“French Officers hate him” and “none of the English Officers . . . love him.” The American Revolution produced the names of great individuals who performed distinguished deeds we treasure and honor today. As there are historical heroes, there are also antagonists with adversarial roles who fall into the category of “all but forgotten.” Among the latter is Maj. Gen. Thomas Conway, who is forever linked and stigmatized with the matter that forever bears his name, the Conway Cabal. There is, however, a debate among many historians over whether this sobriquet connected to Conway is deserved or is a vast exaggeration by pro-Washington supporters.
A son and grandson of Irish Catholic officers in the service of the French crown, Thomas Conway was born on February 27, 1733 in Cloghane, County Kerry, Ireland. At age six, he was taken to France where he received his upbringing and education that would influence the remainder of his life. He entered military service on December 16, 1747 when he became lieutenant en second in the Irish régiment de Clare that was completely loyal to the Ancien Régime. During the Seven Years War, in August 1758, the regiment formed part of the defensive garrison forces for the port of Cherbourg during the second British expedition against the French coastline. In 1760 the regiment saw action in Germany and the following year took its winter quarters garrisoning the town of Giessen. Following this conflict that permanently established Great Britain as a powerful global empire, Conway continued to be promoted in his military career by becoming a captain on March 25, 1765; a major in the regiment of Aquitaine on July 9, 1769; and colonel on November 9, 1772. He eventually received the high decoration of the Order of St. Louis. Viewing the erupting American Revolution as an opportunity for more rapid promotion, in 1776 Conway sought an interview with one of the American emissaries to the Court of King Louis XVI, Silas Deane. By December 14, 1776, he departed from France bound for America with a letter of introduction secured from Deane to the Continental Congress that promised him an appointment of high rank within the Continental army.
Many historians have described Conway as authoritative and derisive. On occasions, he refused to obey orders that he disputed. Altogether a most ambitious and self-proclaimed military genius, he was always judgmental of both those above him in rank and of subordinates. Conway was incapable of concealing his scorn for so-called military amateurs such as he believed George Washington and the majority of his staff to be. As a military professional, he maintained discipline in his command and fought fairly well; it became no secret, however, that he believed Washington’s decisions stood in the way of his promotion and attainment of the rank of major general over the other twenty-four brigadiers that were his senior. Conway believed that with a major general’s commission, he could one day return to France and attain advancement and preferential treatment within their military.
To promote his quest for military advancement, Conway allied himself with the self-proclaimed victor of Saratoga, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. “I have heard several Officers who have served under General Gates compare his Army to a well regulated family,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush. “The same Gentlemen have compared Genl. Washington’s imitation of an Army to a unformed mob.” Saratoga gave Gates a platform for a wider reputation of military genius than he deserved, given the tremendous efforts of generals Arnold and Morgan on the battlefield. Gates’ mind was undoubtedly filled with delusions of grandeur, and Conway helped feed the flame that a new commander-in-chief was required, one who would assist his own ambitions of advancement. Given his tempestuous and discontented nature, Conway was willing to be a tool of this scheme that would forever bear his name.
The actual Conway Cabal established itself as the guns at Saratoga had just silenced, and wound its way through the loss of Philadelphia and the darkest days of Valley Forge. According to historian and politician Albert J. Beveridge, “the Conway cabal shot its filaments through Congress, society, and even fastened upon the army itself. Gates was its figurehead, Conway its brain, [James] Wilkinson its tool, Rush its amanuensis and certain members of Congress its accessories before the fact.” He attributed “the good sense and devotion” of Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry, who forwarded to Washington Rush’s anonymous letter to him, as having “prevented that shameful plot from driving Washington out of the service of his country.”
