Most Underrated Revolutionary?


October 1, 2013
by Editors Also by this Author


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While Nathanael Greene is getting greater recognition, I believe his contributions are still undervalued because the American cause in the South was on “life support” when he assumed command in 1780 and in less than a year and with virtually no outside material or manpower support, he redeemed it.

Dennis M. Conrad


All are under-rated in the sense that few are remembered. Nonetheless, under-rated – Nathanael Greene, responsible for winning the war in the south.

Robert J. Allison


Grassroots activists, working first in the Committees of Correspondence and then the committees of safety and inspection, who pushed the Revolution forward. Also underrated: the militias, John Shy’s “great spongy mass” that made it impossible for the British to control any territory far from the coast. And not to forget Robert Morris, THE Financier, without whom Washington would have had no army on the Delaware in the winter of 1776-77 or at Yorktown in 1781. By offering his personal credit to buttress the faltered public credit, Morris literally saved the nation. But we don’t celebrate this man who made his fortune by privateering and war profiteering and ended his career in debtors’ prison. “Listen my children and you shall here/The dubious exploits of THE Financier”? It just doesn’t play.

Ray Raphael


The most underrated was Henry Laurens. He was the key to Washington surviving the Conway cabal at Valley Forge.

Thomas Fleming


Dr. Thomas Young helped to found the Sons of Liberty group in Albany, became a leading radical organizer in Boston (delivering the first oration to memorialize the Boston Massacre), and finally settled in Philadelphia, helping to write Pennsylvania’s first, progressive constitution before dying of a disease contracted while treating Continental soldiers. Even after death, Young had influence: he had coined the name “Vermont” and probably written most of Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, the deist text published by Ethan Allen. Young’s letters show he was a rare species of eighteenth-century political thinker, a real democrat.

J. L. Bell


As a New Hampshire native, I’ll vote for John Stark as the most underrated Revolutionary. He played a key role at Bunker Hill by blocking a British flanking attempt, and he made a major contribution to the victory at Saratoga by destroying Burgoyne’s detachment at Bennington. Yes, he was abrasive and a poor administrator, but he was a capable combat leader whose commitment to liberty was summed up in his statement: “Live Free or Die.”

Jim Piecuch


As a blanket statement, there are a host of underrated and underappreciated Whig leaders throughout the Southern Colonies – Thomas Polk, Captain James Jack (of Mecklenburg, NC), John McKnitt Alexander – all were well known leaders of their time, contemporaries of Washington and others – but now largely forgotten.  They led the movement for independence well before anyone else (see Mecklenburg Resolves of May 1775), and fought a brutal guerilla war in the remote backcountry against their Tory neighbors and then against Cornwallis’s army as it marched through, defeating them at Cowpens, Kings Mountain, Guilford Courthouse, etc.

Scott Syfert


General Nathanael Greene is so underrated that many today are unaware of him. But he was the general that Washington turned to for good advice, made personal sacrifices to try to straighten out the quartermaster corps, and waged an absolutely brilliant campaign in the Carolinas between January and March 1781. It was his heroics in the South that helped drive Cornwallis to take his fateful step into Virginia, and to his doom. Had it not been for Greene, it is difficult to envision a pivotal allied victory on the scale of Yorktown in 1781, and without Yorktown the war would have had a different ending, possibly one that did not include American independence.

John E. Ferling


Choosing a most underrated participant has been great fun in that so many of our Revolutionary Era ancestors did great things yet we tend to remember so few.  Because I tend to focus most of my research on the Southern Campaigns and folks who took part in them, I looked to that group for my choice here.  After the fall of Charleston in May of 1780, South Carolina and Georgia looked as good as defeated.  British dragoons advanced into the backcountry with famously brutal deeds against the few remaining defenders.  Out of the depression came a few individuals, partisans if you like, that stood in defiance on the edges of the backcountry.  I could choose any of several names out of this group, these ‘early risers’, but one stands out.  Never wavering in his devotion to the Cause, fighting the British at every possible opportunity, and earning almost singular ownership of the adjective, ‘indomitable’, I believe Elijah Clarke deserves far more credit for his role in the revolution than he currently receives.  One need only scan through the Cornwallis Papers of 1780 to understand the impact that Clarke had on the British and that his name should always be mentioned right alongside that of Marion and Sumter when discussing the southern partisans.

Wayne Lynch


The newspaper printers, including Benjamin Edes, Isaiah Thomas, William Goddard, Peter Timothy, Thomas Green, John Holt, Solomon Southwick, Mary Goddard, Anne Catherine Green, James Rivington, and others. Modern historians and journalists give plenty of credit to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for helping to fuel and organize the Arab Spring rebellions, yet the stewards of the only mass media during the American Revolution get little recognition in the shadows of giants. This despite numerous historians claiming that without newspapers there would have been no American Revolution. This despite the importance of newspapers being well documented by the Founding Fathers themselves. Dr. Benjamin Rush said during the war that a newspaper was “equal to at least two regiments.” If any soldier was worth two regiments during the Revolution, he’d surely have statues and schools named after him today. Then and now, historians have recognized the tremendous power of the press to launch and sustain the American Revolution as well as affect its outcome, so it seems appropriate to also give credit to those behind the press who selected the sources, and typeset and printed the pages, often in the face of life-threatening danger.

