From the time that Congress adopted the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, the army was a work in progress. Such things as the organizing of logistics, tables of organization, articles of war or the appointment of general officers were on a trial basis. States had control in some areas, but in the area of senior officers it was the Congress that made the decisions. Congress frustrated many of its top military leaders with arbitrary appointments and promotions based on criteria that often had little to do with merit. Officers in turn found their honor debased when another man who they believed was lesser in seniority, merit, or other qualification was promoted before them.
In February of 1777, five men—Lord Stirling (William Alexander), Thomas Mifflin, Arthur St. Clair, Adam Stephen, and Benjamin Lincoln—were promoted from brigadier general to major general, setting off a flood of repercussions. Brigadier generals who felt they were more qualified protested or resigned. One of these was Benedict Arnold, who tendered his resignation. Tough, hard-fighting John Stark left the service at the same time. This disaffection prompted Congressman John Adams, without acknowledging his part or that of Congress, to criticize the offended soldiers:
I am wearied to Death with the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs. Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for Nutts.
Whether due to real or imagined affronts, the Continental Army lost several senior officers due to these promotions. Even being a close friend and favored by the commander in chief, as in the case of Andrew Lewis of Virginia, did not ensure promotion.
Lewis was born in Ireland of Scots-Irish decent, his family moving to Virginia in 1732, the year of George Washington’s birth. Like Washington, Lewis was a big, strong man known to have a temper and also chose, like Washington, to be a surveyor. Lewis became a pillar of his community and a successful businessman. In 1754 he joined Washington in the doomed expedition to capture Fort Duquesne that ended in ignominious defeat at Fort Necessity. He served in Braddock’s expedition but was in Thomas Dunbar’s detachment that did not participate in the losing battle that won Washington fame. His service in the Virginia Regiment earned him an independent command to punish Shawnee Indians that had been raiding the frontier. The Sandy Creek expedition was a failure due to weather and lack of logistical support but Lewis learned to successfully work alongside Indians as almost a third of his force was Cherokee Indians. During his time with the Virginia Regiment, Lewis and Washington became both friends and close business associates.
During the Forbes expedition in 1758 that ultimately captured Fort Duquesne, Lewis was part of the advance detachment under Major James Grant. Ordered by General John Forbes to perform a reconnaissance around the fort, Grant instead divided up his forces, against the advice of his subordinates including Lewis, and attempted to lure the enemy into an ambush. Instead of surprising the enemy, Grant was soundly defeated by a smaller force of French and Indians. Lewis and his Virginians, detailed to guard the baggage, valiantly tried to save the expedition but suffered the same fate as the rest of the British. Lewis was captured and sent to Montreal. Thinking Lewis was dead, Washington wrote:
Major Lewis is a great loss to the Regiment, & Colony we have the Honr to serve; he opposd that Expedition to the utmost, unavailingly, but went chearfully upon it after his Sentiments were known, he desird his Friends however to remember (as he went out) that he had opposd it, foreseeing I imagine the Disaster that woud happend
Grant made comments blaming Lewis for the defeat and Lewis challenged him to a duel, which Grant refused. Washington supported Lewis and interceded on his behalf with the governor of Virginia. Upon parole, Lewis returned to Virginia and was named as an Indian commissioner, putting his unique set of experiences to work. He dealt with the Natives on several occasions, including the signing of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768. He was elected to the House of Burgesses and strengthened his personal and business connections with Washington.
In 1774, Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, chose Lewis to lead one of two columns against Indians under Chief Cornstalk at the Kanawha River. Cornstalk attacked the column under Lewis and a fierce battle ensued in which the Natives were soundly defeated. It was Lewis’ skillful leadership that ultimately won the action, as Dunmore, in command of the other column, dallied despite calls for his support. The battle, called the Battle of Point Pleasant, ended major Native incursions in Virginia.
