Top 10 Continental Army Generals

10generals2In 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.

More from William M. Welsch

Top 10 Continental Army Generals

In addition to George Washington, during the course of the American Revolution,...
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50 Comments

  • I would have to add “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Monmouth, Greenspring alone would earn him a top ten.. Though there was more

    • My ancestor was William Turner from Scituate, Mass. A Harvard grad, he was a Latin teacher in Scituate, when the British attacked Boston. He entered the war, leading the Scituate Rangers. Later Captain Billy became an aide de campe for many of these Generals over the period of the Revolutionary War. He served under Gates, Lincoln, Greene, Knox , and Lee. He retired a Colonel .

  • Love the article and choices. I wonder what Washington would have offered. As for me, and since you’ve included Brig. Generals, I’d include John Glover, John Stark, Enoch Poor and Thomas Sumter.

  • Gates at #3, ahead of Morgan, Lafayette, and Knox??? Please! No mention of Anthony Wayne? Lets go all the way and include Charles Lee on the list.
    I’m convinced Washington was a good General on his own merit, and didn’t need Gates “breathing down his neck” to make him a better General.
    I’m sure that Gates’ breathing down his neck was yet another distraction that Washington didn’t need. That’s my opinion, anyway.

    • Ditto! Wayne was the first one that popped into my head when I saw the title of this post, though others were certainly more important. But Gates? Bah!

  • Good point, Ed. I was never a fan of Granny Gates. I need to read his bio as maybe there was something redeeming about him. My two images of him, which may not be entirely accurate (but then I read it somewhere) are Gates sitting several miles back from the action at Saratoga in his tent and galloping headlong away from the sound of the guns at Camden.

    • People only remember Gates for his defeat at Camden but it took a radical overhaul of tactics before the patriots could really meet Cornwallis’ army in the south, and even then Greene technically still lost the battle of Guilford Courthouse. George Washington suffered just as catastrophic defeats as Gates did at Camden, in fact there is a long list of badly handled Washington battles; Long Island, Fort Washington, Brandywine, to name a few. Gates was in command of arguably the most important victory of the entire war. How much credit he deserves for the battle is debatable, but he was still the commander.

      • Dave, you do make a good point about Washington. The big difference, however, is that Washington grew substantially as a commander over the course of the war and, unless I missed it, was not only an effective general in the style of Eisenhower (effective planner, etc.) but showed great courage on the actual battlefield. I really don’t think Washington and Gates are comparable. As to his good fortune that he was at Saratoga, what’s arguable is whether Saratoga can really be considered a ‘turning point.’ But, I guess, that’s a good subject for another article.

        • Steven, I know I’m jumping in real late with this discussion but I completely agree with you on Washington and “Granny” Gates. The one thing about Washington is he had a talent for recognizing and utilizing other people’s strengths. He was also able to control his temper when blatantly insulted, unlike say Arnold, and remain focus regardless of the odds.

          Having researched so much on Saratoga, along with the writings from numerous unbiased sources at the battle, (Sorry Wilky, I can’t believe much of anything from those memoirs) I feel the northern continental army won despite Gates. If Arnold, who controlled the all-important left wing, hadn’t been there, I could see General Fraser easily outflanking the American left on the higher northwestern ground to get an immediate advantage with an abundance of strategically placed mortars. Burgoyne’s whole strategy would have changed. Gates was only in charge because of politics, not battle field merit. If anyone compares Arnold’s accomplishments to Gates accomplishments at this point, it’s like comparing the Harlem Globetrotters to the Washington Generals. Why the New England Politian’s loved him so much, I have no idea. I’d replace Gates with Schuyler, Stark, Wayne, Poor, Montgomery, Glover, and maybe even Putnam!

