The officers of the Continental Army were sullen. It was December 1782, and they were stationed in and around Newburgh, New York, and neighboring New Windsor, where some 10,000 soldiers, the bulk of Gen. George Washington’s force, kept an eye on the British in New York City and waited to learn whether the war would continue in the spring. The victory at Yorktown a year before vanquished a British army and peace commissioners were at work in France on a treaty, but news was scanty and the war dragged on for an eighth winter.
The officers were afraid. When they thought about how much they’d sacrificed and how little recompense they’d enjoyed, would peace be a blessing? Or another humiliation? Officers thought of themselves as gentlemen, and although gentlemen weren’t supposed to be motivated by base things like money, they did need money to keep up the lifestyle proper to their station. Throughout the war, however, they’d been paid only sporadically, and in currency so depreciated that it was more valuable as blank paper. Congress had voted the officers pensions, in 1778 and in 1780, which gave hope that following the war they might be able to dress in a little silk and buy a tablemate a bottle of Madeira. But would the politicians follow through now?
The officers were angry. They blamed civilians for their woes. Too many people stayed home snug by their firesides while they lodged in the snow. Too many civilian officials received payment promptly for their service, allowing them to spend their pay before its value fell. Too many merchants, once stingy with supplies, bought and sold goods with greedy alacrity now that peace seemed imminent. Too many people thought of pensions not as a just reward but as the tyrant’s tool to dupe men into giving up their independence for the security of government payments. The officers thought of themselves as the heroes of the new nation; civilians mocked them as just another group of corrupt placemen.
The one thing officers were not, however, was passive. Beginning in the summer of 1782, they organized themselves for political combat. They formed committees, solicited grievances from individual regiments, drafted a memorial to Congress, and redrafted it to maximize its effectiveness. Overwhelmingly, the officers worked within the political process, and their efforts to petition Congress reveal that, contrary to republican ideology that branded them as hirelings, the officers thought of themselves as citizen-soldiers, men who retained the rights secured by independence. They expected to be treated as such by their soon-to-be fellow civilians once the war ended.
In June 1782, Massachusetts officers led the way. They began drafting a memorial under the authority of their highest-ranking member, Gen. Henry Knox, commander at West Point, for the eyes of their own state legislature. Although Massachusetts was hostile to pensions, starting in Boston rather than Philadelphia would prevent Congress from brushing them off with orders to try their state first. Also, the state legislature might say yes, and they’d take that as a surprise win.
A delegation of officers left camp in September, and presented their concerns to the legislature. Delays followed until November when the anti-pension faction pulled a fast one. They made public a private letter from one of the state’s Congressmen, the Boston merchant Samuel Osgood, that said if Massachusetts settled with its officers independent of Congress, it would not get a credit toward its share of war expenses, and the state would end up paying twice. Besides, Osgood informed, Congress was set to discuss pensions in the new year and there was no reason for Massachusetts to act first.
With a way to tell the officers no without actually saying no, the legislature tabled the memorial. When Boston native Maj. Samuel Shaw, aide-de-camp to General Knox, heard how the Massachusetts legislature treated the respectful, democratic petition of Massachusetts men, he was dejected. “The treatment the application to our State, in behalf of its troops, has met with from the legislature occasions universal discontent,” the doleful Shaw told his father. So much, he concluded, for “Public faith.”
The Massachusetts officers quickly regrouped, with Knox leading a committee, and prepared to take their case to Congress. Meeting on November 16, they decided to turn up the volume of their petition. First, they invited the other states’ officers to join them. Representatives from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire responded positively and sent men to form a new, expansive committee, again with Knox at its head. The Rhode Island line, stationed at Albany, joined in later. Second, the Massachusetts officers solicited grievances from their line’s individual regiments.
The soldiers didn’t need to be asked twice to complain, and over the next few days, the officers of each regiment met and drew up reports, pouring their bitterness onto Knox. Some reports were lavishly formal and deferential, others blunt and heavy handed. Some officers wrote long narratives of their suffering, while others offered tight, bullet-point-like lists. Some wrote in a beautiful hand, others in a near-indecipherable scrawl. Most grievance reports focused on the officers’ needs, but a few included the enlisted men, especially the “veteran soldiers, who have served with fidelity thus far thro’ the hardships and dangers of the present contest.” The officers blamed Massachusetts for their problems just as often as they accused Congress. They despaired for their families, which “are either already suffering the utmost extremes of poverty or hastening with a quick step toward it.” They resented civilians “swimming in luxury” and deplored them as ungrateful. They demanded action but seemed resigned to yet more failure.
