In addition to George Washington, during the course of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress commissioned seventy-seven other men as general officers, with four — Seth Pomeroy, John Whetcomb, John Cadwalader, and Joseph Reed — declining the honor. In fact, Cadwalader declined twice, much to Washington’s regret.
These seventy-three men served as Washington’s chief lieutenants, some very competently and others not so, with the majority falling in some middle ground. While Washington must clearly rank at the top of any list, I offer the following 10 generals as the next most important — my Top 10 List.
This is not meant to be a best or worst list or the most competent or the least so. Determining the best would be difficult, given different types of assignments and responsibilities — how do you compare a brigade commander with a theater commander, for example. And there are potentially too many choices for worst. Admittedly, too, we know very little about some of the lesser generals. Hence, my top ten, in no particular order, reflects those generals I believe to have had the greatest impact during the war. I also hope that it will be topic for discussion, as I’m confident that you won’t agree with all my selections. I’m anxious to hear your dissenting opinions. My candidates are:
1. Nathanael Greene //
Despite this not being a ranked list, Nathanael Greene was Washington’s most important subordinate. From his early poor advice during the New York campaign, to his involvement at Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Springfield and his critical work as quartermaster general, Greene was the commander-in-chief’s most trusted lieutenant, the one he supposedly wished to succeed him should that become necessary. Greene’s successful southern campaign further solidifies his spot at the top of my list.
2. Benedict Arnold //
Benedict Arnold’s leadership at Ticonderoga, Canada, and Saratoga earned him a spot on my list. While his treason had little actual impact on the war’s outcome, it did have a psychological effect. He is considered one of the best combat leaders of the revolution. As an aside, he asked permission to hang three spies about one month before his own treason.
3. Horatio Gates //
Horatio Gates’ early efforts as adjutant general to organize the army played to his strengths. He deserves praise for the victory at Saratoga where he was, after all, in command. He served as president of the Board of War. His defeat at Camden, South Carolina was a milestone in the southern campaign. His role in the Conway Cabal is less clear. But the fact that he did want Washington’s job and spent a good part of the war breathing down the commander-in-chief’s neck made Washington, in my opinion, a better commander. That, I believe, was Gate’s major contribution.
4. Marquis de Lafayette //
The Marquis de Lafayette grew from an inexperienced youth into a competent, nimble strategist, especially during the Virginia campaign of 1781. He was unswerving in his support of Washington. But his most important service was not on the battlefield, but in his efforts to bring French support to the United States. It was Lafayette who told the French government that without their assistance, the United States would likely lose the war.
5. Henry Knox //
Henry Knox got the guns from Ticonderoga, organized and trained the artillery, directed the Delaware crossing, gave Washington bad advice at the Chew House at Germantown, and established our first military academy at Middlebrook. Artillery won the battles of Trenton and Yorktown and made significant contributions at Princeton and Monmouth. Even in defeat at Brandywine and Germantown, the artillery arm played a critical role. I believe that Knox ranks after Washington and Greene as the most important general of the revolution. The father of the artillery corps.
6. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben //
While the army, even in defeat in 1777, maintained high morale and had started down the road to professionalism, it was as Inspector General that the Baron Frederick Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustus von Steuben pulled, pushed, and schooled them in the techniques of a professional army. His work at training and instilling discipline, as well as leadership on the field and on the staff, all contributed significantly to ultimate victory.
7. Daniel Morgan //
Daniel Morgan is the only brigadier general in my accounting. His brilliant tactical coup at the critical battle of the Cowpens alone earns him a spot on my list. He played important roles at Quebec and Saratoga and after Monmouth. He seemed to understand better than any other general the best manner in which to employ militia.
8. John Sullivan //
John Sullivan was an average general at best, but present at Canada, Long Island, Trenton, Princeton, the Philadelphia Campaign, Valley Forge, Newport, and the Indian Campaigns. His important, though mixed, leadership in these campaigns makes him worthy of inclusion on this list.
9. Louis Duportail //
Louis Duportail was chief engineer of the Continental Army and a totally unknown and overlooked figure. Washington realized the critical role of engineers and highly valued his services and advice. Duportail made significant contributions during the Philadelphia campaign, in winter quarters, in the Highlands, at Savannah, and at Yorktown. He advised Washington against attacking Philadelphia and New York City. Another father, this time of the engineer corps.
10. Lord Stirling //
Lord Stirling – William Alexander was at Brooklyn, where he commanded the rear guard that allowed the army to escape, at Trenton, the Philadelphia Campaign, Valley Forge, Monmouth, and the Highlands. As senior general, he commanded the main Continental Army on a few occasions in Washington’s absence. He deserves credit as a competent, though certainly not brilliant, military leader and an unwavering supporter of the commander-in-chief, especially during the Conway Cabal.
Greene, Arnold, Gates, Lafayette, Knox, Steuben, Morgan, Sullivan, Duportail, and Stirling.
That’s my top 10 in importance. There were certainly other candidates, including Philip Schuyler (who would be my #11), Benjamin Lincoln, Anthony Wayne, Baron de Kalb, and John Stark. Ninety percent of my list are major generals, that rank alone bringing opportunities for increased importance. There are also many competent and important others, not mentioned.
Finally, my candidate for the worst of the Continentals is Brigadier General Matthias de Roche Fermoy. But that’s another list.
I await your nominations.