The threat of resigning one’s military commission under protest is almost a matter of tradition. If your leaders made a decision you did not think was in the best interest of either yourself or your comrades, you offered up your resignation. It was a matter of honor. Should your resignation be received, you found yourself out of a job and wondering if it was worth the risk. On the other hand, if your resignation was not received, and a policy changed or decisions undone because the idea of losing you was simply too much, then the gamble was worth the risk. During the American Revolution, this military tradition was exercised by numerous officers and enlisted men. At the start of the war, the Americans did not have a professional army, the men who fought were volunteers—farmers, tradesmen, scholars, and merchants with few soldiers among them. As this group formed into the Continental Army, they began taking on more of the professional aspects of their new vocation, including the threat of resignation.
Before the American Revolution, it would have been a stretch to call Henry Knox a warrior. He had the right physique for sure: a young, tall, large man, he certainly looked the part. Knox was well-read in the concepts and theory of war; his only real experience came with a Boston artillery company, but he was indeed a natural. As a bookseller in Boston, he was in the middle of the events on the road to the war. His father-in-law was a staunch loyalist who had no great love for talk of rebellion, His wife, however, loved him and would stand by his side when the decision was made to go to war. And go to war he did. Self-taught, mostly from the books he sold in his shop, and full of patriotic glee he showed up in Cambridge to become an engineer in the newly-minted Continental Army. He would go on to become a skilled general, an incredible leader, and a man trusted by General Washington. All that, though, almost fell by the wayside on the day that he tendered his resignation and prepared to walk away from the army and the cause.
The story of the resignation begins in France. The Americans may have been more than willing to go to war for their cause but on the long list of things that they lacked was actual military leadership. France, the ancient enemy of Britain, was thought to be the answer to that particular deficiency. Setting up shop in Paris, American ministers scoured the French countryside for men that not only had a military background, but that would be ready to fight for the American cause. They were not disappointed. Foreign volunteers from every country came to them vying for positions in the new army. It was not just their military resumes that were looked at closely (for the most part) but also their political connections. A decent military history and connections with the French crown would get a commission in the Continental Army. Some worked out well for the cause, others brought their own set of issues. Though some questioned the use of foreign officers, Washington himself advocated for their use.
Phillipe Charles Jean Baptiste Tronson Du Coudray, a French artillery officer, was promised a commission by Silas Dean. Not just any commission—Du Coudray was to be a major general of artillery and engineers in the Continental Army. This would in effect put all artillery and engineers in the army under his direct command. There was just one slight problem with that: Gen. Henry Knox.
In 1777 General Knox had been serving as the head of the Continental Artillery, which also put him over the engineers. Since his heroic and legendary exploit that involved hauling much needed cannon from Ticonderoga to the siege of Boston, Knox had again and again shown his ability and talent for his new profession. Imagine his surprise when he heard that a French office was to supersede him! To make the issue a little more of a treat for Knox it was his wife that informed him of the arrival of Du Coudray. She wrote: “A French general, who styles himself commander-in-chief of the Continental artillery, is now in town. He says his appointment is from Mr. Deane, that he is going immediately to headquarters to take command that he is a major-general, and a deal of it.” Earlier in the conflict, Congress, desperate for military talent from abroad, passed a resolution stating that French officers would be granted seniority based on when their agreements were signed in France, not necessarily when Congress approved them. The stage was set for a major conflagration.
Upon hearing Du Coudray’s commission and understanding the ramifications, Knox reached out to General Washington and explained that, “I believe the Congress did not sufficiently consider the consequences of such a resolution.” Not content to let his confusion stand as a testament to the mistake, he suggested that every officer in the artillery corps was prepared to resign if a solution is not found! In the end he requested that Washington take up the issue with Congress. “If they repeal their decision,” he wrote, “I shall be happy. If they do not, I shall be clear of any bad consequences which may follow.”