Conway was an overconfident individual, believing he had the favor of the powerful and well-connected in America. He was not afraid to antagonize both military personnel and civilians in his quest for high rank and honors. One influential member of Congress he mistakenly aggravated and tried to push to the wayside was a close supporter of Washington, Charles Carroll of Carrollton. When Conway learned that Carroll assisted in blocking his advancement to major general, he displayed his bitterness and contempt, which was entirely the wrong course of action. He bragged that, “Of all the French officers who came to this continent, I am the most advanced in rank, and the only field officer bearing the rank in actual service,” and continued in his correspondence to Carroll to cast disparaging remarks about other officers in order to display his superiority in all matters. When asked “upon what grounds” he based his request “for the rank of major general,” he stated, “Because I can be more useful at the head of a division than at the head of a small brigade. Because in my younger days I had a larger command before the enemy than what I had in your army.” He contended that in his “twenty years constantly studying military operations,” he thought himself “more qualified to command a division” than other generals in American service either “German and French” especially at the recent major battles of Brandywine and Germantown. He arrogantly informed Carroll that if he had the “patience to read” his lengthy letter, Carroll “and other gentlemen” would find his request to be a major general “not altogether as impertinent” as was circulated.
One can only imagine Conway’s reaction when he was directly informed by Washington that the plan was quickly unraveling. Washington simply wrote that, “In a Letter from Genl Conway to Genl Gates he says—Heaven has been determined to save your Country; or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruined it;” making it quite apparent he had learned of the correspondence that unmasked the plot. The letter Washington referred to concerned one whose contents Gate’s aide-de-camp, Maj. James Wilkinson (whose name is also associated with duplicity) shared with Maj. William McWilliams in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 1777. McWilliams, who was General Stirling’ s aide-de-camp, relayed this most offensive passage to Stirling, who had his own private feud with Conway. Stirling informed Washington, noting that “such wicked duplicity of Conduct, I shall always’s think it my duty to detect.”
Conway evidentially was the type that believed flattery and other compliments could free him from most unpleasant situations, a strategy he employed throughout his military career. To deny the actual contents of the Gates letter, Conway attempted to deflect the commander-in-chief’s wrath by creating doubt in his mind and praising him as “a Brave man, an honest man, a patriot, and a Man of great sense.” He continued that his “modesty” was such “that although your advice in council is commonly sound and proper, you have often been influenc’d by men who Were not equal to you in point of experience, Knowledge or judgment.” In his correspondence he danced around the matter, asserting that he could “attest that the expression Weak General has not slipped from” his pen.
Along with Washington’s military family, prominent members of the Continental Congress and other leading officials recognized the threat that Conway and his fellow conspirators posed to the future of the infant United States. Pennsylvania militia Brig. Gen. John Cadwalader confessed to Benjamin Franklin that, “Dissentions among ourselves are the Evils that every thinking man dreads most. Our own sentiments upon this point so often mentioned in the public papers, I always feared would give hints to our Enemies that if well managed might undermine and ruin where open force would have no effect.” In addition, Washington’s aide-de-camp and military secretary, Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman, bluntly wrote to Cadwalader about his personal feelings on Conway’s rapid elevation from brigadier to major general by the Board of War. “He has come down full of his own importance and wrote the General [Washington] a letter for which he deserved to be kicked. He [Washington] treated it with the contempt it deserved.” Tilghman continued, “The Major’s and Brigadier’s General have all remonstrated against his [Conway’s] extraordinary promotion from the youngest Brigadier to Major General. Conway is of the Junto and M H—-‘s right hand man.” General Nathanael Greene felt that, “A horrid faction has been forming to ruin his excellency and others. Ambition, how boundless! Ingratitude, how prevalent! But the faction are universally condemmed.”
From the beginning, Washington was not totally oblivious to the actions of Conway and his confederates. “That there was a scheme of this sort on foot last fall admits of no doubt but it originated in another quarter—with three men who wanted to aggrandize themselves—but finding no support, on the contrary, that their conduct, and views when seen into, was like to undergo severe reprehension they slunk back—disavowed the measure, & professed themselves my warmest admirers.” Despite what was intimated, Washington believed that “no officers in the Army are more attached to me than those from the Northward and of those none more so than the Gentlemen who were under the immediate comd of G—-s last Campaign.” He felt that that if any members of Congress were under Conway’s spell, “he would not take it upon himself to say,” but he was “well informed that no whisper of the kind was ever heard in Congress.”
