Washington and Lee University

Sender: George Washington
Recipient: Richard Henry Lee

Dear Sir:

Your favour of the 5th. Instant, as also that of the 11th. by Baron de Kalb, are both at hand. It is not in my power, at present, to answer your Query respecting the appointment of this Gentleman: But, Sir, if there is any truth in a report which has been handed to me; Vizt., that Congress hath appointed, or, as others say, are about to appoint, Brigadier Conway a Major General in this Army, it will be as unfortunate a measure as ever was adopted. I may add (and I think with truth) that it will give a fatal blow to the existence of the Army. Upon so interesting a subject, I must speak plain: The duty I owe my Country; the Ardent desire I have to promote its true Interests, and justice to Individuals requires this of me. General Conway’s merit, then, as an Officer, and his importance in this Army, exists more in his own imagination, than in reality: For it is a maxim with him, to leave no service of his own untold, nor to want any thing which is to be obtained by importunity: But, as I do not mean to detract from him any merit he possesses, and only wish to have the matter taken up upon its true Ground, after allowing him every thing that his warmest Friends will contend for, I would ask, why the Youngest Brigadier in the service (for I believe he is so) should be put over the heads of all the Eldest? and thereby take Rank, and Command Gentlemen, who but Yesterday, were his Seniors; Gentlemen, who, I will be bold to say (in behalf of some of them at least) of sound judgment and unquestionable Bravery? If there was a degree of conspicuous merit in General Conway, unpossessed by any of his Seniors, the confusion which might be occasioned by it would stand warranted upon the principles of sound policy; for I do readily agree that this is no time for trifling; But, at the same time, I cannot subscribe to the fact, this truth I am very well assured of (though I have not directly, nor indirectly, exchanged a Word with any one of the Brigadiers on the subject; nor am I certain that any one of them has heard of the Appointment) that they will not serve under him. I leave you to guess, therefore, at the situation this Army would be in at so important a Crisis, if this event should take place. These Gentlemen have feelings as Officers, and though they do not dispute the Authority of Congress to make Appointments, they will judge of the propriety of acting under them. In a Word, the service is so difficult, and every necessary so expensive, that almost all our Officers are tired out: Do not, therefore, afford them good pretexts for retiring: No day passes over my head without application for leave to resign; within the last six days, I am certain, twenty Commissions, at least, have been tendered to me. I must, therefore, conjure you, to conjure Congress to consider this matter well, and not by a real Act of injustice, compel some good Officers to leave the service, and thereby incur a train of evils unforeseen and irremidiable.

To Sum up the whole, I have been a Slave to the service: I have undergone more than most Men are aware of, to harmonize so many discordant parts; but it will be impossible for me to be of any further service, if such insuperable difficulties are thrown in my way.

You may believe me, my good Sir, that I have no Earthly views, but the public good, in what I have said. I have no prejudice against General Conway, nor desire to serve any other Brigadier, further than I think the cause will be benefitted by it; to bring which to a speedy and happy conclusion, is the most fervent wish of my Soul.1

With respect to the wants of the Militia in the Articles of Clothing, you must be well convinced, that it is not in my power to supply them, in the smallest degree, when near one half of our own Men are rendered unfit for service for want of these Things.

I can add no more at present, than that I am, etc.2

Notes:

1 Lee replied (October 20): "[I] was a good deal surprised to find you had been told Congress had appointed Gen. Conway a Major General. No such appointment has been made, nor do I believe it will, whilst it is likely to produce the evil consequences you suggest. It is very true, that both within and without doors, there have been Advocates for the measure, and it has been affirmed, that it would very agreeable to the army, whose favorite Mr. Conway was asserted to be. My judgment on this business was not formed until I received your letter. I am very sure Congress would not take any step that might injure the Army, or even have a tendency that way; and I verily believe they wish to lessen your difficulties by every means in their power, from an entire conviction that the purest motives of public good direct your actions.

"The business of a Board of War is so extensive, so important, and demanding such constant attention, that Congress see clearly the necessity of constituting a new Board, out of Congress, whose time shall be entirely devoted to that essential department. It is by some warmly proposed, that this board shall be filled by the three following gentlemen, Colonel Read, Colonel Pickering, the present Adjutant General. and Colonel Harrison, your Secretary. And that Gen. Conway be appointed A. G. in the room of Colo. Pickering. It is my wish, and I am sure it is so of many others, to know your full and candid sentiments on the subject. For my own part, I cannot be satisfied with giving any opinion on the point, until I am favored with your sentiments, which I shall be much obliged to you for Sir as soon as your time will permit.

"It has been affirmed, that Gen. Conway would quit the service if he were not made a M. General. But I have been told in confidence, that he would leave it at the end of this Campaign if he was appointed, unless his word of honor were taken to continue for any fixed time. And it is a question with me, whether the Advocates for Gen. Conway will not miss their aim, if he should be appointed A. General, unless he has the rank of Maj. General also. My reason for thinking so is, that I have been informed Gen. Conway desires to retire to his family, provided he can carry from this Country home with him, a rank that will raise him in France. It is very certain that the public good demands a speedy erecting and the judicious filling of the new Board of War, and I sincerely wish it may be done in the most proper manner. I do not imagine Congress would appoint Colo. Harrison, without first knowing whether you could spare him, nor do I think that so important an office, as that of A. G. should be touched without the maturest consideration."

This letter is in the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress.

Lee’s decided opinions were completely at variance with what he should have known was the temper of Congress. On a report of the Board of War, one member of which was Francis Lightfoot Lee, Congress elected (December 13) Thomas Conway as inspector general with the rank of major general. No record of the vote on this is given in the Journals of the Continental Congress, but the word "unanimously" was first written and afterwards crossed out.

2 The text is from the Varick Transcripts, but no draft of this letter is found in the Washington Papers in the Library of Congress.