaty of Paris:

George Washington wiki:

Map of the Winter Cantonment of 1783, by Simon DeWitt