Thomas Williams is a Part-Time member of the faculty at Quinnipiac University. He is a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, a member of the Military Writer’s Guild, and tweets at @twilliams01301. Divergent Options content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.
Title: Alternative History: The Newburgh Conspiracy Succeeds — An After-Action Review
Date Originally Written: June 15, 2020.
Date Originally Published: August 24, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a retired Army Reservist and former member of the Distance Education Program at the U.S. Army War College. This article is presented as a vehicle to discuss the vagaries of planning in open systems.
Summary: March, 1783. General Washington and his closest advisors discuss the General’s inability to prevent the coup fomenting among Continental Army Officers camped in Newburgh, New York. This alternative history teaches readers to recognize the capricious nature of plans and how it’s essential to be humble as sometimes the smallest and most irrational inputs can have unpredictable and disproportionate effects.
Text: General George Washington was disgusted beyond measure. The Army was now commanded by his former deputy Horatio Gates, and Washington was in hiding. Gates and a faction of disgruntled officers and men were moving toward Philadelphia with the expressed purpose of intimidating the people, and by extension, Congress, into supporting its cause: backpay, pensions, and respect.
Sitting now with his closest associates, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox (whose own writings did not do much to help this current situation), and a few dozen other compatriots who comprised an after-action review team, Washington wanted to discuss how he lost control when the cabal met in Newburgh, NY.
What an irony, Washington bemoaned, as this move was likely to erase their eight-year struggle for freedom from the British. Although Yorktown was already two years past, the war wasn’t technically over, and no one present at this after-action review knew the status of negotiations in Paris. The British, who maintained an Army in New York, were showing signs of taking advantage of Gate’s burgeoning coup, including ending negotiations and resuming hostilities.
Hamilton wasn’t present in Newburgh, so he took the lead in asking questions. “How did it all unfold?” he needed to know.
Washington and Knox were the first to share. Knox said “The crowd was restless. Insolent, even.”
“The Continental Army officers at camped at Newburg, New York?” Hamilton asked.
“Yes,” Knox allowed, adding that many of the would-be conspirators were good, reliable men who had been with the Army for most of its eight years. “I suspect we could reason with any individual,” Knox continued, “but there was a madness to the crowd, whipped up, I suspect, by Horatio Gates himself.”
That Gates was a chief conspirator surprised no one, and as Knox told it, the man seethed with a personal resentment toward Washington. Every man in today’s discussion knew that this was not Gates’ first run at Washington. Back in 1777, and flush from his victory at Saratoga, Gates and a Brigadier General named Thomas Conway were secretly corresponding with members of Congress to have Gates named as the Army’s commander in chief. Ultimately, the “Conway Cabal” failed, but all the resentments lingered.
Hamilton now turned his attention to Washington who was not present at Newburgh for all that Knox described. By design, Washington entered the Newburgh meeting room in dramatic fashion, at the last possible minute. Hamilton asked Washington, “What happened when you entered the room?”
“The moment had the desired impact,” Washington replied. Washington wasn’t expected to attend the Newburgh conference, so his sudden entrance from a side door at the exact moment Gates rose to open the proceedings momentarily cooled the firebrands.
Washington knew the power of his position. He had been in command of the Army since 1775 and shared in all its deprivations. The General knew the majority of these conspiring officers and shared many of their frustrations.
Washington recollected that his remarks were logical, rational, and delivered solidly enough, but what he had to say also seemed insufficient.
Hamilton interjected, asking what the members of the after-action review team thought of this characterization. Many agreed with General Washington saying that they too thought there was an edgy, even sinister demeanor among the conspirators.
Washington continued with his story saying that at Newburgh he next intended to read a letter from a prominent Virginia congressman containing assurances that Congress was doing all in its power to redress the Army’s complaints.
Knox interrupted, noting to Hamilton that Washington seemed to struggle with the words of this letter and was reading haltingly.
“Let’s avoid any indictments, Henry,” Hamilton said. “That’s not what we’re here for.”
“Yes, that is correct,” Washington said. “I was reaching for my spectacles and fumbled as I did so. I decided to continue reading as I looked.”
“That wasn’t your plan,” Hamilton said. “It was less about the letter than the use of your spectacles as a deliberate prop.”
Washington’s faced flushed in anger. Hamilton was correct about the intended theatrics. “My hope,” Washington, intoned, “was to use my loss of sight as an appeal for sympathy.” Washington went on to say that he was going to beg the conspirators’ pardon, to forgive his hesitant reading with words about going gray and blind in his service.
“I never had the chance,” Washington said, recounting how the conspirators seized the initiative and leveled the most vile accusations toward him. “The invective tipped the balance in a room predisposed to anger,” he noted.
Hamilton spoke again, “What conclusions can we draw; what might have been done differently?”
Knox, an avid reader and bookshop owner before the war, started an impromptu lecture on Greek rhetoric. He opined about logos (logic), ethos (Washington’s character) and began talking about pathos (passion).
“General Washington needed to focus on his oratory. He was bland,” Knox said.
Hamilton thought about it for a moment and turned back at Knox saying, “Henry, you’re wrong—the answer is ‘nothing’.” “Nothing,” he repeated. “Humility and pathos were our aim. Our plan was right the first time. It simply went awry.”
Hamilton speculated out loud that this incalculably small moment may have made all the difference. Had Washington been able to produce his spectacles more quickly, he might have earned that planned sympathy.
“I got to my spectacles seconds later, but the moment was fleeting,” Washington said.
Knox banged the table, shouting, “No one can plan for this. And frankly from what you’re saying, even if General Washington succeeded with these theatrics, something else might have gone wrong.”
“Shakespeare,” whispered Washington. “Richard III.” How fickle our designs, how arrogant our plans when even a King cannot secure a needed horse,” he added.
“What’s to be done, then?” asked Hamilton. “Where do we go from here?”
No one had the chance to answer as the shouts of British officers began to echo across the courtyard just beyond their door. Washington, Knox, and Hamilton knew at once; they were found.
Knowledgeable readers will recognize the moment this story deviated from the historical record. In reality, Washington quickly found his glasses, and as he put them on, he said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”
In a way that’s hard for us to understand in our age of cynicism, this simple gesture brought men to tears and back into Washington’s camp, so to speak.
The conspirators dropped their demands and accepted their subordination to civilian authority, no matter how flawed. The revolution held fast, the Treaty of Paris was signed in September of that year, and the British evacuated their armies.
 For a quick understanding of the Newburgh Conspiracy, see Martin, J. K. (2015, March 12). The Newburgh Conspiracy [Video]. George Washington’s Mount Vernon. https://www.mountvernon.org/video/playlist/36
 To know more, see Scythes, J (ND) The Conway Cabal. George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
 From Shakespeare’s Richard III, published circa 1593, Act 5, Scene 4. Richard exclaims, “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” http://shakespeare.mit.edu/richardiii/full.html.
 Ferling, J. (2009). The ascent of George Washington: The hidden political genius of an American icon (p. 234). Bloomsbury Publishing.