Washington took up the cause and asked Congress to provide Du Coudray with another assignment, and he passed on his fears that allowing the commission to stand would be a great disservice not only to the army but to Knox. Washington said in his letter that, “He, I am persuaded, would consider himself injured by an appointment superseding his command and would not think himself at liberty to continue his service.” Congress, to be fair, had a number of considerations to be made. While Knox was an important person to the cause, the diplomatic fallout of denying Du Coudray his commission could have far-reaching consequences. His connections in France made him a very valuable ally: the French minister of war had singled out Du Coudray for the assignment, and crossing someone that high up in the French court could have consequences. As Congress debated the topic, John Adams so much as said that there was little chance of the appointment happening, “I hope none.”
When word of this French officer’s commission started making the rounds, it was not only Knox that stood angry and confused. Gen. Nathanael Greene, always quick to the defense of his friends, started a letter-writing campaign to Congress to get the issue resolved. Then, to make the matter even more of a mess, Greene found out that the French Officer’s commission date would put him over Greene also! A new round of letter writing was undertaken by Greene, Knox, and Gen. John Sullivan. All three threatened to resign over the issue.
Washington did as Knox requested and sent the letter on to Congress who responded that, at least in this case, the intention of the previous resolution was to set the rank and seniority “among the French themselves.” Their commissions in the Continental Army and thus their seniority would be based on when Washington accepted them into the service. But this was not the end of the issue.
The letter-writing campaign that the three generals, Gates, Greene, and Sullivan, undertook to Congress was carried out in a public venue, each letter to be read into the records of Congress. This caused a righteous sense of embarrassment to the members of Congress, as most completely agreed with the issues. Congress was not happy; on July 7 1777 they passed a resolution directing Washington to inform the three generals that their letters were “an invasion of the liberties of the people,” and indicated “a want of confidence in the justice of Congress.” The resolution went on to demand that the men “make proper acknowledgments” for their interference (apologies). In the end, they were invited to carry through with their threat: “[If] any of those officers are unwilling to serve their country under the authority of Congress, they shall be at liberty to resign their commissions and retire.” Thankfully for the cause, the three generals swallowed their pride and did not carry through with their threat.
As for Du Coudray, Congress realized that it could not honor his agreement with Deane without blowing up the army. In contrition, they took the path suggested by General Washington. Du Coudray was given command of the artillery pieces that he brought with him and his artillery corps was considered an independent command. With the arrival of several French officers that served under him, it was found that Du Coudray was not exactly the officer that he presented himself to be and many of the newcomers refused to serve under him. Du Coudray never really was able to do much for the army or cause. On September 1, 1777, while crossing the Schuylkill River Du Coudray and his horse fell into the water and drowned.
Knox did not resign his commission (neither did Greene or Sullivan) and continued to serve for the rest of the war with distinction. He saw action at Brandywine and Germantown, served during the terrible winter at Valley Forge, and placed his Continental artillery in perfect positions at Yorktown. When the war ended, he was at West Point and stayed there until the British were ready to evacuate New York. On December 4, 1783, he was at Fraunces Tavern to say goodbye to his commander and friend General Washington. He would go on to serve as Secretary of War in the Confederation Congress and then in the same role under the Constitution for President Washington.
How close was Knox from walking away? Based on his letters it is fairly clear that had the commission of Du Coudray stood, Knox would have retired. Had that happened is also likely that Greene would have followed suit. At the crux of the issue was a general mistrust between the Army and Congress. In this case the threat of resignation, when supported by more potential resignations, caused Congress to backtrack on a policy and a decision; the threat of resignation was an effective tool for bringing about change.
In another instance, it was not a handful of generals that threatened to resign but a contingent of enlisted soldiers from Pennsylvania. For them, the “honorable” idea of offering their resignation took the form of outright mutiny with a march on Congress to make their voices heard.
