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Written By JPV Oliver, Gent

General George Washington came thisclose to losing his job as commander of the Continental Army in 1777 – and Saratoga was a big factor.  Our city talks about Health, History and Horses, but maybe we should put political intrigue on the list.

During much of the Revolutionary War, George’s main talent seemed to be scooting away from the British in the dead of night and retreating quietly in the fog.  High-ranking military leaders and some in Congress started to get twitchy with GW’s antics.

Enter Thomas Conway, an Irishman educated in France and a former officer in the French Army.  

Now in charge of a large force of American troops, Conway distinguished himself in the Battles of Germantown and Brandywine, then wrote to the Continental Congress touting his successes and all-around genius and throwing some major shade on George.

Conway’s letter found sympathetic eyes in Congress, including those of Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Father of American Psychiatry.  “If it were not for God’s grace, the ongoing war would have been lost by Washington and his weak counselors,”  Rush wrote in a letter to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry. He was quoting Conway.

It didn’t help that during the 1777 Battles of Saratoga, which were key to the British surrender six years later, Washington and his men were hanging out in Pennsylvania not doing much of anything.

American General Horatio Gates, the self-proclaimed hero of Saratoga, was hugely emboldened by his wins here and agreed that Washington had to go. Because of Saratoga, people took Gates very seriously.

The ugly imbroglio came to be known as The Conway Cabal. Gates claimed credit for the Saratoga victories, but this is controversial. Other American officers, including Benedict Arnold, who disobeyed direct orders from Gates during the conflict, helped carry the day.

It’s important to remember just how vainglorious these guys were - honor and acclaim being an essential part of victory in battle.  

British-born Gates, for example, only joined the American cause after getting fed-up with the English military caste system and Arnold, who pretty much lost a leg at Saratoga, defected to the enemy because he felt unloved by Congress.

Washington himself could be a lot in the ego department.  When he was president, he held fancy, men-only receptions called Levees and nobody touched “His Excellency” ever.  At one such event, an admirer clapped George on the back and the President – magisterially tall at 6’ 2” – glared at the man so fiercely, the fellow cowered in shame. 

Eventually, General George put the kibosh on the conspiracy against him, Conway got fired and Gates penned a weepy apology (which the imperious GW never acknowledged) and then everybody rallied behind the Father of Our Nation.  

Still, but for a turn of events, the US capital today might be called Conway, DC.

In 1783, General Washington was restless, waiting, forever it seemed, for the British to sign the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War, so on July 23, he came to Saratoga Springs to buy the place. That Sunday made him perhaps the first modern tourist here and the locals, welcoming America’s only celebrity, baked him some spring-water bread. But he had an agenda.

George knew the water here cured gout, dropsy, asthma, “the King’s evil” – syphilis – and was a natural contraceptive to boot. At his death, he owned 51,000 acres of land in the new nation and his estate, in today’s money, was in the billions of dollars - and he wanted this town. One of his soldiers called the waters “a great curiosity.”

After returning to Newburgh, the General immediately fired off a letter to New York Governor George Clinton, asking what to do next “regarding our purchase of the Saratoga Springs.” GW was, above all, a businessman, certain the waters had a big economic future.

But it was not to be.  

Sixteen months after his visit, Clinton wrote to say the villagers had an absolute lock on the place and weren’t selling. GW wasn’t the only one to see dollar signs. 

The General replied that “We are very disappointed in our expectation of the Mineral Spring at Saratoga.” He licked his wounds by snagging six thousand acres in Herkimer.  

It was probably for the best. In 1783, parking on Broadway was already a nightmare.

Oliver’s memoir is I Know This Looks Bad – Errors and Graces in a Louche Life.