The most dangerous moment of the Revolutionary War had nothing to do with the British army. In fact, it came after the preliminary treaty of peace was signed.
The Army was stationed at Newburgh, New York, watching occupied New York City. Yorktown had ended the Revolutionary War, essentially, and everybody knew it. People started looking ahead toward life after the war.
Congress had promised Continental officers a lifetime half-pay pension. But Congress, in early 1782, had also stopped paying them, promising to make it up after the war was over. Congress talked about paying them, but nothing happened. Finally General Henry Knox drafted a memorial to Congress, signed by enough general officers that it had to be taken seriously, protesting that pay was months in arrears, and offering to accept a lump sum payment instead of the lifetime half pay pension. The officers also sent representatives to warn the politicians quietly that the army’s temper was uncertain.
But, as usual, the larder was empty, and Congress didn’t have the power to compel the states to pay a dollar more than they happened to want to pay. And there was a long-running battle in Congress between those who wanted to honor the pledge to the Army and those who (not quite saying so) thought it would be inconvenient to do as they had promised.
On February 13, rumors of a preliminary peace agreement heightened the sense of urgency among the nationalists. And one of two things happened, and it is impossible to know which. Either (a) the nationalists politicians in Philadelphia suggested to some officers that they turn up the heat on their Congressional colleagues by making it look like the army might mutiny or (b) the army was tempted to act on its own. Enough officers were angry, and were aware of Congress’ already long history of broken promises, and were aware of their own strength vis-à-vis the civilian government, and perhaps had General Horatio Gates as their leader, that they were ready to take control of the army from General Washington and put life in what was otherwise an empty threat.
Either way, what was planned might have had disastrous effects.
Whichever it was, on the morning of March 10 an unsigned letter called upon the army to send Congress an ultimatum. Published at the same time was an anonymous call for a meeting of all field officers for 11 a.m. the next day. Washington, in his general orders on the 11th, announced that there would be a meeting of officers on the 15th instead, to be presided over by the senior officer present. He requested a report of the meeting, implying that he would not attend. But as soon as General Gates opened the meeting, Washington entered and asked to speak. What could Gates do? He stepped aside.
An excerpt from Washington’s little speech, silently paragraphed to make it easier for modern readers:
“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?”
Washington said he wanted to read them a letter he had received. He took the letter from his pocket, then took out a pair of reading glasses, and 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.”
Theatrical, yes. But it was effective. Many of the officers were moved to tears, and their mood instantly changed. Every man in the hall knew that Washington had served since 1775, and there were few enough others who had served all those eight long years
After that, the resentments and just indignation that might have supported action against the government were gone.
(Washington knew how to put pressure on politicians, though. He made sure that Congress saw those anonymous addresses. Congress ultimately agreed to provide five years’ full pay in the form of government bonds, the bonds that Hamilton redeemed a few years later.)
More than 40 years later, a man who had been on Washington’s staff at the time wrote, “I have ever considered that the United States are indebted for their republican form of government solely to the firm and determined republicanism of George Washington at this time.” Washington had saved the officers from themselves, had saved them from wrecking all that they had fought and suffered to achieve.