The situation began in the winter of 1780-1781 in Jockey Hollow, New Jersey, where the approximately 2,400 men of the Pennsylvania line were encamped. Conditions in the army were terrible. Supplies were almost non-existent; the soldiers had not been paid in almost twelve months and quickly-depreciating Continental currency would have been worthless even had they been paid. Plus the Pennsylvania troops themselves had only been given a $20 bonus for their three-year enlistments when troops from other states could get up to $1,000 for the same commitment. General dissatisfaction fermented and on January 1, 1781 it came to a boiling point. A good number of the men believed that their term of service had reached its end, having signed up for three years or the end of the war, and they prepared to go home or reenlist to take advantage of the higher bounties that new recruits were getting. Their officers saw it differently, expecting they would stay until the end of the war.
Soldiers from several regiments decided it was not worth staying and in effect resigned, preparing to leave camp without permission to “discuss” the issue in person with the Pennsylvania Assembly in Philadelphia. When their officers tried to stop them, they were fired upon by the mutineers and soon the ranks of the disabused swelled as men from the other regiments joined. Hearing about what was going on Gen. Anthony Wayne arrived at the scene and attempted to take control, but soon realized that if he wanted to avoid bloodshed, he would have to play it gently. The mutinying troops promised Wayne that they were only seeking a resolution and were not contemplating deserting to the British. Wayne notified Washington of the mutiny, beginning, “Dear General, It is with great pain that I now inform your Excellency of the general mutiny and defection which suddenly took place in the Pennsylvania line.
The soldiers then started their march to Philadelphia, stopping in Princeton, New Jersey to organize. There a board of sergeants was appointed to speak for the group and act as leaders. On January 5 Congress’s executive council learned of the mutiny and dispatched the council president, Joseph Reed, to deal with it. After meeting with members of the Continental Congress on January 6 Reed made preparations for his meeting with the mutineers and on the 7th met with the board of sergeants. On the same day, an emissary from British Gen. Henry Clinton arrived, offering to make good all the back pay due to the men if they joined the British Army. True to their word the men did not accept, even imprisoning the emissary after reporting the offer to Wayne and Reed.
Fearing that the men would have public sympathy behind them, Reed began negotiations that moved fairly quickly. The men that had reached the end of the three-year terms would be discharged and given the opportunity to reenlist to take advantage of the new high bounties. What made the decision easy for Reed was the stories the men told him about officers using any means necessary to keep the men from going home, even forcing them to reenlist under terrible terms; sometimes even corporal punishment was used. In the end an agreement was reached and on January 12 approximately 1,300 men of the Pennsylvania Line were discharged from service, though many did reenlist under the new bounty programs.
So, while it may seem that this “mass resignation” did indeed have a positive effect it is not necessarily so. While the men of the Pennsylvania Line managed to get their grievances addressed in a fairly bloodless and honorable way, several weeks later another group of soldiers from New Jersey attempted the same thing, and it did not go so well. The New Jersey mutineers were not negotiated with and in fact, General Washington had several of the leaders executed, commenting to General Greene that such actions “totally quelled the spirit of mutiny.” It would be hard to say that the Pennsylvania mutiny changed any policy, at least for the better. We can be sure that the men from Jersey would agree with that.
The last case is one where resignation was offered twice and was finally accepted the second time. The incident revolves around Gen. Thomas Conway, who reached infamy as a part of the “Conway Cabal.” Conway was an Irish Catholic who came by way of France to fight in the American war. According to Silas Deane, who presented his commission, “such an officer must be, I conceive, of very great service.” Initially well received by Washington and his contemporaries, he became the toast of the town for a bit, even having Dr. Benjamin Rush declare him “the idol of the whole army” at one point.
Things turned sour for Conway as Washington and his fellow officers grew less enamored with him. He was just the sort of person that will eventually rub you the wrong way. In October 1777 after the Battle of Saratoga he hitched his wagon to Gen. Horatio Gates who many saw as the architect of the great victory, though that was debatable. Suddenly it seemed that maybe Gates and not Washington would be the one to lead the Americans to victory. Soon rumors and questions started circulating around Congress that maybe Washington was not up to the task. Soon Henry Laurens, then president of the Congress, informed Washington of these anonymous musings: “Agents from our Enemies if not within Doors, yet too closely connected with some who sat there . . . I will attend to all their movements & have set my face against every wicked attempt however specious.”
