by Francis P. Sempa
The author writes about a little known incident involving “the indispensable man” of the American Revolution.—Ed.
History and the destiny of nations is often shaped by the character of leaders. Each November, children in schools throughout the country are taught about President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which consecrated that battlefield and the sacrifices of those who fought there upon the altar of liberty. Those same children, and all Americans, should likewise be reminded of an even more important event in the destiny of our nation where the character of one man–George Washington–saved the American Revolution from descending into the chaos and tyranny that characterizes most of history’s revolutions.
In the spring of 1783, the infant American republic was nearly snuffed-out in its cradle by mutinous army officers in what has been called the “Newburgh Conspiracy.”
British General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 did not result in an immediate end to the war. To be sure, major fighting between the British and Americans was over, but British forces remained in New York City and the details of the anticipated peace treaty had yet to be worked out.
General George Washington was faced with the problem of maintaining the loyalty and cohesiveness of an exhausted, underpaid army whose officers increasingly distrusted the ability and willingness of Congress to fulfill its financial obligations to the troops.
After Yorktown, Washington moved the army to what would be its last encampment at New Windsor, New York. Washington and his staff established a headquarters at a fieldstone farmhouse owned by the Hasbroucks, a wealthy Dutch Huguenot couple, in nearby Newburgh on the banks of the Hudson River, just north of the American fortress at West Point. Washington, his wife, and his staff stayed there from April 1782 until August 1783, the longest time period he stayed at any headquarters during the war.
At Newburgh on August 7, 1782, Washington instituted the awarding of a “Badge of Military Merit” for troops who demonstrated exceptional courage in battle. In his general orders establishing the award, Washington wrote:
The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit directs whenever any singularly meritorious
action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart of purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.
After the Revolutionary War, Washington’s purple Badge of Merit was forgotten, and it was not until 1932 that Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur revived his idea in what we know today as the awarding of the Purple Heart for soldiers wounded or killed in battle. That year, 138 World War I veterans were awarded the Purple Heart at Temple Hill in New Windsor at the sight of the last encampment of the Continental Army.
The principal concern of the Continental Army and its officers in late 1782 and early 1783, however, was not military badges, but back pay owed to them and pensions promised to them by Congress. Washington began receiving letters from confidential correspondents warning of “dangerous combinations” within the army who planned to march on Congress if their demands were not met. Some Congressional delegates, worried about a potential military coup d’ etat, suggested to Washington that he use his stature to threaten Congress in order to help the officers. Still others within the army urged Washington to assume dictatorial or monarchical powers to force Congress to fulfill their obligations to the troops. With the emergence of the Newburgh Conspiracy, Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner noted, “[t]he American Revolution…reached its moment of major political crisis.”
On March 10, 1783, the officers of the Continental Army in New Windsor posted the so-called Newburgh Address which raised the specter, in biographer Bruce Chadwick’s words, “of a permanent, leaderless, and quite angry military,” refusing to disband at war’s end and potentially ready to march on Philadelphia. Washington sensed the urgency of the threat and requested a gathering of the officers at the Temple Hill meeting hall where they could discuss their grievances. Washington implied that he would not attend the meeting.
The officers assembled on benches in the hall on March 15, 1783. Flexner calls this “probably the most important single gathering ever held in the United States.” Washington arrived unexpectedly, walked across a small stage, and pulled from his coat a speech he had prepared at his headquarters. He commended their bravery, appealed to their patriotism, promised to persuade Congress to meet their just demands, and pleaded with them to refrain from opening “the flood gates of civil discord” and deluging “our rising empire in blood.” Do not take any action, he said, that “will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.” His words, however, appeared to fall on deaf ears.
Then, in a dramatic moment, he reached in his coat for a reassuring letter from a congressman that he intended to read. He then took from his pocket his eyeglasses which only a few of his closest aides had ever seen him wear. The officers sat silently as Washington fumbled to place the eyeglasses on his face while holding the letter. Washington then remarked, “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.”
“This homely act and simple statement,” wrote Flexner, “did what all Washington’s arguments had failed to do.” Washington’s words, writes Bruce Chadwick, “touched the hearts of every man in the hall.” One officer who sat in the Temple Hall that day later wrote in his journal that, “There was something so natural, so unaffected, in his appeal that it rendered it superior to the most studied oratory; it forced its way to the heart.” The Newburgh Conspiracy ended at that moment. Thomas Jefferson later wrote “the moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
The New Windsor encampment is a New York State historic site. The meeting hall where Washington quelled the potential mutiny has been reconstructed. The site also features The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor where visitors can browse exhibits and galleries, including the electronic Roll of Honor which has a growing database of the names of Purple Heart recipients. The mission of the Hall of Honor, according to Director Anita Pidala, is “the collection and preservation of the stories from Purple Heart recipients in all branches of service and across all generations to ensure that all recipients are represented.” The Hall’s website is www.thepurpleheart.com.
Washington’s Headquarters is also a New York State historic site. The original building, constructed in 1750, still stands. A nearby museum provides an introductory film, artifacts from the time period, and a tour of the headquarters for a nominal fee.
Both sites are a short drive from the Newburgh exit of Interstate 84. The story they tell helps us to understand why George Washington was “the indispensable man” of the American Revolution. When British King George III was told that after winning independence Washington planned to retire to Mount Vernon instead of seizing power as a dictator, he remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Francis P. Sempa is an Associate Editor of American Diplomacy in charge of the Spoken Word section of the journal. An Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania since 2002, Francis was previously a Deputy Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and an Assistant District Attorney for Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. Also, he is an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he has taught courses on American national security, defense, and foreign policy as well as comparative politics.