Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Generals' Duel

This is the 4th of July weekend, so it is fitting that this week, we visit a little Revolutionary War History.  So much familiar ground will be re-trampled by the herd of popular press, that I  thought I might use the occasion to journey down a less frequented path.

It was 1777, and not much was going well for the Continental Army.  General Washington had tried several times to dislodge General Howe and the British Army from Philadelphia (then the capitol of the new nation) but was repeatedly rebuffed.  Naturally, the Continental Congress had to abandon both its pride and the city as it beat a hasty retreat.

Meanwhile, the British General, John Burgoyne was moving his army south from Canada to cut off New England.  If you ever go on campaign, you want to go with Gentleman Johnny:  Besides his 7000 men, he brought along his mistress, thirty wagons of personal luggage, and a large supply of champagne.   Naturally, his army was moving slowly through the heavily wooded area.  (British Generals, used to fighting on a continent that had been deforested since the time of the Romans, frequently lamented that the New World was not a "civilized" place to fight a war.)

As Gentleman Johnny, pictured at left, approached Fort Ticonderoga, he was so confident of success he split his forces.  Fairly quickly, the part of the army he was with was surrounded at Saratoga by the American army of General Horatio Gates.  On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne was beautiful in his scarlet, gold, and white uniform when he surrendered his army to the rather plain, blue-coated General Gates.  Most of his 5700 soldiers spent the rest of the war imprisoned in Virginia while Burgoyne was allowed to go home to see the mad (in more than one sense) King George III.

Saratoga was a major turning point in the war.  Shortly afterward, France and Spain entered the war, merchants in England began pushing the government to resolve the conflict, and it triggered a small mutiny in the American Military.  The Inspector General of the army, General Thomas Conway—an Irish Soldier from France with twenty years’ experience in the French Army—began writing a series of letters to the Continental Congress, suggesting that George Washington should be replaced as Commander-In-Chief by General Gates.

This would have been a really bad idea, since General Gates was actually a poor general (he was eventually relieved of command and replaced by General Nathaniel Greene, the fighting Quaker).  The real credit for the Battle of Saratoga belongs to General Benedict Arnold, who was Gate’s subordinate.   The lack of respect and recognition for his contributions were among the motivations for Arnold's becoming a traitor and accepting the rank of general in the British Army.

Historians have never been certain just how seriously what came to be called the Conway Cabal was received by the Continental Congress.  What is certain is that portions of Conway’s letters were sent to George Washington, who shared them with his General Staff.  One of those generals, General John Cadwalader, was intensely loyal to Washington.

When the British finally pulled out of Philadelphia in June, 1778, General Cadwalader returned to discover that his home, which had been occupied by General Howe and his mistress, was need of serious remodeling.  I’m sure that this had a little something to do with the anger Cadwalader felt when he began proclaiming loudly and publicly that he wanted to challenge General Conway to a duel in order to “shut his lying mouth”.

General Conway, to uphold his honor, agreed to the duel.   The Code Duello, whose 25 rules governed such idiotic contests, had been published the previous year in Ireland, and was used by duelists in both Western Europe and America.  The seconds met, and Conway, as the challenged had the right of choosing weapons and the ground, in this case choosing pistols and the Wharton Estate outside Philadelphia.  Cadwalader, as the challenger. picked the distance between the two combatants.

Duels were common in America until the late 1830’s.  Several signatories of the Declaration of Independence fought duels, as did Sam Houston, Henry Clay, and Stephen Decatur.  While everyone knows that Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, it is less well known that the pistols used had also killed Hamilton’s son in an earlier duel.  (Today, the pistols are on display in a branch of the Chase Bank.)  Abraham Lincoln almost fought a duel but was spared when the seconds for the duel settled the grievance without violence.  Andrew Jackson participated in 103 duels, and claimed at one point to have kept 37 pairs of dueling pistols ready to use at a moment’s notice. 

July 4, 1778, the two duelists, along with their seconds, the physician, and many spectators—including several members of Congress—gathered before dawn.  The seconds loaded the pistols, the men stood paces apart, and proclaimed themselves ready.  The fight began at a word from Dr. Shippen, the physician.