          • Jeff: I wholly agree with your list of “replacements” for Gates. There were many commanders in the Northern Department who were far better, and Schuyler set the table for victory for Gates (indeed, Schuyler accurately predicted the ultimate outcome of Burgoyne’s campaign less than a week after Ticonderoga/Mount Independence fell). Wilkinson was a fascinating character; it’s almost embarrassing to read his memoirs and correspondence with all of his blatant sucking-up to Gates, but that is clearly how he rose to Brigadier from Colonel without doing anything of particular merit! Regarding Washington, apart from his merits as a military leader, the more research I do, the more I am impressed by his talents as a politician; he was masterful at it, and somehow managed the trick without looking like a politician, which is a rare talent indeed. I think that is why John Adams was so unhappy about Washington’s popularity; he knew Washington was playing the same game everyone else was, but Washington was far better at it.

  • Gates was a fine general whose reputation among the New England men caused a large turn-out of militia and made victory at first Freeman’s Farm a reality. Eye-witness accounts do indeed have Gates in the rear at his headquarters while the battle raged. Arnold spent the day imploring Gates to release more men to him so Arnold could lead an assault on Burgoyne’s camp. Gates refused and the battle was won using Gate’s plan led on the field by Morgan and the other subordinate commanders. The victory led to the 2nd victory and surrender of Burgoyne which many believe to be the ultimate turning point of the revolution. Yep, I believe William correct in his placement of Gates among the leading commanders of the revolution.

    I love Steven’s inclusion of Thomas Sumter. Even though he was controversial and a bit of jackass, the Gamecock provided key leadership in June and July of 1780 and, throughout the year. While Shelby and Sevier are properly credited with King’s Mountain, Sumter’s victory at Blackstock’s Plantation may have been equally critical in securing victory in the southern campaign. Indeed, without Blackstock’s, could Morgan have won six weeks later at the Cowpens?

    • Wayne, you make a great point about the turn-out of New England militia. Because of New Englanders disdain for Schuyler, having anyone replace him likely caused a much needed boost. Gates was well liked in New England, so his presence alone could have brought even more militia.

      In terms of Gate’s plan during the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, from everything I’ve gathered he wanted to stay put, dig entrenchments, construct redoubts, and fight defensively…a recipe for disaster in this case. Morgan’s men were only allowed go out for a reconnaissance when Arnold pushed Gates to allow him to send them out. Even if there were no sources on who initiated offensive action with Morgan’s riflemen and then Dearborn’s light infantry, based on both men’s battle field experience and makeup, (Up to that point) it’s hard to imagine that Arnold was not the decision maker and aggressor in that situation.

  • William Russell of Virginia! He was the last man to be made a brigadier general in the Continental Army. Commanded a regiment at Yorktown. His life was interesting and I’m still trying to find out more about him so I can write about his life. Went into Kentucky with an obscure guy named Boone, fought at Point Pleasant in Lord Dunmore’s War (the capture and ritual torturing of his son and Boone’s started it), was captured at Charleston, and his second wife was Patrick Henry’s sister. He got around in the 18th century.

  • this is a great article. I agree with most of the top ten except for Gates. i think hr id getting too much credit for Saratoga. just look what he did in Camden. I know Sumter was mentioned, so if he was then what about Francis Marion. I think he was much better than Sumter.

  • Stephen Siry wrote a book, Liberty’s Fallen Generals, about the ten rebel generals who died fighting the Revoluitonary War. I was somewhat surprised to see that none of them made the list. But this makes me wonder–how did you arrive at the figure of 77? Is it possible that the death rate of American generals was 10/77?

  • I totally agree with your list, including Benedict Arnold. The guy was an incredible leader, almost a one-man army! The only substitution I’d like to offer is to remove Gates (he disgusts me) and to put in his place – Hugh Mercer. You cannot define a better patriot, military leader, and (while rallying the militia) became a martyr for refusing to surrender to the British at Princeton. Because of that, he became a bayonet pin-cushion. Gates cannot even compare, as he rode his horse off the battlefield for two galloping days.