The grievances of the 3rd Massachusetts were typical. The officers pointed to arrearages in pay, stretching back “for almost two years past.” When they were paid, they received depreciated Massachusetts notes, which they were “obliged to part with . . . for less, than one quarter of their real Value.” The consolidation of units and dismissal of officers frightened them. “The frequent deranging of Officers, from the Army, without any kind of Settlement, or Compensation, for their past Services, we look upon, as a very capital injury,” the grievance read. Finally, pensions. The regiment wanted Congress to either “make such permanent provision, as will beyond all doubt ensure it when due, or recommend it to the State, to make such settlement.”
Turning to what Knox’s committee should do, the various regiments wanted their feelings expressed to Congress in “a spirited Address,” a “very Spirited address,” a “free & spirited representation,” or “a memorial and [a] humble, but spirited, petition.” The 5th Regiment, lacking a new way to say “spirited,” instead wanted their communications to go through General Washington or the secretary at war “that he may give them all possible official sanction.”
The grievance reports struck few notes of optimism. Some tried to set deadlines for an affirmative response—January 1 or February 1 or March 1 or even, for an installment of pay, by July 1—but more often the officers said what they would have to do when a negative answer came back: resign their commissions. “We are fully convinced,” the 4th Massachusetts officers wrote, that without a firm commitment from Congress “we shall be under the disagreeable necessity of returning our commissions to that power from which they originated, that we may then fall upon some plan to obtain a comfortable support in life for ourselves and families.”
Despite the raw emotion aired in the grievances, most units protested within the system of civilian supremacy over the military and threatened to play the one card allowed by the system: resignation.
The 6th Regiment went further and turned the language of revolution against civil authority. “We believe,” the grievance read, “we engaged to serve the public not as slaves at discretion for life, but as free men upon contract for a definite period.” The officers bewailed the penury that surely awaited them. “We shall be like asses of burthen who after having drudged through the heat, to save expense, are turned out to graze the streats for support, till their masters see fit to make use of them again.” If not paid, the officers concluded, they considered their contract broken and “seek support in the honest callings of domestic life and whatever the consequences may be, the world will judge.”
Here were the electrifying words of the revolution: freedom and slavery, liberty and power, social contracts kept and broken, with the justice of the officers’ actions submitted, like the Declaration of Independence, to a candid world. Except now Congress and the people were the British and the king, and the officers alone were the true patriots.
In late November and early December, the multistate committee led by Knox convened at Horton’s Tavern in New Windsor, and over a series of meetings the officers shaped their grievances into a memorial. Two drafts survive in the Henry Knox papers and show how the officers’ strategy gained focus, purpose, and rhetorical power.
The first draft started simply, asking permission to address Congress “in plain & respectful Language,” on behalf of the officers and soldiers of the army. The draft then framed its message in contractual terms, a traditional New England way of understanding military service: an inviolable agreement between the soldier and his community. The officers had kept their end of the bargain while Congress had not. “There does not lye on the Army, any Imputation of unfaithfulness,” it announced. “Its unexampled Perseverance & fidelity under accumulated Hardships & Wrongs, have excited the Astonishment & applause of strangers.”
The proposed text followed the introductory section with a detailed account of how Congress had fallen short of its obligations: Continental money “palmed off upon the Army,” payment in state securities sold at seventy to eighty percent discounts, inadequate rations, and undelivered clothing with no compensation to offset the shortage, accounts unsettled and “scarcely thought of but by the Army.”
The draft lacked organization, failed to note the predicament of the retired officers until the very end, and never discussed pensions. When it came time to state what the officers wanted, the document was uncertain. The officers asked for Congress to settle their accounts as much as possible immediately and have “the Remainder put on Such a Footing as will restore Chearfulness to the Army.”
Overall, the draft’s language was plain and respectful, as promised, but also uninspired and unfocused—as blah as a New York December day. The second version made a vigorous improvement.
Recorded by Major Shaw, though likely composed by committee, the draft deleted the opening about contracts and substituted an emotional appeal showing the effects of the officers’ financial distress. “We have Struggled with our difficulties, year after year under the hopes that each would be the last; but we have been disappointed,” the introduction proclaimed. “We find our embarrassments thicken so fast and have become so complex, that many can go no further.”
The new draft ended its introduction on an ominous note. “Our distresses are now brought to a point,” it warned. “We have borne all that men can bear.” Their own money long ago spent, “our private resources are at an end, and our friends are wearied out, and disgusted with our incessant applications.” With nowhere else to turn, the officers said, “We, therefore, most seriously and earnestly beg, that a supply of money may be forwarded to the army as soon as possible.”
