Recently, I offered my choices for the ten most important Continental Army generals. Not the best or the worst, but the most important. But attempting to suggest the ten least important would likely be an exercise in futility, as well as somewhat disparaging of those patriotic men who had an actual, but minimal, impact on the war.
The Continental Congress faced an almost overwhelming challenge in appointing leadership to command the new army. While my research and calculations show that fully 85% of the men ultimately appointed as general had some type of prewar military experience, either professional or militia, most was at a low level of command. This forced the Congress to commission senior leaders based more on reputation and expectations than relevant experience. Foreign generals owed their appointments mostly to international politics and claimed, but sometimes unverified, credentials. The ever present politics of command affected both initial appointments and promotions throughout the entire conflict.
A far more intriguing opportunity than selecting the least important, then, is to select the ten worst. But this can also be problematic, given that little is known about some of the Continental generals. It is also a potentially dangerous undertaking, offering more of an opportunity to insult someone’s hero or ancestor. And consider also that a general could be both important and bad. You’ll see some familiar names from my previous list. Again, these are Continental generals, not militia officers. Nor is this a ranked listing, but simply my accounting in alphabetical order. I nominate:
1. Benedict Arnold //
Major General Benedict Arnold rates a special designation, entirely because of his treason. Simply put – very important and very competent, but very bad. He tops my list both alphabetically and otherwise.
2. Preudhomme de Borre //
Brigadier General Preudhomme de Borre, a French volunteer, served as a general for only nine months, during which time he alienated his new American colleagues. He was at Short Hills and Staten Island, but his worst day was at Brandywine. His insubordination and disputes with General Sullivan contributed to the American defeat. Faced with a Congressional inquiry, he resigned.
3. Thomas Conway //
Major General Thomas Conway, always associated with the so-called Conway Cabal, was described by Alexander Hamilton as a “villainous calumniator and incendiary.” Nathanael Greene considered him a worthless soldier. This Irish volunteer, by way of France, was one who constantly lobbied for promotion. His advancement to major general resulted in protests from and the near resignations of 23 more senior brigadiers. He supposedly would not obey an order unless he personally approved. Eventually, Congress grew tired of his reproachful manner and accepted his resignation – much to his surprise.
4. Philippe du Coudray //
French volunteer Major General Philippe du Coudray was a competent artillery and engineering officer whose appointment nearly caused the resignation of Generals Greene, Sullivan, and Knox. Unfortunately for him, he was too stubborn and arrogant to accept advice while crossing the Schuylkill River, drowning as a result. Lafayette called it “a fortunately accident.” His contributions in fortifying the Delaware were far overshadowed by his negative influence. It would have been interesting to see what, if anything, he ultimately could have contributed to the cause.
5. Horatio Gates //
Major General Horatio Gates started as a good adjutant general, but quickly became a better plotter, abandoning the army before Trenton to plead his case to Congress. He was the victor at Saratoga, but from far behind the lines. He made no significant contributions as President of the Board of War. He suffered a major defeat at Camden, but rode hard and long to tell about it. His roles in the Conway Cabal and the Newburg Conspiracy are harder to define, but certainly contributed nothing positive to the war effort.
6. Charles Lee //
No general entered the Continental service accompanied by higher expectations, and no general failed to fulfill such expectations more than Major General Charles Lee. His contributions in New York City and Charleston were minimal. Despite constant entreaties from the Commander-in-Chief, he delayed in joining Washington in December, 1776. Lee’s ultimate capture turned out to be a blessing in disguise. His 1776 correspondence with Joseph Reed and Gates bordered on insubordination. More controversial are his questionable plotting with the British during his captivity and his actions at Monmouth, which are still debated. That, plus his subsequent insubordination, earns him a spot on my list.
7. Thomas Mifflin //
Major General Thomas Mifflin rendered good service after Trenton in encouraging soldiers to extend their enlistments. But his subsequent work as quartermaster general was disastrous, being in large part responsible for the suffering at Valley Forge. He was also active as a behind the scenes plotter or perhaps leader of the Conway Cabal. He contributed nothing to the Board of War.
8. Casimir Pulaski //
Brigadier General Count Casimir Pulaski is a potentially controversial choice. But he initially demanded rank subordinate to only Washington and Lafayette, battled with his superiors and subordinates, was surprised by the British at Little Egg Harbor, and was defeated at Charleston. He spoke no English, seemed unwilling to take orders from Washington, and wanted to report directly to Congress. Only his death at Savannah elevated him into the pantheon of heroes.
9. Israel Putnam //
Major General Israel Putnam came to the war with a strong reputation from the French and Indian War, but quickly proved that reputation was either unfounded or more likely that he was simply in over his head. His selection is not the result of a specific major blunder, but rather a result of his failure to make any major contributions commensurate with his very senior rank.
10. Matthias de Roche Fermoy //
Brigadier General Matthias de Roche Fermoy (or Roche de Fermoy) abandoned his brigade at Second Trenton, then failed to follow orders and also set fire to his quarters at Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, alerting the British to the American evacuation. James Wilkinson (an interesting personality in his own right) characterized Fermoy as a worthless drunkard. This French volunteer constantly threatened to resign if not promoted. Congress was finally wise enough to accept that resignation.
Others considered for inclusion were Joseph Spencer, David Wooster, and the Prussian Frederick de Woedtke, who served for only four months before dying, according to Stueben, of “bile and brandy.” According to Wilkenson, he was another worthless drunkard, but perhaps with too little service to be considered bad.
While fully half of my selections are foreign volunteers, 30% of my most important generals were likewise foreign, hopefully dispelling any thought of foreign prejudice.
Your nominations and reactions, please.
The activities, contributions, and disasters of the above generals are described in many biographies and general histories of the revolution. However, no modern, critical biographies exist for de Borre, Conway, de Courdray, Putnam, and Fermoy. The best, easily accessible source of thumbnail histories of all these men is Mark M. Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Bicentennial Edition (New York: David McKay and Company, 1975). Other recommended sources are:
John R.Alden, General Charles Lee, Traitor or Patriot? (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951).
George A. Billias, ed. George Washington’s Generals (New York: Morrow, 1964).
Francis C. Kajencki, Casimir Pulaski: Cavalry Commander of the American Revolution (Hedgesville, WV: Southwest Polonia Press, 2001).
James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero, An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York: New York University Press, 1997).
Paul David Nelson, General Horatio Gates: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976).
Kenneth R. Rossman, Thomas Mifflin and the Politics of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952).