The 10 Worst Continental Army Generals

10worstRecently, 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.

 

SOURCES:

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).

 

 

 

 

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16 Comments

  • Major General Adam Stephen warrants inclusion on the list of worst revolutionary war generals. At the Battle of Germantown he led a division which mistakenly fired upon Major General Anthony Wayne’s division contributing to the American defeat.

    An after action investigated found that MG Stephen was drunk on the battlefield. A subsequent court Marshall found him guilty and he was discharged from the army.

    Few other generals were cashiered for conduct during battle.

    • I certainly considered him, Gene, but also considered some good service. He and Washington had a mixed relationship. His court martial and subsequent conviction for drunkenness is an interesting topic with some unclear aspects, too. To some degree, I believe that he gets a bad rap. But still a good choice to be bad.

    • So are we not going to bring up that Washington lost pretty much every battle and only God knows how he had survived through the American Revolution?

  • A fascinating read. I enjoyed it thoroughly. You mentioned James Wilkinson and although I don’t know of him, it gave me an idea for a suggestion. I think a list of Top Ten “personalities of the Revolution” would also be an interesting topic as well as informative.
    Anyway, I enjoyed your list.

  • Bill – not only do I agree with all 10 of your generals, I agree with your placing order! Great job, Sir! And this is remarkable in that I have no arguments with your well-thought-out general candidates. Excellent work!

  • Glad to see Fermoy on the list. One point about him for which I must offer up a dissenting remark involves him torching his house at Ti. While it’s true that he did set fire to the structure, the Brits do not make note of the fire contributing in any way to their discovery of the Americans abandoning Mt. Independence and Ti. Two likely reasons for this: (1)The fire apparently broke out after the Brits already knew of the Americans leaving. Deserters had reported the move soon after it began. The Brits just didn’t know whether to believe them or not. (B)Although the exact location of the house is unknown, it sat near the camp of his brigade which happened to be towards the south end of Mt. Independence. The only Brits who could see anything lit up by the fire would have been those on Mt. Defiance, the high ground to the west overlooking the Mount. Being around three miles from senior Brit command, it would have taken quite a while for a message from that battery to reach them.

  • Just to throw a couple of thoughts in the discussion, it seems like Benjamin Lincoln might get some consideration for that bottom ten list. A likeable enough character but his results were disastrous.

    There was a militia general from North Carolina named John Ashe whose only attempt at combat was the dreadful performance at Brier Creek. He managed to avoid the personal cowardice charge but he camped his men in a trap arranged by Lt Col Campbell and got many of them drowned.

    Just a couple of nominees

    • Wayne, I agree the surrender of Charleston to the British significantly tarnishes Lincoln’s reputation. However, he was probably forced to defend Charleston against his better military judgment. On the other hand, his service during the Saratoga campaign where he was injured in battle was exemplary. He was able to lead the fractious militia, secure Gates right flank on the east side of the Hudson River, and protectVermont from invasion.

      Vermonters were so impressed with his defense of the Burgoyne invasion that they named a town and mountain in his honor.

      • Wayne, In regards to Genl Ashe of North Carolina. Although I am not a big fan him, I must say in his defense that he was put into a terrible situation by Genl Lincoln and he knew it. Ashe had just arrived with his force from North Carolina. For Lincoln to have Ashe and his North Carolinians, who were utterly fatigued, turn right around and engage the 71st and their reinforcements was a complete lack of judgement on Lincoln’s behalf. Even knowing that this was a ridiculous suicide mission, Ashe bit his lip and followed his orders. Now, there is something to remember here. Genl Ashe with his estimated 900 total men went up against Colonel Prevost and 900 Regulars of the 71st (who were fiercely loyal to Campbell and had yet to find out that he had already departed for England) and James Bairds Light Infantry. Col Prevost also had an unknown number of experienced militia, a Company of Florida Rangers, and five field pieces. This is not including the 500 regulars and experienced militia he used as a decoy for Genl Ashe’s force. As one can see he did not stand a chance. During the recent archeological dig which located where Genl Ashe and his force was pinned, it could be determined that it was a massacre. With that being said, Genl. Ashe’s previous actions at Moore’s Creek Bridge proved that he was an able commander. He was in my mind, just inadequately prepared by his Commanding Officer for a underestimated enemy.

  • Gene, While it may be true that Lincoln did pretty well with the militia in New York, in my opinion, his twin disasters at Savannah and Charleston more than make up the difference. It is reported that he disapproved of the assault at Spring Hill and was pressured into going along by D’Estang and, after watching the French fail in their direct approach, Lincoln still sent the North Carolina and Virginia troops into the grinder.

    As you point out, he was also pressured into the Charleston defense. However, Lincoln had command and clearly saw what a trap the peninsula had become. Ultimately, the decision and the responsibility both fall on his head. These defeats constituted the worst military disaster of the revolution.

    I notice that Gates made the list above. Even though everyone’s favorite whipping boy of the revolution, Gates was responsible for the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga which is considered the turning point of the revolution. While aided significantly by Arnold and Morgan in the campaign, Gates made the strategic decisions and, like Lincoln later in the south, he was responsible for either victory or defeat.

    Much like with his later defeat at Camden. When revieiwing the original accounts of the battle one can easily suggest explanations as to why Gates might not be at fault. Perhaps Otho Holland Williams error in trying to move the militia up at the last minute caused the problem? Certainly Cornwallis thought so. Perhaps the defeat is simply fate taking over and causing two marching armies to bump into one another in the night? Certainly Gates thought so. In my opinion, neither explanation actually changes the fact Gates was in command and can certainly be held responsible for the overall loss.

    However, should he really be on the list yet have Lincoln spared?

    • Gentlemen, a wonderful discussion with very interesting arguments from both sides. But I tend to agree more with Gene and stick by my inclusion of Gates and not Lincoln. Apparently, Washington still thought well of Lincoln, as he was his second in command at Yorktown, while St Clair (senior to Lincoln) was there but played no role. Though he did arrive late. While I wouldn’t rate Lincoln as one of the best, nor would I say that he was one of the worst.

  • An excellent primer on the not so good, the bad, and the bloody ugly. Arnold is hard to fathom even with the benefit of hindsight. Mercurial, egotistical and duplicitous, but also brave, bold and decisive.

    But perhaps Mr Welsch would consider a far harder top ten; to compile the worst British and allied commanders. The choice will be expansive I’m sure…

  • Thanks for the comment, Simon. But I’ll pass on your British list suggestion. Perhaps someone else out there could compile such a list. I do, however, recommend that you read my friend Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s new book The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. He’s an Englishman who offers at least a partial answer to your question.

  • Brigadier General (brevetted) James Wilkinson (March 24, 1757 – December 28, 1825), American soldier and statesman, should be an Also Ran.

    He was forced to resign from the Continental Army twice. His gossiping seemed to indicate he was a participant in the Conway Cabal, a conspiracy to replace George Washington with Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief. Gates had enough of Wilkinson, and compelled him to resign in March 1778. On July 29, 1779, Congress appointed him clothier-general of the Army, but he resigned on March 27, 1781, due to his “lack of aptitude for the job” – Linklater, Andro (2009). An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson. Walker Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8027-1720-7.

    After his death, he was discovered to have been a spy of the Spanish crown, Agent 13. Wilkinson’s actions have been severely condemned by a number of historians and politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt, who posited that “[I]n all our history, there is no more despicable character.” – Stewart, David O. (2011). American Emperor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 299. ISBN 978-1-4391-5718-3.

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