George Washington Versus the Continental Army: Showdown at the New Windsor Cantonment, 1782–1783


December 11, 2023
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

BOOK REVIEW: George Washington Versus the Continental Army Showdown at the New Windsor Cantonment, 1782-1783 by Michael S. McGurty (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2023)

Except for the dangerous Newburgh Conspiracy, historians overlook the Continental Army’s activities in the Hudson Valley during the last year of the American War for Independence. Michael S. McGurty fills this gap, detailing the establishment and operation of the 1782-1783 New Windsor Cantonment. Selected by George Washington for its security and access to supplies, the Continental Army’s final encampment is located on the west side of the Hudson River, protected by the West Point fortress ten miles to the south. McGurty has formed a special attachment to the region by working as the historic site manager of New Windsor Cantonment and Henry Knox Headquarters State Historic sites for the State of New York. The public historian and period interpreter has also penned numerous articles on the region’s Revolutionary Era people and events.[1]

A former US Army officer with combat experience in Afghanistan, McGurty organized his book into eleven chapters, starting with selecting the winter quarters’ location and ending with the army’s “shameful disbandment.” After Yorktown, both Washington and Rochambeau moved their armies into the Hudson Valley. In October 1782 Rochambeau marched his army to Boston for embarkation to the West Indies. With his hopes dashed for a joint assault on New York, Washington arrayed his army to protect the Hudson Highlands with the main camp behind Snake Hill, protected from attack with access to trees for hut construction and fuel and secure supply routes. The cantonment encompassed two and a half square miles, almost six hundred buildings, and represented the second largest city in New York State.

The author spices up the dialogue with interesting observations on the camp’s residents. He notes that diverse denizens populated the winter quarters. McGurty estimates that two hundred and fifty women and the same number of children lived in the camp in the Winter of 1783. Later, Congress limited the number of women to one per fifteen soldiers in each regiment, which Washington vehemently opposed (page 41). Another interesting observation is that the Continental Army exclusively used muskets, with no rifle units at New Windsor as there had been earlier in the conflict (p. 73). Lastly, McGurty offers interesting insights into the design and use of the cantonment’s largest building, the Temple of Virtue, including discussion of two surviving pictorial representations of the it (p. 84-6). The first is contained in Benson Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution and is the model for the replica completed in 1964 and open to visitors today. McGurty notes several errors in Lossing’s work, including the location and design of the Temple. Private William Tarbell produced the other surviving image of the building, which reflected Masonic features and images. McGurty provides copious archeological support for Tarbell’s drawing as the most accurate representation.

Regardless of which design is most accurate, McGurty adds to the historical record of the well-researched Newburgh Conspiracy, which famously culminated in an officers’ meeting at the Temple of Virtue. McGurty asserts that during the entire year-long encampment, second-in-command Gen. Horatio Gates and George Washington did not visit each other’s headquarters, indicating a coldness between them. Offering a controversial point of view, the author notes that Washington used the term “old Leven” in a letter to Alexander Hamilton, which he believes referred to Gates. The most recent Newburgh Conspiracy scholar disagrees. Its author, David Head, with the support of several other eminent scholars, argues that “old Leven” did not suggest an individual but was a biblical reference to non-specific people who were indecisive (p. 99-100).[2] Countering Head’s arguments, McGurty provides an overview of the “old Leven” historiography, which supports Gates as the object of Washington’s message. While the last word on the “old Leven” controversy has not been written, McGurty observes, with the local knowledge of a historic site manager, that the officer rebellion should be labeled the New Windsor conspiracy because the Temple of Virtue is located Southwest of the city of Newburgh (p. 101).

While discontent over pay kept the officers busy, military parades and drills occupied enlisted soldiers, maintaining discipline and combat proficiency. The military preparations were somewhat effective, but as peace became more likely, the army experienced a marked decline in discipline and an increase in challenges to authority. Almost five hundred soldiers deserted between November 1782 and June 1783, and the number of courts-martial and punishments swelled (p. 131).

From the British New York Headquarters, Capt.-Lt. John Stapleton of the 17th Light Dragoons rode into camp with the news of the preliminary peace treaty on April 8. Washington organized a big celebration, complete with fireworks (p. 133-34). One of the book’s strengths is describing the army’s months-long disbandment process and the difficulty of keeping the army cohesive and under discipline after the peace was announced. The author concludes that the disbandment process was shameful as Congress discharged the officers and soldiers with relatively worthless promissory notes and little or no real money. The only consolation was that soldiers marched home under the command of captains and lieutenants, which allowed them to obtain provisions under Congressional auspices. After the British evacuated New York City and the Cantonment emptied, the Army sold the huts and other camp equipment. McGurty continues the story by describing efforts to preserve the campsite and to commemorate the Continental Army’s last year.

Researchers interested in detailed information on the camp’s organization and operation will appreciate the book’s six appendices, including the Continental Army’s organizational structure, compensation, duty responsibilities, death lists, and the Newburgh Conspiracy correspondence. In the last appendix, the historic site manager calls into question the provenance of the still-standing Mountainville Hut, which some historians assert was an extant hut from the New Windsor Cantonment. The purported surviving hut became a patriotic shrine and, while not likely from the New Windsor Cantonment, is a “rare survivor from the early days of our country” (p. 182).

Steven E. Elliott, in his 2021 book Surviving the Winters: Housing Washington’s Army During the American Revolution, argues that the Continental Army increasingly became more capable of building winter cantonments. Each year, these quarters became more secure, healthier, and easier to supply due to learning professional military castrametation techniques such as siting encampments, camp layouts, hut design, water supplies, and sanitary conditions. Elliot asserts that New Windsor huts were larger than previous years’ quarters and that the soldiers at New Windsor had “no longer a reason to complain.”[3] It would have been interesting if McGurty had addressed Elliot’s arguments, evaluated the military castrametation principles and opined if the New Windsor cantonment benefited from a learning curve.

Readers seeking to expand their military history knowledge beyond campaigns and battles will enjoy learning about life in the final Revolutionary War encampment. Additionally, McGurty’s work is chock full of stories of individual officers and enlisted soldiers, making his narrative as much about ordinary lives as big-picture military and geopolitical strategies. Finally, McGurty’s strong association with and deep understanding of the Revolutionary mid-Hudson region will benefit readers. His narrative whets readers’ appetites to visit the Hudson Valley Revolutionary War sites.

PLEASE CONSIDER PURCHASING THIS BOOK FROM AMAZON IN PAPERBACK or KINDLE(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)


[1]McGurty authored “A Tolerably Decent Appearance: The Clothing of the Continental Army at the New Windsor Cantonment, 1782-83,” “The New Windsor Artillery Park, 1780-1781,” and “Notes on the Flank Companies of the Left Division, 1814.” He also designed “The Last Argument of Kings,” an exhibit on eighteenth-century artillery at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site.

[2]David Head, A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution (New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2019).

[3]Steven E. Elliott, Surviving the Winters: Housing Washington’s Army during the American Revolution (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021), 3–5, 148–71.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *