After the British loss at the Siege of Yorktown in October 1781, the American Revolutionary War died down in North America, and peace talks began between British and American diplomats. The American Continental Army, based at Newburgh, New York, monitored British-occupied New York City. With the end of the war and dissolution of the Continental Army approaching, soldiers who had long been unpaid feared that the Confederation Congress would not meet previous promises concerning back pay and pensions.
Congress had in 1780 promised Continental officers a lifetime pension of half their pay when they were discharged. Financier Robert Morris had in early 1782 stopped army pay as a cost-saving measure, arguing that when the war finally ended the arrears would be made up. Throughout 1782 these issues were a regular topic of debate in Congress and in the army camp at Newburgh, and numerous memos and petitions by individual soldiers had failed to significantly affect Congressional debate on the subject.
A number of officers organized under the leadership of General Henry Knox and drafted a memorandum to Congress. Signed by enough general officers that it could not be readily dismissed as the work of a few malcontents, the memo was delivered to Congress by a delegation consisting of General Alexander McDougall and Colonels John Brooks and Matthias Ogden in late December 1782. It expressed unhappiness over pay that was months in arrears, and concern over the possibility that the half pay pension would not be forthcoming. In the memo they offered to accept a lump sum payment instead of the lifetime half pay pension. It also contained the vague threat that "any further experiments on their [the army's] patience may have fatal effects." The seriousness of the situation was also communicated to Congress by Secretary at War Benjamin Lincoln.