  • Glad to see the inclusion of Benedict Arnold, too often, people cast him aside as a traitor only, and forget the significant achievements he had; among them his ingenuity at Valcour, his defiance(to Gates) at Saratoga, his compromise at Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and his leadership through the Maine Wilderness.

  • I was always very fond of Richard Montgomery, he almost assuredly would have been here (on the list) had he not been killed so early on in the war.

  • Writing from the Outer Banks, between trips to the ocean. Thanks for your comments and choices. I usually end my talks on the generals with my list, which alwats generates comments. So thanks, please keep them coming.

    But please remember, this is NOT a ranked list, just a list of the most important. I would NEVER put Gates as the third most important. And it’s only CONTINENTAL generlas. Someone needs to do militia generlas.

    Bill

  • What about the hero of Oriskany, Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer? He was wounded in the leg early in the battle, propped up against a tree stump, and directed a victory against the British and Indians. Although he died 10 days after the battle from complications from having the leg amputated, he showed the stuff a leader is made of.

    • Ralph,
      While I applaud your mention of Herkimer I can understand his exclusion to this list. No doubt that Oriskany was an important action and those under Herkimer were able to add to the depletion of St. Leger’s forces, however as far as Generalship goes, he had neither the far reaching ability nor influence that those mentioned in this article would have welded. The fact that his forces moved head long into an ambush – as he was “convinced” of the necessity to move forward toward Stanwix to displace suspicions of his allegiance – would be of note. As well as we should not judge military valor on victories alone, Oriskany could hardly be thought of as one for the Patriot (or Rebel if you will) cause so much as another step in dismantling the eastern advance of British forces. Much like Burgoyne would encounter, the pace of the campaign and receding Native ally support were much more the factors that could be viewed as reasons for the Mohawk Valley to claim success in ’77.

  • I would like to put a plug in for Maj. Gen. Edward Hand of Pennsylvania. Although he is not as well known as many of the others on this list, he was a solid administrator AND combat commander. He was also the one left holding the bag after Roche de Fermoy made a run for it right before the Battle of Assunpink Creek.

  • I can’t see how you could put generals like Mercer and Montgomery even though I respect what they did on list of the to ten generals when they didn’t fight but a year or so in the American Revolution. I believe that it should be generals that fought for most or all of the war.

  • Trying to put together a list like this is always a frustrating experience for me. There are lots of officers who had one or two significant actions but I try to look for those who did more than than over a longer period which leads to too many variables for my enfeebled mind. Take Gates, for example–active at many levels at different times and, in my mind, he’s a moderate field general but an above average administrator. And, yes, New Englanders loved him which helped motivate some to come to his aid at Saratoga although there are other factors prompting their move, as well. Similarly, Schuyler’s a great administrator but a lousy field officer who ticked off New Englanders. It seems that Arnold had the ability to get the men to do things they wouldn’t normally do–a sure sign of a great leader.

    Lastly, Fermoy should definitely be on the “worst of” list from what I know of him. My pet peeve is that he torched his house which lit up Mount Independence letting Burgoyne and his buddies see the American army trying to abandon the Mount and Ti during the night. Quite the zero thought “duh” moment on Fermoy’s part.

  • 1) Not only did Wayne show his competence in the mid-Atlantic states, but he helped make Yorktown possible (under Lafayette), and because Greene’s top general in Georgia, forcing its evacuation. Only a serious illness prevented him from assuming a greater role in South Carolina, but Greene gave him the honor of leading the troops in Charles Town and negotiating the terms of its evacuation. (Mordecai Gist, another of Greene’s more reliable generals, was ill.)

    2) Without John Glover, Washington never would have made it out of Long Island, and Glover later fought a brilliant stalling fight to allow Washington to escape Manhattan. Significantly, for history, his troops included free African-Americans, helping to persuade Washington not to drum them out of the army.

    3) Philip Schuyler created the conditions for Gates to get the credit that belongs to Arnold at Saratoga. Equally important, his daughter married Alexander Hamilton, and as Indian agent, he tried to do right by our allies, the Oneidas.