The feelings of Washington’s supporters against Conway did not dissipate as the treacherous matter subsided. On the second anniversary of celebrating the Declaration of Independence, Brigadier General Cadwalader, a loyal friend of the commander-in-chief, was challenged by Conway in Philadelphia to meet on the field of honor for speaking negatively about him. In a matter-of-fact tone, Richard Henry Lee described the event when the two men “met on the Common yesterday morn. They threw up for the first fire & Cadwalader won it. At the distance of 12 paces he fired and Shot Conway thro the side of the face, on which he fell & was carried off the field. He is supposedly not to be in danger unless and unforeseen inflammation should produce it.” It has been alleged that many thought the shot fired by Cadwalader truly found its proper mark in Conway’s mouth.
Conway thought otherwise about his medical condition. Convinced he was on his deathbed, Conway made a rather unbelievable confession to the commander-in-chief as if to clear his conscience before God.
I find myself just able to hold the penn During a few Minutes, and take this opportunity of expressing my sincere grief of having Done, Written, or said any thing Disagreeable to your excellency. my career will soon be over, therefore justice and truth prompt me to Declare my Last sentiments. you are in my eyes the great and the good Man. May You Long enjoy the Love, Veneration, and Esteem of these states whose Libertys [sic] your Virtues. Most obedt h am With the greatest respect sir your Excellency’s Most obedt humble Servant.
Although many American historians allude that Conway’s military career and life faded into obscurity and ultimately poverty, his martial profession was far from over. Once his wounds had healed from the duel, he returned to France. In the Army of Flanders, by July 1, 1779, he was made Aide-major–général and in less than a year, on March 1, 1780, attained the rank of brigadier general. With his advancement now fully back on track, exactly a year later Conway became a colonel of the Pondichéry Regiment stationed in India’s Hindustan. The American Revolution had evolved into a world war with fighting occurring between the British and the French in this region as the last military engagements of the eight-year conflict. By January 1, 1784, Conway was named a Maréchalde camp; however, in 1786, he obviously suffered from fitness difficulties (perhaps from his dueling injury and/or the Indian climate). His cousin, Robin Conway wrote, “General Conway is now at Bath for his health.” He further commented that, “He was in a fair way of making money at the Cape of Good Hope, but General Conway is such a man that spends a deal of money and nobody knows how; he owed, I am told, on his return to Europe 70 thousand Livres. His Brother is much more prudent and much a better Country Man.”
By September 1787, Conway was appointed governor of Pondichèry and by the next year, April 14, 1788, he achieved governor generalship of all French forces beyond the Cape of Good Hope. Conway’s almost mercurial and seemingly unstoppable advancement ceased in 1792, when he allegedly quarreled with Tipu Sultan, the powerful ruler of the Indian kingdom of Mysore who was a strong regional ally of the French and an implacable enemy of the British East India Company. In 1789, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War, Tipu Sultan had tried to unsuccessfully rally French support to oppose the British, opposition in which governor general Conway certainly would have played a major role. As a result of British victory, the Treaty of Seringapatam caused the Indian leader to lose a number of his previously conquered territories. According to a local trader, “This man is insofar as anxious, violent, and awful, inasmuch as our General has never been the right one to run the colony. . . . The hope is that another heart failure will free us from that man.” With France’s prospects in the subcontinent damaged and with the full eruption of the Revolution (with Conway owing his title and authority to the deposed King), he believed it prudent to depart India on July 29, 1790.