When the Revolutionary War began, Lewis was part of the state’s provisional congress and a militia leader. He helped organize the forces that fought against former Governor Dunmore and British raiders in Virginia. Congress appointed Lewis a brigadier general May 1, 1776. Washington was pleased with the choice as he wrote his brother:
The appointment of Lewis I think was also judicious, for notwithstanding the odium thrown upon his Conduct at the Kanhawa I always look’d upon him as a Man of Spirit and a good Officer—his experience is equal to any one we have.
Washington’s line about Kanhawa is in reference to the relatively high casualties incurred among the Virginia troops for which Lewis received criticism, although it was Dunmore’s lack of support that was the primary cause of those losses.
On July 9, 1776, Lewis’ forces attacked Dunmore’s camp on Gwynn’s Island in Chesapeake Bay near the mouth of the Rappahannock River. Dunmore was soundly defeated and forced to abandon Virginia completely. After this important victory, Lewis continued to plan the defenses of Virginia and organize recruits and supplies to be forwarded to Washington’s main army, eagerly awaiting his own promotion and call to join his friend. That call never came.
The promotions of February 19, 1777 failed to include brigadier generals such as Stark, Arnold, and Lewis. Affronted by this lack of acknowledgement, Lewis considered resignation. Washington tried to avert the resignation with a letter to Lewis on March 3:
I was much disappointed at not perceiving your name in the list of Major Generals lately made by the Congress: And most sincerely wish that the neglect may not induce You to abandon the service. Let me beseech You to reflect That the period is now arrived, when our most vigorous Exertions are wanted—when it is highly and indispensably necessary for Gentlemen of Abilities in any Line, but more especially the Military one, not to Withold themselves from public Employment, or Suffer any small Punctilio to persuade them to retire from their Country’s service. The Cause requires your Aid—No one more sincerely wishes it than I do.
A candid Reflection on the rank You held in the last War, added to a decent respect for the Congress’ Resolve “not to be confined, in making or promoting General Officers, to any regular Line”, (to the propriety of which all America submitted), may remove any Uneasiness arising in your mind on the score of Neglect: Upon my Honour, I think it ought.
Washington also urged Lewis to join the main army in the hope that being engaged in the central battles of the war would provide him more opportunities;
The present Exigency requiring all the Continental Troops, at, & near to, this place, and consequently a number of General Officers to command them: You will please to repair hither so soon as You can possibly make it convenient.
The pleas from his commander in chief failed to sway the dissatisfied brigadier general. He resigned from the army April 15, 1777, but, like Arnold and Stark, he did not stop supporting the Patriot cause. Indians were again troubling the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Virginia appointed him part of a commission to treat with the Natives.
After being appointed to the commission, Lewis set off for Fort Pitt. His past disgust with Congress resurfaced upon arrival at the frontier. In a letter to Washington on August 8, 1778, he vented:
I have been asked in such a Manner by the Board of this State to attend as a Commissioner in this quarter that I knew not how to refuse tho I had but little hopes of having it in my power to be of real Service, as a Treaty with the Indians I believed to be what was principally in View. I arrived at this place on the 1st Instant but found neither Indians, Agent, or Commissioner, from the State of Pennsylvania nor the Instructions which I was told would be found on my Arrival at this place, I shall wait an Answer to a letter sent on this Occasion to Congress that I may know the Cause of all the Disappointments and Embarrasments that seems unhappily to attend what was had in prospect.
He ended the letter with a jibe at Congress and the major general appointments from the year before:
Were it not that I am apprehensive for the safety of my Family as well as the back Inhabitants in general I could be happy in my retirement, And I hope Congress are happy in the proofs they have given of their Infallibility in giving promotion out of the line of Seniority, tho some think that suspension & the proceedings of a General Court Martial are against it—I am Your Excellency Most obedt and very Humble servt
He refers to the “suspension” of Adam Stephen and the “court martial” of Arthur St. Clair, both on the February 19, 1777 major generals’ promotion list.