Conway fired immediately, missing Cadwalader completely.  This was not surprising, as the guns of the period were so wildly inaccurate that they didn’t even have sights.

Cadwalader stood and waited.  Conway, required by the Code to stand his ground and wait, asked, “Why do you not fire, General Cadwalader?”
“Because,” replied the general, who had not yet even raised his pistol, “we came not here to trifle.  Let the gale pass and I shall act my part.”  He was referring to a gust of wind that had arisen just as the physician had given the word to fire.

“You shall have a fair chance of performing it well,” answered Conway.
As the wind died, Cadwalader raised his pistol, aimed carefully but quickly—taking too long to aim was discouraged by the code—and fired.  Conway’s head jerked backward, then the general fell forward, landing on his face—to all appearances dead, as blood pooled around his head.

Dr. Shippen ran to the man, turned him over to discover that the large caliber ball had struck Conway in the mouth, knocking out teeth, piercing the tongue, and exiting through the back of the man’s neck.  The doctor, as required by the code, made no prognosis or comment about the man’s condition.

General Cadwalader said, “I have stopped that damned rascal’s lying anyway.”  Satisfied that he had indeed silenced Conway, he left the field with his second and supporters.

Conway, believing that his wound was mortal, wrote a sincere letter to General Washington apologizing for his letters to the Continental Congress.  Among his heartfelt sentiments, he declared that Washington was “a great and good man”.  This is certainly a dramatic end to the Conway Cabal.

Astounding both Dr. Shippen and General Conway himself, he recovered from his wound.  Conway resigned his commission, left America and returned to France, where he fought with the royalist army in the French Revolution.  Captured, he called for his former enemy, the British army, to intercede in his behalf, and when released, he returned to his homeland, Ireland.  Not much more is known about him, but he appears to have died in poverty, alone and forgotten.

I wish I could say that it is my deep love of American history that reminded me of this story.  Actually, every Fourth of July, as I drive by fireworks stands, I am reminded of a strange duel I fought with a good friend a few decades ago.  I won’t go into details, but yes, alcohol was involved.  And if you ever fight a duel with Roman candles at twenty feet, you should definitely not wear a nylon shirt.  (And we are still good friends.)


  1. Gotta love Roman candles and bottle rockets.

  2. At summer camp where I worked during my college days, around the 4th, the staff would buy up a massive supply of bottle rockets. Then we'd break up into two-man teams armed with bunk adapters. The camp used surplus Army cots and the bunk adapters were long tubes used to turn two metal cots into a single bunkbed.

    We used the extras for makeshift bazookas. We boys in Cabin B attacked Cabin A one morning, raining down a barrage of bottle rockets against the front doors and screens of Cabin A. Ted Dossey, looking steely eyed and incredibly skinny in his underwear and t-shirt stepped out the front door to confront his attackers. I hit him square in the chest with my next rocket. He just stood there with this rocket sputtering and sparking and trying to push it's way through his ribcage. Maintaining eye contact that would have done Clint Eastwood proud, he reached up and calmly slapped the rocket aside seconds before it exploded.

    It was terribly impressive - so impressive that we hit him with a second barrage. Nonplussed, he turned and strode calmly back into the cabin. I hit him a glancing blow in the behind before he could get the door close. The rocket bounced around inside the cabin and exploded somewhere up in the open rafters.

    That ended the war. That night we set off fireworks for the campers from the swimming dock lifeguard and diving towers. A humongous rocket misfired and dropped in the low tower where I was launching them with 4 other people. In the confusion, everyone hit the ladder at once, forcing me to dive off into the dark water below. The last lifeguard remaining kicked the rocket into the water after me. It reignited, shot straight down into the water, past my ear and exploded beneath me like a depth charge. I lost my glasses and a good bit of my dignity. Spent an hour diving for my specs the next day in 10 feet of green East Texas lake water (with a foot of loose goo at the bottom). Inspired by the presence of one of our staff girls in a hot pink bikini (not strictly allowed by the rules of our church camp), I dove till my lungs hurt and finally found them. Couldn't get any of the guys to help me dive for some reason. They seemed to have important things to say to Linda that just couldn't wait. After I retrieved my glasses and could see again, I joined the conversation.