  • There is a substantial case to substitute John Stark for Benedict Arnold on your list as the American’s best battlefield leader. His swift action to protect the exposed Mystic River flank at Breed’s Hill saved the American’s from a horrible defeat which may have ended the revolution almost before it started. Further, his tactical battlefield management expertise was exhibited at Trenton and at the chaotic battle in Bennington. Start was only passed over for Major General as his home state of New Hampshire was not large enough to support another Major General.

    Vermonters have never forgotten Stark’s contributions and celebrate his victories each year with a state holiday (August 16th this year). Further Stark would be the only General on your list with a mountain named after him! That alone should qualify him for inclusion.

  • Although not a Major General, General Francis Marion kept the American Revolution alive by disrupting the British in South Carolina. Gen. Washington and the Continental Army was at a stalemate in the northern colonies. More battles and skirmishes were fought and more blood was spilled in South Carolina than all of the other 12 colonies put together. Marion was at half of those battles. Where does everyone think that Cornwallis came from when he got stuck at Yorktown?

  • I find this whole discussion fascinating. Full disclosure: my big brother Bill wrote the article! If you are in Maine, make the pilgrimage to Knox’s house. It is a terrific stop on any history tour.

  • Gates deserves a lot of credit for getting the American army organized in 1775. As adjutant general working at Washington’s side, he systematized a mass of troops whose strength had been independent action into one that could work together. I don’t think Gates deserves as much blame for the so-called “Conway cabal” as Washington and 19th-century historians have given him. It didn’t take much impetus from him for Congress members, having fled Philadelphia after Brandywine, to wonder if Washington was still their best choice.

    This discussion highlights the value people place on active battlefield leadership over generals who kept out of fire but managed strategy (Gates, Artemas Ward) or logistics (Schuyler, Greene as quartermaster general).

  • In the Henry Knox item.
    The artillery academy was actually in Pluckemin. Middlebrook is not terribly far away, but it is a different camp site.

  • Thanks, Frank. Of course, you’re correct. I should have remembered that and been clearer, having lived in Springfield for 35 years. More people seem to remember Middlebrook and not Pluckemin.

  • John Glover not only allowed Washington’s army to escape from Brookly, and then enabled the army to cross the Delaware for the victories at Trenton and Princeton, but his actions during the Battle of New York at what is now Pelham Bay Park was one of the first instances post-Bunker Hill where rebel soldiers were able to stop the Brits in their tracks.

  • can you recheck the facts on seth Pomeory I am a decendent of him and member of the Mass SAR chapter and Seth did take the position as 1st Brigidier General when he was appointed by George Washington served 3 months then declined due to health and age he died enroute to meet washington in 1777 enroute to nj. He also fought at bunker hill at age 69 riding his horse from northampton mass to breeds hill would love to know where you got this information And do you have photo or painting of Seth Pomeroy I have searched high and low for years his sword was stolen from the Forbes library and museum in 1955 another quest of mine trying to find out who stole it my guess was the Feds and it sits at West Point any help would be great!!!

    R Scott Pomeroy

    MASS SAR Pomeroy Chapter

  • A very interesting discussion. History has noted that Gates’ major contributions were as a military administrator which Washington praised him as. As a filed commander, Gates was just not aggressive when he needed to be.

    Anthony Wayne had many contributions during the war (stony point) and also was a major contributor to American Legion which kept the US out of an earlier conflict with the British in the American Northwest (pre war of 1812).

    Arnold should be on the list because of his contributions, however his command as a British General saw the destruction of two cities (towns at the time) the burning of a port and several continental casualties; while Arnold was a very aggressive field commander he was very self serving in nature.

    Other’s to add to the list; possibly Arthur St. Clair who was a very political figure in the creation of the continental army in its very early stage. How can anyone leave out Ethan Allen, while he wasn’t a major contributor his early efforts helped to free Boston.

