Military leaders since Alexander the Great have often preferred to command their battle formations from the most forward ranks. “Leading from the front,” as the practice is often known, puts officers in outstanding positions to observe the action and inspire their soldiers. It also puts them in excellent positions to end up dead. Many officers on both sides led from the front during the American Revolution and the act cost some of them their lives or at least gave them some very close shaves. Following are 10 instances when great Revolutionary War leaders put themselves in harm’s way, and the results often affected the course of the war.
1. Washington at the Battle of the Monongahela
The “Indispensible Man” for the Americans barely lived to see the Revolution. On July 9, 1755, during the French and Indian War, General Edward Braddock’s column of British regulars and American militia were pushing through the wilderness towards France’s Fort Duquesne when French troops, Canadian militia, and Native Americans ambushed them near the Monongahela River, near present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. George Washington, then but an eager 23 year-old Virginia militia officer, fought heroically as Braddock’s volunteer aide-de-camp even after the general was mortally wounded. “I luckily escaped without a wound, though I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me,” Washington wrote on July 18. You cannot help but wonder how profoundly different, to say the least, the Revolution would have been if one of those bullets had killed Washington.
2. Warren at Bunker Hill
When it came to heavy hitters in Boston’s Patriot movement, nobody swung a bigger bat than Dr. Joseph Warren. He organized resistance to the British Parliament’s Coercive Acts, worked closely with John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and others in the Sons of Liberty, was instrumental in the creation of Patriot militias, served as President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and that’s just a short list of his contributions. Just to get a chance to fight the British, Warren volunteered to serve in the ranks with Rebels fortifying Breed’s Hill, overlooking Charlestown, Massachusetts, on June 17, 1775, which was a week after his 34th birthday. He remained stalwart as British infantry assaulted the American redoubt in the ensuing battle that became known by the misnomer, Bunker Hill. A final Redcoat push surged into the Rebel works and there are contradictory accounts of what happened to Warren. However it is believed that Warren was one of the last defenders to retreat from the fort and that he tried to fend off the advancing Redcoats while attempting to rally his retreating comrades. In the melee, a British soldier, probably an officer’s servant, killed Warren by a pistol shot to the face that exited the back of the doctor’s head. If not for that blast, Warren would surely have continued as an influential leader in the Revolution that he helped start.
3. Howe at Bunker Hill
While ranks of British infantry attacked Breed’s Hill, British General William Howe confidently led an assault on a supporting line of Rebels positioned behind a rail fence on the side of the hill. Howe told his soldiers, “I shall not desire one of you to go a step farther than where I go myself at your head.” In two assaults that followed, he remained good to his word as volleys of American musket fire ripped into the British ranks. According to one account Howe was “in the most imminent danger” and a bullet even shot a wine bottle from the hands of his civilian servant, which was certainly a terrible waste. The tall, handsome Howe in his general’s uniform made a great target for Rebel marksmen and he was lucky to survive without a wound. The first years of the Revolution would have been very different if Howe, whose less than aggressive approach as commander of British land forces in America contributed to the Continental Army’s survival, had died in 1775.
4. Montgomery at Quebec
At the end of 1775 Major General Richard Montgomery was one of the Continental Army’s rising stars. An experienced former British officer, the affable 37 year-old ably commanded the American invasion of Canada in an attempt to bring the Canadians into the Rebellion. He once wrote that he “courted fortune, and found her kind.” Montgomery certainly hoped for good luck when he attacked the fortress city of Quebec during a swirling snowstorm on December 31, 1775. He personally led one attacking column into the city, and fortune was with him right up to the point when they ran smack into a blockhouse that was well manned and armed. Montgomery ordered a charge and the defenders loosed a salvo of artillery and musket fire, killing him. The attack on Quebec failed, but a greater loss to America was the leadership of this promising young general.
5. Fraser at Bemis Heights
During British Major General John Burgoyne’s invasion from Canada in 1777, one of his closest friends was the 48 year-old Brigadier General Simon Fraser. And both Burgoyne and Fraser bravely led from the front as their forces attempted to push south through New York and clashed with Americans at the battle of Bemis Heights on October 7. This was courageous but also a little foolhardy; among their opponents was Colonel Daniel Morgan’s regiment of skilled Virginia riflemen who literally looked for prominent targets like Fraser, who rode along his front line on a gray horse, rallying his soldiers. Morgan’s riflemen focused their fire on Fraser, and at least one bullet mortally wounded him in the stomach. Burgoyne lost heart and withdrew his attack as soldiers carried Fraser from the field. The battle sealed the invasion as a failure, and 10 days later Burgoyne surrendered his army at Saratoga.
