Newburgh Address, 15 March 1783
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]
George Washington delivered his Newburgh Address to confront one of the greatest challenges to his influence with the officers and soldiers of the Continental Army. In the waning months of the Revolutionary War, after the victory at Yorktown on 19 October 1781, when the army was restlessly ensconced in winter quarters at Newburgh, New York, the officers, long unpaid and apprehensive about arrearages, retirement pay, and other well-deserved concessions denied them by Congress, teetered for a moment on the brink of open revolt against the country and government for which they had fought so hard and long. That the balance fell in favor of peace and order was due to General Washington's great influence with and true affection for his officers and soldiers alike.1
For quite some time Congress had been indifferent to General Washington's pleas on behalf of his unpaid men. In March of 1783 an unofficial meeting of the officers was called, and an anonymous paper (later attributed to Major John Armstrong) was circulated urging the officers to demand concessions from Congress, rather than ask as they had in the past, with the implied threat that if their demands were not satisfied they would compel Congress to accede to them. Alarmed by these developments, Washington took control of the situation, cancelling the unofficial meeting and calling an official one for March 15.2 There he read the famous address which is shown here in his own handwriting. He then presented a letter from a member of Congress to corroborate that body's good intentions, and as he began reading it he "made a short pause, took out his spectacles, and begged the indulgence of his audience while he put them on, observing at the same time, that he had grown gray in their service and now felt himself going blind."3
The address was brief, clear, and presented with great feeling; Washington exhorted his men to loyal and obedient, appealed to their patriotism, and offered his support for their cause. It was the most moving address he ever made, and afterwards the officers unanimously adopted a number of resolutions, including: "That the army continue to have an unshaken confidence in the justice of Congress and their Country . . . ; that His Excellency the Commander in Chief be requested to write to His Excellency the President of Congress, earnestly entreating the most speedy decision of that honorable body . . . ; that the officers of the American army view with abhorrence, and reject with disdain the infamous propositions contained in a late anonymous address ...."4
The Newburgh Address is bound together with a "Report of Proceedings in Meeting of the Officers assembled on 15th Mar. 1783," which was presided over by Major General Horatio Gates. The report is in the handwriting of Major Samuel Shaw, aide-de-camp to General Knox and secretary for the meeting, and is signed by General Gates. Also with the address are several letters testifying to the authenticity of the handwriting of Washington, and correspondence related to the gift of the address to the Society. The address was purchased about 1813 by William A. Haves, a resident of South Berwick, Maine, from Captain Simeon Lord, also of that town. Captain Lord was an assistant to the adjutant general in the Continental Army from 1 February 1783, to the close of the war, and claimed to have acquired the address in his capacity there.5
1. James Thomas Flexner. George Washington in the American Revolution. Boston, 1967, pp. 507-508.
2. Douglass Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. Volume 5: Victory with the Help of France. New York, 1952, pp.431-433; James Thomas Flexner. George Washington in the American Revolution. Boston, 1967, pp.503-505.
3. Samuel Shaw. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw. Boston, 1847, p.504.
4. Horatio Gates, "Report of Proceedings in Meeting of the Officers assembled on 15th Mar.1783." Massachusetts Historical Society.
5. William A. Hayes to Dudley Atkins Tyng, 21 June 1819. Massachusetts Historical Society.