Todd Andrlik


Daniel Morgan. Daring, successful, and respected, he picked off British officers and supplies, and starred at Saratoga and Cowpens, all while suffering severe sciatica. At Saratoga, Morgan’s riflemen held off the British at Freeman’s Farm, and at Bemis Heights he eliminated the masterful British general Simon Fraser and trapped Fraser’s troops. He used his militia brilliantly and employed a double envelopment strategy at Cowpens—his forces killed or captured ninety percent of Banastre Tarleton’s army. If Morgan hadn’t avoided politics, he would be a household name today.

Daniel J. Tortora


I judge Dr. Joseph Warren as sufficiently important and underrated, as to have written a biography of him.

Samuel A. Forman


  • Richard Caswell. He was North Carolina’s major political and military leader but served only at the state level. Governor 3 times and Major General of the state militia, he fought at Camden and was later a supporter of the Federal Constitution.

    1. I would almost completely agree with saying that Richard Caswell is the most underrated hero if there were not one more hero even more underrated than him: Cornelius Harnett! Sure, Harnett did not fight, but he and Robert Howe were both exempted from General Clinton’s amnesty. Harnett arguably set the stage in North Carolina and in the South for Caswell to capitalize on, especially at the Battle of Moores Creek! I would place Richard Caswell as a very close second, but then these are all opinions, and you hold the PhD. 🙂

  • For myself, I think one of the most underrated (or, better yet, underappreciated) revolutionaries was William Livingston. In New York in the early 1750s, Livingston was the primary founder and main contributor of The Independent Reflector, perhaps the most succinct statement of colonial republicanism prior to the Revolution. The weekly journal, comprised of a single essay, also set out arguments on such topics as the social contract, the right to disobedience, the relationship between church and state, the need for broad education, meritocracy, the inefficacy of aristocracy, and freedom of the press. He was a key figure in the American Enlightenment, having used the Reflector to bring these Anglophone Enlightenment ideas to a broader audience. The ideas and positions Livingston (and his fellow authors, William Smith Jr. and John Morin Scott) staked out in the Reflector would come to be the foundation of American revolutionary thought. Though it only lasted one year, copies were circulated throughout the colonies. Franklin owned a complete set of all 52 issues, which he had bound, and during his retirement, Madison recalled reading it enthusiastically (along with his classmates, some of whom used it for recitations) while at the College of New Jersey.

    Livingston was one of the most gifted and prolific polemicists of the late-colonial and revolutionary periods. In the 1760s, he wrote relentlessly about British imperial encroachment as “The American Whig,” and the dangers of the Church of England’s attempts to establish a bishop in the colonies. After moving to New Jersey in the early 1770s, he served as a member of the colony’s Committee of Correspondence, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and the head of the New Jersey militia. In 1776, he was elected the first Governor of New Jersey and was re-elected each year until his death in 1790. Despite the heavy administrative and logistical responsibilities of being wartime governor of a state that saw more military action than the others, Livingston continued to write many polemical essays printed in newspapers throughout the colonies.

    Following the war, he also served, for a time, as one of New Jersey’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention before dying a few weeks after the Constitution was ratified. Livingston contributed intellectually, polemically, politically, and militarily to the Revolution, and, too often, that contribution is either underrated or under-acknowledged.

  • No General Henry Knox on this list? Knox, who instrumented the first significant victory for the cause by bringing the artillery from Fort Ticonderoga, thereby forcing the British out of Boston. Plus Knox’s innovative use of artillery as an assault weapon (Trenton), his sage advice to Washington, and his establishment of the first American military school at Pluckemin, the predecessor of West Point, not to mention his other wartime and post wartime, Federal accomplishments. Yes, I may be a bit prejudiced because I portray General/Secretary Knox for the American Historical Theater, but, notwithstanding that point, Knox’s achievements do stand alone. Yet he does not get the deserved press that other Founders do.

  • George Rogers Clark… Single-handed winner of the Ohio Country, and the soon to be Northwest Territory, beyond the Ohio River.

