Having recently discovered Journal of the American Revolution, I have spent many hours reading through the archive. I particularly enjoy reading the discussions that Top 10 Lists provoke and benefiting from such an incredible exchange of information and opinions. As there is a Top 10 List for Continental Army Generals, I decided to compile this list of Top 10 Patriot Militia Commanders.
My top ten, in alphabetical order, all significantly impacted the course of the war and reflect the important role militia played in campaigns throughout the country. Having compiled a list extolling the virtues of militia commanders, I feel it’s necessary to point out that I believe without the Continental Army, the war could not have been won. Here are my candidates:
John Cadwalader, a prominent merchant from Philadelphia, commanded the Pennsylvania Associators, a volunteer militia, during the Trenton-Princeton campaign of 1776-1777. Unable to cross the Delaware on the night of December 25, he led his men across the Delaware into New Jersey on the 27th, acting on his own initiative. This unexpected news prompted General Washington to hold an emergency council of war that decided to commit to a second crossing and conduct further campaigning in New Jersey. This led to the Battle of Princeton.
Cadwalader also served at the Battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth as a volunteer. He famously refused Washington twice to be a general in the Continental Army. Also, Cadwalader fought a duel with Thomas Conway of Conway Cabal notoriety, shooting him in the mouth. How can you not like this guy?
In 1775, William Campbell was one of thirteen signers of the Fincastle Resolutions, the first statement of armed resistance to Great Britain from a colonial assembly. Campbell led Virginia militia during the Battle of King’s Mountain, a rout that destroyed Patrick Ferguson’s Loyalist militia in the South. Campbell also responded to a request for militia aid from Major General Nathanael Greene and brought sixty riflemen to Guilford Courthouse. An article telling more about him has been published in Journal of the American Revolution.
Richard Caswell, a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, commanded patriot militia in the field at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge. His battlefield leadership combined with James Moore’s logistical work leading up to the battle led to a stunning victory that crushed Loyalist hopes in North Carolina and prevented the Scottish Loyalist army under Maj. Donald McDonald from mobilizing Loyalists in the coastal areas. This battle, along with the patriot victories at Sullivan’s Island (Charleston, South Carolina) and Great Bridge (near Norfolk, Virginia), kept the South free from British control until late 1778.
George Rogers Clark
Nicknamed the Conqueror of the Old Northwest, George Rogers Clark led Virginia and Kentucky militia across the Ohio River into Indian territory from 1778 through 1786, capturing British forts and burning Indian villages. Clark is most remembered for his 200 mile winter march to Vincennes where he compelled the British commander, Henry Hamilton, to surrender. Clark’s military exploits gave legitimacy to American land claims across the Appalachian Mountains.
Philemon Dickinson rose from a colonel in the Hunterdon County militia in 1775 to major general of all New Jersey militia in June 1777, a post he retained through the remainder of the war. He led militia during the Forage War of January – March 1777, during which time he raided a large British foraging party near Somerset Court House and captured around forty wagons of supplies and several prisoners. Washington wrote to Congress, “General Dickinson’s behaviour reflects the highest honour upon him, for tho’ his troops were raw, he led them thro’ the River, middle deep, and gave the enemy so severe a charge, that although supported by three field pieces, they gave way and left their convoy.” Dickinson commanded New Jersey militia and served effectively with Continental Army Brig. Gen. William Maxwell in the Monmouth Campaign, harassing the British flank during their march across New Jersey.
Nicholas Herkimer became a brigadier general in the Tryon County militia in September 1776 and provided leadership against the growing Loyalist and Iroquois threat. Upon hearing of a large British, Tory, and Indian force surrounding Fort Stanwix, he assembled 800 militiamen and 60 Oneida allies at Fort Dayton and marched to its relief. He made the grievous mistake of not using these Oneida warriors to scout his marching column’s approach and was ambushed by British, Loyalists, and Iroquois. His battlefield leadership helped prevent what could have been a massacre. The Battle of Oriskany marked the beginning of a civil war within the Six Nations.
Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” challenged British rule in the South Carolina backcountry after the Continental Army’s defeat at Camden in August 1780. His asymmetric warfare stymied British efforts to mobilize Loyalists in the Georgetown District and has since been romanticized by Disney and Mel Gibson. Marion, unlike Thomas Sumter, coordinated effectively in the field with the Continental Army. Together with Light Horse Harry Lee’s Legion, Marion captured Fort Watson on the Santee River and then Fort Motte, forcing the British to evacuate Camden. Marion commanded South Carolina militia as shock troops in advance lines along with Andrew Pickens at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.
Like George Rogers Clark, Isaac Shelby’s first experience in warfare came during Lord Dunmore’s War. He fought under his father’s command at the Battle of Point Pleasant, the only major battle of that conflict. Shelby, hearing of the capitulation of Charleston in 1780, left the Kentucky frontier for the Carolinas where he commanded jointly with Elijah Clarke at the Battle of Musgrove’s Mill and with William Campbell and John Sevier at King’s Mountain.
Thomas Sumter rallied the American cause after the fall of Charleston and the defeat at Camden in 1780. He took the field, leading South Carolina militia against the British before Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene arrived to coordinate American resistance and rebuild the Continental Army. Sumter commanded South Carolina militia in many battles, including Hanging Rock, Fishing Creek, Fishdam Ford, and Blackstock’s Plantation. At Blackstock’s Plantation, Sumter dealt Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion their first defeat. British military occupation of South Carolina was never firmly established given the efforts of partisans like Brig. Gen. Thomas Sumter.
Joseph Warren, a prominent Boston physician, is often overshadowed by figures like Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Israel Putnam. Warren, however, made significant political and military contributions towards the cause for American independence. He drafted the Suffolk Resolves, later adopted by the Continental Congress, in which he advocated resistance to the Intolerable Acts. He helped coordinate the rising of the minutemen to resist the British march on Concord and possibly used Margaret Gage, the British commander in chief’s wife, as an informant. He led militiamen in the Battles of Lexington and Concord and volunteered to fight as a private on Breed’s Hill where he tragically died giving his fellow militia time to retreat.
Honorable Mentions: Elijah Clarke, Andrew Pickens, and John Sevier