Eventually, the ticking time bomb went off and it had Conway’s name all over it. James Wilkinson, an aide to Gates, mentioned to an aide of Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling, about a letter Gates had received from Conway. Stirling let Washington know immediately, as an example of “wicked duplicity of conduct.” Washington exploded. The next day Conway received a fire-and-ice letter from his commander: “Sir: A letter which I received last Night, contained the following paragraph. 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 ruind it.’ I am Sir Yr. Hble. Servt.”
Conway responded by denying ever having called Washington weak, but saying that he was surrounded by weak men. That his judgment was often good, but he had much more experience and that Washington was still new to this role. In every passive-aggressive way possible he tried to pass the buck, but knowing that he lay exposed he tendered his resignation to Congress. They promptly denied it, instead promoting Conway to the role of Inspector General of the Army. The resignation offer seemed to have a good effect!
The issue was far from resolved and relations between Washington and Conway remained icy. The entire army became infected with the issue. In April 1778 Conway again offered his resignation and this time it was accepted. During this time Washington and Gates began a letter-writing flurry that had Gates denying even knowing Conway at one point. Eventually, things between the two became so heated that even Washington himself began hinting to his supporters that duels may be necessary to preserve honor in the matter. This led to Conway and Gen. John Cadwalader actually dueling. Conway was shot through the jaw; after recovering he returned to France, forever linked to a possible attempt to oust General Washington. Had Congress accepted his resignation in the first place, perhaps the escalation and the gunshot wound could have been avoided.
To determine if the threat of resignation was an effective tool to bring about the change, we must look at the three instances above. In the scenario with Henry Knox, his threatened resignation brought to light the issue of Congress “promoting” foreign officers over the homegrown talent. Thanks to Knox this issue became a loud enough and public enough one that Congress changed their decision on Du Coudray and adjusted their policy on foreign commissions. In this case, it was an effective tool. In the case of the “mass resignation” of the Pennsylvania Line, while the resignations did get them what they were looking for, it did not lead to any wholesale changes; a subsequent group that tried the same suffered horribly. Hard to say this was successful. For Thomas Conway, his initial resignation was not accepted and he got the promotion he wanted, but at the price of nearly tearing apart the Continental Army, this eventually led him to submit his resignation again where it was mercifully accepted. You could say that his initial offer of resignation did have a lasting effect if nothing else in the rise of the so-called “Conway Cabal,” but overall, there was no lasting change. Was the threat of resignation an effective tool for the Continental Army? Overall, you would have to say no. While in some scenarios it could bring about change, most times the repercussions were worse than what was hoped to be accomplished.
Jared Sparks, Correspondence of the American Revolution; Being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, from the Time of His Taking Command of the Army to the End of His Presidency, Volume I (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1853), 378-80.
George Washington to the Continental Congress, June 1, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0565; John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Vol. 8 ( United States: FB&C Limited, 2018), 145.
John Adams to Nathanael Greene, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw%3A9%3A.%2Ftemp%2F~ammem_Opse%3A%3A.
Theodoric Bland, “Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 16 September 1, 1780. February 28, 1781 –the Commander at Brunswick or Elizabethtown.” American Memory: Remaining Collections. https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw%3A9%3A.%2Ftemp%2F~ammem_wrn2%3A%3A.
James Thatcher, A military journal during the American revolutionary war, from 1775 to 1783: describing interesting events and transactions of the period with numerous historical facts and anecdotes from the original manuscript: to which is added an appendix, containing biographical sketches of several general officers (Boston: Richardson & Lord, 1823), 298.
Washington to Nathanael Greene, February 2, 1781, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04731.
Silas Deane, “The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 2 Deane to the Committee of Secret Correspondence.”American Memory: Remaining Collections. https://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/query/D?hlaw%3A1%3A.%2Ftemp%2F~ammem_k3g7%3A%3A.