  • Here’s a new standard for “underrated”: being left off Todd’s now famous list of Founders, with their ages in 1776. We should add to that list:
    Henry Laurens (john’s father) and Christopher Gadsden, both 52 in 1776. They were born within three weeks of each other, neighbors and childhood friends, and then bitter rivals. Laurens, a moderate and President of Congress, was imprisoned in the Tower of London, the highest ranking political prisoner in American history. Gadsden was the most radical member of the First Continental Congress, a major player in the defense of Charleston, and of course the creator of the Gadsden Flag. He was saying “liberty of death” way back in the Stamp Act days, 1765.
    Also Peyton Randolph (age 54), another moderate, the first President of the Continental Congress, and his nephew Edmund (22), Governor of Virginia and first Attorney General of the US. As, head of the VA delegation to the Constitutional Convention, Edmund introduced and argued for the Virginia Plan.
    And not to forget Charles Thomson (46), longtime secretary to the Continental Congress who burned some his papers to protect the good name of so many other founders. ““I shall not undeceive future generations,” he later explained. “I could not tell the truth without giving great offense. Let the world admire our patriots and heroes.”

  • Although Washington, Adams and Jefferson are rightfully acknowledged, what about Henry Knox and the pivitol role he played in the beginning of this country? His accomplishments are many. Historians have frequently ignored Knox and his many successes. Battle of Trenton and Ticonderoga – need I say more!

    Thomas Pain made the American and French Revolutions and get’s little credit. He should be on mount Rushmore. Thomas transformed millions of colonists into Americans with his Common Sense and other writings. He was in the inner circle of Americas creators from the day Ben Franklin recruited him until we won the war. His writings best explained why we were at war and what we were fighting for. He also helped Franklin to convince the French King to intervene for our cause which made all the difference in winning.

  • Fun as this exercise is, we should acknowledge that “underrated” (or “overrated”) depends on a series of subjective judgments: (a) how important a figure was, (b) how his or her importance compares to the importance of other figures, (c) how well remembered that figure is today, and (d) how his or her current “rating” compares to those other figures. Can a person be the subject of numerous biographies and studies in recent years and still be underrated? Can a person have had a limited effect but still be underrated because no one remembers he or her at all? And how does one weigh those two situations against each other?

  • Have you herd of the group called the Danver’s Alarm
    My wife’s family is directly from Nathan Puthnam who was wounded and survived the first day of the war, His brother died Perley Putnam.They attacked them as they left Lexington. Nathan named a son after his brother Perley Putnam which was in charge of Salem soldier’s in the war of
    1812, i have his portaits.

  • Women should also be proposed for recognition as the most unsung revolutionary. Too little has been written about the contributions of women revolutionaries. The most well known are Abagail Adams and Phyllis Wheatly.

    For the most unsung woman, I propose Molly Stark, wife of General Stark. During the pivotal Saratoga campaign she operated a hospital for wounded patriots. Her tireless care raised morale and bolstered militia enlistments.

    Molly Stark is one of a select few male or females revolutionaries to have a mountain named in their honor. Vermonters recognized her revolutionary contribution by naming a beautiful vista Molly Stark Balcony on the flanks of Molly Stark Mountain.

  • John Laurens. He got Congress to approve a plan for recruiting (and subsequently emancipating after service) slaves for regiments to defend South Carolina and Georgia. He went to France as Special Minister to Versailles to procure funds and ships and got the Comte de Grasse to send his fleet to America which was essential to the victory at Yorktown. He also was one of the people to negotiate the terms of British Surrender at Yorktown and was also an invaluable aide and translator for Washington.

  • My nomination for under rated savior would be Bernardo De Galvez. As Spanish Louisiana Territory Governor before Spain entered the Revolutionary War in 1779, De Galvez supported the transport and personally financed supplies for the Colonial Army. In 1779 he led a diverse force to crush the British in Louisiana and Alabama. He used his personal Navy and land force to attack and destroy the forts protecting Pensacola Harbor; and by that action prevented the British fleet from sailing to Yorktown, engaging the French Fleet and aiding Cornwallis. His vital part of the American Revolution’s success never received due notice. De Galvez understood the oversight and his importance by embracing the motto “I, alone” which was placed on his statue in Pensacola Harbor.
    Daniel Morgan would be my Colonial Military nominee. His trek through Maine with Knox, Arnold and others to attack the British at Quebec was nothing short of super human and showed the British the resolve, fearless and tough nature of Colonials. Morgan was captured, survived to be exchanged and rejoined to become the leader of the most feared fighting force within the Colonial Army. His Rifle Companies and tactics he employed changed how the battle forces engaged and brought an equal footing to the Colonials when faced with the British who generally out numbered Colonial’s with foot soldier, cavalry and disciplined troops. when the numbers were equal, the British were no match for Morgan’s Flying Army.

  • I have to put in a word for General Schuyler, who established important pre-war diplomatic relations with the northern tribes (without which indian relations would have been a lot worse for the Americans), commanded and then supplied primary logistical support for the entire Army of the north during the invasion of Canada (and subsequent retreat, which was a disaster, but I don’t think you can blame him), the construction of Arnold’s Lake Champlain navy, AND the Saratoga campaign. He was certainly under-appreciated in his time, hounded by critics and investigated by Congress. Like so many other officers, he demanded a military court martial to clear his name, and in his case they acquitted him with honor – so he could resign with dignity and go home to rebuild his slave plantation in upstate New York. Oh well, none of them were perfect!

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