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When Congress Failed to Pay the Troops

When Congress Failed to Pay the Troops (Illustration) American History American Revolution Famous Historical Events Government Law and Politics Social Studies Visual Arts

In late November, 1783, the last British soldiers left America.  The war for independence was finally over, but a cash-strapped Congress had, for years, failed to pay the Continental Army’s officers and soldiers. 

Many of the men were bitter, especially when Congress ordered that four/fifths of them would be furloughed (in lieu of paid).  General Washington had tried to get Congress to do the right thing for his troops, but Congress was effectively bankrupt. 

Washington's letter to Congress makes clear the General’s feelings on the subject.  If the politicians failed to pay the men, as promised, "then shall I have learned what ingratitude is," and the memory of how his officers and troops had been treated would "embitter every moment of my future life."

Against that backdrop, Washington returned to New York City where the people gave him  a triumphal entry.

 

He invited his officers to meet him at Fraunces Tavern. He wanted to tell them good-bye, before he officially tendered his resignation to Congress.  There is an eyewitness account of the meeting which took place in the Tavern’s Long Room.  

Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge wrote his account in 1830, several decades later.  The original manuscript is maintained by the Fraunces Tavern Museum. This is what it says:

The time now drew near when General Washington intended to leave this part of the country for his beloved retreat at Mt. Vernon. On Tuesday the 4th of December it was made known to the officers then in New York that General Washington intended to commence his journey on that day. 

At 12 o'clock the officers repaired to Fraunces Tavern in Pearl Street where General Washington had appointed to meet them and to take his final leave of them. We had been assembled but a few moments when his Excellency entered the room. His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. 

After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, "With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable."

After the officers had taken a glass of wine General Washington said, '"I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand."

General Knox being nearest to him turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief.

Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.

 

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5123stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jun 27, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Apr 15, 2015


Media Credits

Image, Library of Congress.

Also linked (or shown as an in-text image) above:  Washington's Grand Entry into New York, Nov. 25th, 1783. Lithograph by T. Sinclair, 1860.  Library of Congress.

"Evacuation day" and Washington's Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783. Lithograph by E. P. & L. Restein, 1879.  Library of Congress

Washington's Entry into New York. On the evacuation of the city by the British, Nov. 25th, 1783. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1857.  Library of Congress.

Washington and His Generals. Drawing and engraving by Alexander H. Ritchie. Library of Congress.

The quote is from page 103 of the original manuscript, The Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, located at the Fraunces Tavern Museum, New York City. 

For more background on Congressional failure to pay the troops and officers of the Continental Army, see The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival after Yorktown, by Thomas Fleming (paperback edition, September 2008).

 

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