  • Just found this neat site – Wife just found out she’s a descendant from General Potter, supposedly close to General Washington. If anyone has any leads or info, would be greatly appreciated. And, if I posted in the wrong area or offended anyone, I apologize.
    Thanks and a great interesting site. Regards

  • Anthony Wayne should be atleast halfway up that list… The Stonypoint victory made him a household name during the war. He was at Valleyforge with Washington, come on! He has the perfect personality for a General…Riding near the front lines, showing the troops he has a pair to command respect. He even spent personal money on provisions for his men.

    Ej

    • As much as I love Wayne (I work at Stony Point!) I would have to say that while a great battlefield commander, he was not always the most cautious. While his planning of Stony Point with Washington was a brilliant success, Wayne’s attack at Green Spring could be seen as bold/foolhardy (hence “Mad” Anthony) as Lafayette was quite a bit away. Off the top of my head, I beleive his actions at Monmouth on the right flank during the late phase have been lightly debated in that he held on too long against the Hessian Grenadiers, and only retired when casualties became too high; though this can also be proof of his steadfastness. Lee certainly criticized him for his being too ready to attack in the wee hours of that morning, but Wayne’s orders didnt forbid him from doing so (and Lee got plenty of his own criticism anyway!). Wayne’s actions at Savannah were certainly well thought out and executed. His success with the Legion after St. Clair’s and Harmar’s defeats spoke volumes, but thats post-Revolution. Overall, still my favorite brigade commander!!

  • I’ll put my two cents in for Hugh Mercer. Without his leadership and ingenuity at Trenton there may not have been a Saratoga or Yorktown.

  • My list is 1) N. Greene, 2) D. Morgan, 3) G. Washington, 4) B. Arnold, 5) M. Lafayette, 6) Baron Von Steuben, 7) H. Knox, 8) A. Wayne, 9) P. Schuyler, 10) J. Sullivan The thing is that there are two major components to judging a General at that time…administration and being a battle field general. H. Gates was a decent administrator but a terrible battlefield commander(et.al. George McClellan)…and a jackass of a man (et. al. Charles Lee) Washington and Greene were both very good administrators…Arnold was a little too rash. Sullivan made a lot of battlefield mistakes. My favorites on here are Daniel Morgan and Phillip Schuyler. Schuyler was a good administrator and a great human being. Daniel Morgan was just an all around stud…Cowpens was masterful!!

  • Brian, I’ll second your enthusiasm for Schuyler. Clearly a great motivator and logistician, a masterful New York politician during an incredibly turbulent time there (and hated by the New Englanders largely for that reason). He couldn’t take the necessary steps to ensure that Ticonderoga/Mount Independence could be held against Burgoyne’s invasion (which he anticipated), but it was not his fault–he was furloughed by Congress for several months at the worst possible moment and defensive preparations stalled as a result. Mike Barbieri, above, points out that Schuyler wasn’t highly regarded by his peers as a field commander, but he was never tested in that regard, so I don’t think we can subtract points for that.

  • I just finished reading “The campaign of Lieut. Gen. John Burgoyne: and the expedition pf Lieut. Barry St. Leger” by William Lette Stone Published in 1877 and it tells a story of Gen. Riedesel’s wife (of the Hessians) who, after being captured, were terrified of the Americans as the British had told her that we were barbaric animals. The Baroness and her children were transported to Albany as prisoners and she was terrified. When they finally stopped. A man lifted her crying children out of the wagon and kissed them. Then he helped her down and offered her a frugal meal but one given with the best of intentions. She was shocked that this gracious and loving man was General Schuyler himself. That kind of man makes me proud to be American.

  • George Rogers Clark of Virginia and Kentucky. Nickname Conqueror of the Old Northwest, Hannibal of the West, Washington of the West and the Father of Louisville. Ask lieutenant governor Henry Hamilton how good Clark was.

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