6. Tarleton at the Spread Eagle Tavern
In the first few weeks of 1778, British Brigadier General Sir William Erskine learned that a party of Continental horsemen was quartered at the Spread Eagle Tavern, about six miles from the main Continental Army winter camp at Valley Forge. On January 20, 200 light dragoons swept down on the tavern at dawn to bag the Americans. The bold, ambitious, and fearless 24 year-old Captain Banastre Tarleton led the charge and his men thundered towards the tavern, confident of success and hungry for glory. But commanding the Continentals was the equally bold, ambitious and fearless Captain Henry Lee, who barricaded the tavern and prepared for a fight. Lee’s men fired a volley from the tavern windows and five British dragoons fell dead from their saddles. One ball shot Tarleton’s leather riding helmet from his head, buckshot pierced his jacket, and his horse was wounded in three places. The tough American defense turned back the British attack. The Americans escaped, and their captain became the famous Continental cavalry leader “Light Horse Harry Lee.” Tarleton rose to command the British Legion, and gained his coveted glory – or a version of it – as “Bloody Ban,” one of the war’s most famous, and infamous, cavalry leaders.
7. Wayne at Stony Point
Brigadier General Anthony Wayne was among the Continental Army’s best commanders. Just after midnight on July 16, 1779, he was in the forefront of a column of Continental Army light infantry as they stormed the British fortress of Stony Point, New York, on the west bank of the Hudson River. As his soldiers chopped through an obstacle belt at the base of the fort, British defenders loosed volleys of musket fire. The redcoats fired blindly into the pitch black night, but one ball caught Wayne in the head and cut a gash across his scalp. Scalp wounds bleed profusely and Wayne’s aides helped him along as his soldiers seized Stony Point. Wayne, who never minded a little extra attention, later wrote to a friend of the “blood which continued to issue in a torrent” from the wound. Wayne survived the Revolution and in 1794, he defeated the Native American tribes in present-day Ohio at the battle of Fallen Timbers, a victory that helped open America’s west to settlement.
8. Ferguson at Kings Mountain
The Scottish Major Patrick Ferguson was a tough, intelligent British officer who expertly adapted infantry tactics to fit combat in America. He was especially effective as commander of a Provincial Corps in North Carolina in 1780 until he threatened the local Rebels that he would “lay waste to their country with fire and sword.” Big mistake. About 1,800 tough and angry backwoods “Over the Mountain Men” trapped Ferguson’s corps at Kings Mountain on October 7. Ferguson rode all over the battlefield inspiring his men, but made a conspicuous target on his white horse and wearing a checked over shirt. A fusillade of at least 7 musket balls from Rebel marksmen shot him from his saddle, killing the aggressive Ferguson. Ferguson would have been a thorn in the side of the Americans in the campaign that unfolded through 1781, and his death was a loss to the British effort in the South.
9. DeKalb at Camden
The son of Bavarian peasants, Major General Johann DeKalb was one of the more capable European volunteers in the Continental Army. Six feet tall and powerfully built, his size matched his bravery at the battle of Camden, South Carolina on August 16, 1780. DeKalb’s Maryland and Delaware Continentals fought furiously against British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis even as they became overwhelmed. DeKalb was rallying his men when his horse was shot from under him. As an aside, at this point, I’m thinking that one of the most dangerous jobs on a battlefield was to be a horse carrying a general officer. But I digress. Dekalb’s aide, a French volunteer, recorded that the general “withstood with the greatest bravery” but suffered “eight wounds of bayonets and three musket balls.” The British captured DeKalb and this tough Bavarian amazingly lived three more days before succumbing to his wounds. The British buried him with military honors, probably out of sheer respect for this noble bad ass. DeKalb would surely have fought the British hard in the Southern Campaign.
10. Cornwallis at Guilford Court House
Lord Cornwallis had fought in America since 1776 and was no stranger to combat. When his forces closed with Americans under Major General Nathaniel Greene at Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781, the aggressive Cornwallis instinctively led from the front. The British attack appeared to be succeeding until it hit soldiers who didn’t fall back in the second American defensive line. Cornwallis was at the head of his line as he ordered a charge against the hard-fighting Virginia Militia Brigade. Not one, but two horses were shot from under him. British Sergeant Roger Lamb remembered that he saw Cornwallis riding on a commandeered dragoon’s horse, “unconscious of his danger,” about to be surrounded, and “perhaps cut to pieces or captured.” An advancing line of British infantry gave Cornwallis some relative safety. Guilford Courthouse was a Pyrrhic British victory and Cornwallis went on to gain more fame as Washington’s final battlefield opponent at Yorktown. This is just a short list of some of the more prominent commanders that put themselves in harm’s way during the Revolution. If you know of another example, let us know!