Lewis continued to serve the state of Virginia in militia service, as Indian commissioner, and as a member of the state executive council. He remained a friend of Washington and interacted with him in business as well as professionally. Not only did he help Washington by forwarding supplies and troops, he offered Washington his continued friendship:
I shall esteem it an honour as well as great Satisfaction to receive a Line from you as often as you have Leizure to think of your Excellencys Most obedeant and Very Humble Servant
Despite that friendship with Washington and his battlefield record, Congress never gave Lewis a chance to demonstrate that he was worthy of the rank of major general. Despite some competent achievements, the records of the five men appointed major general in February of 1777 gave those men passed over reason to be disappointed: Stephens was forced to leave the army, St. Clair suffered from the accusations surrounding his evacuation of Fort Ticonderoga, Thomas Mifflin resigned in 1779 amid controversy over his service as quartermaster general, Benjamin Lincoln commanded the worst defeat inflicted on the Continental forces in the loss of Charleston, and Lord Stirling was gradually marginalized due to ill health and alcoholism.
Lewis died September 26, 1782 while returning from duty on the governor’s council. People in the state of Virginia showed their respect for Lewis in the erection of three statues. At the capitol in Richmond Lewis is one of six figures surrounding the equestrian statue of Washington. Another statue of Lewis is at the site of the Point Pleasant battlefield. The last is found in Salem, Virginia, his hometown.
 Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 22, 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/ accessed 4-4-2015
 George Washington to George William Fairfax, September 25, 1758, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 6, 4 September1758-26 December 1760, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press), 39.
 George Washington to John Augustine Washington March 31, 1776. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 3, 1 January 1776-31 March 1776, ed. Philander P. Chase (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1988), 570.
 The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 8, 6 January 1777-27 March 1777, ed. Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.( Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 500.
 The Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 16, 1 July-14 September 1778, ed. David Hoth, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 272.
 Ibid., 273-274.
 Ibid., 202.
 The others are John Marshall, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and Patrick Henry.
The 1777 Major General promotion politics is a fascinating affair and your article points out several interesting facets. Certainly, state politics played a large role in allocating “slots” to various states. In Lewis’s case, his principal rival was Adam Stephens as fellow Virginians. Both had similar backgrounds including extensive experience in the French and Indian War and Indian conflicts. However, Stephens had substantially more Revolutionary War battlefield command experience than Lewis having fought in the 1776 New York and New Jersey campaigns. Why do you think Stephens was selected over Lewis? Was Washington supportive of Stephens over Lewis, not withstanding the letter you cite?
Also not all five of the selected Major Generals were complete failures. St. Clair’s decision to abandon Fort Ticonderoga was probably brilliant as it was no longer of vital strategic importance and clearly undefendable given the lack of troops and resources. Also Benjamin Lincoln proved a very effective leader in the Saratoga campaign.
I wonder if Brigadier Generals John Stark and Benedict Arnold had stronger promotion cases than Lewis as they both exhibited highly effective battlefield leadership of large units in the Revolutionary War battles up to the 1777 promotion decision.
Excellent points. First, perhaps it was proximity that made Congress more aware of Stephen than Lewis, Stephen being with the main army and participating in the battles in New York and New Jersey and the activities of Lewis confined to the Virginia area.
The five new major generals were not complete failures as you state. Stirling was a brave field commander and Mifflin had a competent record as a brigade commander. St. Clair and Lincoln probably look bad primarily because they took too long to abandon Fort Ticonderoga and Charleston respectively.
I would heartily agree that Stark and Arnold had much better cases for promotions and they proved it again later that year around Saratoga.
Washington specifically commented after the war: that when Andrew Lewis and his men executed a surprise attach on Lord Dunmore and his men, at Gwynn’s Island, and caused Dunmore to sail away, never to return to America, that it freed up men and supplies that were badly need by Washington and his men up north. And without these reinforcements the war may have ended differently.
Total of 5 Lewis brothers that were all militarily involved in forming our nation. Major William Lewis was a Philadelphia trained Doctor who was at Valley Forge. Major Charles Lewis was killed by Indians at the battle of Point Pleasant.
Their father, John Lewis born 1678 in Donegal Ireland (Welsh Presbyterian)— He evacuated to America after he beat his landlord to death with a club. He was, after a year or so, declared to have had good reason for his actions and the king pardoned him. He never returned to Ireland.