Upon his return to France, Conway was again involved in machinations and secret maneuvering on behalf of the Ancien Regime. By 1792, he had organized a secret organization in Provence and Dauphiny to uphold the monarchy. The princes of France appointed him “General-in-Chief of the Army of the South.” As with the Cabal, this conspiracy was uncovered and with the surprise assistance of the British, Conway fled across the English Channel to Britain. When the preliminary trial of King Louise XVI began in December of 1792, included in the convicting documents offered as proof of the monarch’s support of the counter revolutionary efforts of the new republic was a memoire, signed by Conway, along with a copy of the incriminating instructions provided to him by the French princes.
With this seemingly unexpected assistance by the British government, in 1794 Conway was named commander of one of the six regiments of the so-called Irish Brigade formed by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. On September 24, 1794, Colonel Daniel O’Connell wrote that “two regiments more have been added to the four Originally Granted, of which, the 5th, was given to General Tom Conway, and the 6th fortunately fell to General James Conway, as the Senior Officer of all of those who remained unprovided for. The Six Appointed Colonels had the honor of Kissing the King’s hand on Wednesday last, and the Queen’s on Thursday.” Although Conway was somewhat blessed that people in authority remained impressed with his military accomplishments, his health continued to plague him. He continued to visit Bath for his well-being on several occasions; the Bath Chronicle recorded his arrival on February 12, 1795, but this visit was to be his last. He remained in titular command of his regiment, but was never to take the field. He died soon after and was interred in Bath Abbey on March 3; the exact location of his memorial is unknown due to major renovations conducted within the Abbey during the 1860s.
The Conway name did not entirely fade from history especially with those scholars involved with the study of the American Revolutionary War era. Most secondary works contend he died in penniless oblivion in Ireland around 1800, which clearly he did not; a burial in Bath, one of Britain’s social centers, was not a death in a historical anonymity, nor was burial in the beautiful and prominent Bath Abbey. Conway was survived by his wife, Francois Antoinette Langlois du Bouchet who was created the Contesse de Conway, whom he married on June 1, 1775 and had a daughter the following year, on July 12, 1775, named Caroline. The Countess lived until 1828 and as a widow of a British colonel she continued to receive a government pension. The Countesshad also owned property in France. “During her coverture,” she “purchased several rental perpetuelles and rentes viagères.” She tried to claim these supposedly owed funds, following the final end of Napoleonic France in 1815, under the convention that specifically provided for British subjects who had suffered since January 1793 by the “confiscations or sequestrations decreed in France.” The Commissioners for Liquidation of British Claims in France rejected her claim because no evidence was discovered that she had ever been in Great Britain or, as a foreign-born subject, none of her properties could be considered British property.
Historical debates on Conway and the cabal are still occurring among scholars of the American Revolution. The discussions seem to concentrate on whether or not the cabal was much ado about nothing or an actual plot against Washington. The eminent historian John C. Fitzpatrick believed, “Its seems incredible that Washington could have been the center of such a hideously selfish and unpatriotic coil without knowing more about it, yet it is perfectly in keeping with the high sense of honor in the man that, without any evidence beyond that of the jealous and intriguing dispositions of Gates and the rest, he suspected nothing beyond the boundaries set by their personal ambitions.” Regardless of the severity or the impact of the Conway Cabal, the man forever tied directly to it continued to have a military career for two more decades after ignominiously leaving America, and was ultimately treated with respect at the end of his life.
Tench Tilghman to John Cadwallader, January 18, 1778, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1908), 32:169. There is debate as to the meaning of the initials “M H.” Consensus is that these initials refer to General Thomas Mifflin who was a harsh critic of Washington; Conway was deemed his “right hand man.” Nathaniel Greene also felt this to be true: “General Mifflin is said to be the head of it.” Nathaniel Greene to Jacob Greene, February 7, 1778, in Richard K. Showman, ed., The Papers of General Nathaniel Greene (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 2:277.
Privy Council of Great Britain, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined Before the Committees of His Majesty-Countess de Conway Case-June 13, 1834 (London: Edward F. & Knapp Moore, Jerome William, 1834), 364-365.