In case Congress failed to grasp the point, the text continued with an alert about the enlisted men. “The uneasiness of the soldiers, for want of pay, is great and dangerous; any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects.” Though often misinterpreted as the officers threatening “fatal effects” if they were ignored, the reference was to “soldiers.” The officers had already implied their reaction if Congress failed to act. “Unable to go further,” they would resign.
With the climactic close to the introductory section—sure to grab the attention of even the sleepiest delegates—the second draft incorporated the first draft’s material on rations, clothing, and the plight of retired officers, now moved up to a more logical position in the argument. Shaw left a large blank space in his paper where the material from the first draft should go and the final version seamlessly entwined the two.
Then, the draft addressed pensions head-on. It condemned the “odious point of view” that discountenanced pensions. On the contrary, the officers proclaimed. “We regard the act of Congress respecting half-pay, as an honorable and just recompense.” The officers now offered a deal. In lieu of half-pay for life, they would accept from Congress full pay for a limited number of years or a lump sum payment to discharge the obligation once and for all.
Here was the spirited representation of grievances that the officers wanted, though it was also respectful. Obeisance to Congress sweetened the text with assurances that the address, “with all proper deference and respect,” was offered to “your august body,” in hopes of finding relief from “our head and sovereign.”
After circulating for comments, the second draft was approved on December 5, with minor edits. Two days later, the committee gathered once last time at Horton’s Tavern, and fourteen men, four generals, eight colonels, a major, and a surgeon, signed their names to the document.
Deciding they wanted the message delivered to Congress in person—the better to keep up the pressure, answer questions quickly, and, if need be, negotiate over pension terms—the officers chose Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall of New York, Col. John Brooks of Massachusetts, and Col. Matthias Ogden of New Jersey to represent them. The three men received a charge from the committee. “We wish you to inforce our Address in the most modest terms—yet in that steady manner that is expressive of the character of Officers, and the justice our requisitions demand,” the instructions read. The emphasis on modesty cut against the urge for spiritedness found in the grievances. The officers, ambivalent about the proper tone, still had not decided how aggressive they should be toward Congress.
The officers had one last piece of business before the delegates mounted their horses for Philadelphia: how to pay for the trip? The officers took up a collection, but because they were so short of funds—that was the whole point of the memorial!—it took more than three weeks to get the money together. Finally, on December 21 the general and two colonels departed the cantonment, the officers’ futures as civilians resting with how Congress reacted to their spirited, but respectful, appeal.
The memorial delegation’s arrival in Philadelphia launched the episode known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, in which Philadelphia politicians such as Congressman Alexander Hamilton, Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, and his assistant (but not relative) Gouverneur Morris supposedly used the memorial’s evidence of army unhappiness as leverage in a dangerous game to play the threat of an officers’ rebellion against Congressmen and state legislators reluctant to cede power to the central government.
As restless as the officers were in December 1782, they were not on the brink of rebellion. They wanted results through the political process. They formed committees, solicited grievances, drafted and revised a memorial because following that process gave their demands legitimacy. Their emotions stayed in check—for the moment. Only in the spring of 1783 when Congress’s response appeared delayed and peace appeared imminent did the officers’ resolve falter and make them vulnerable to an inflammatory anonymous letter that burned through camp one morning in March and set in motion the climactic moment of the officers’ discontent.
William Heath to George Washington, June 21, 1782, George Washington Papers, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08744; Petition of the Officers of the Massachusetts Line, August 1782, Henry Knox Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Sidney Kaplan, “Pay, Pension, and Power: Economic Grievances of the Massachusetts Officers of the Revolution,” The Boston Public Library Quarterly, 3 (1951), 29.
Samuel Osgood to John Lowell, September 9, 1782, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Paul H. Smith (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 19: 129–134; Osgood to Henry Knox, December 4, 1782, Letters of Delegates, 19: 452–454; Kaplan, “Pay, Pension, and Power,” 30-32.
“Rough draught of an address to be presented to Congress,” December 1782, Knox Papers; F. W. Anderson, “Why Did Colonial New Englanders Make Bad Soldiers? Contractual Principles and Military Conduct during the Seven Years’ War,” William and Mary Quarterly, 38 (1981), 395–417.
Committee meeting minutes, December 5 and 7, 1782, Knox Papers. The final version of the memorial can be found in a report submitted to Congress on April 24, 1783. See Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford, et. al. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937), 24: 291–293.