Continental Army Major Generals: The Best Biographies


August 23, 2017
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

George Washington biographies abound and the number continues to grow with at least fifteen new memoirs published in 2017. In fact, historian and Washington biographer Ron Chernow estimates that over nine hundred George Washington biographies have been written since the first by Mason Locke (Parson) Weems in 1800, a year after the General’s death.[1] By contrast, there is a relative dearth of biographies on the other twenty-nine major generals in the Continental Army, totaling less than ten percent of the number written on Washington.

While relatively few in number, many of the Continental Army major general biographies are well written and well researched, providing valuable insights into the politics among the generals and politicians. Surprisingly, Israel Putnam is the subject of the most biographies with fifteen. Likely Putnam’s legendary exploits during the French and Indian War and their appeal to younger readers increased biographical interest. The list of major generals with four or more biographies is topped, after Putnam, by more familiar names: Friedrich “Baron” von Steuben followed by Benedict Arnold, Nathanael Greene, Johann de Kalb, Marquis de Lafayette and Henry Knox. One would think that more bios would have been written on Horatio Gates. His participation in the northern and southern theaters, however, is extensively covered in books about those regions. No full-length biographies have been written on two French volunteer major generals, Thomas Conway and Philippe du Coudray. All of the other major generals have at least one biography written on them.

Interestingly, it’s more popular to write biographies on brigadier generals and other Revolutionary War participants. For example, there are more biographies written on Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne than any major general, and the number of Ethan Allen biographies tops all but Israel Putnam.

For those interested in a brief overview of the Revolutionary generals, there are several good volumes with short chapters on each officer. My favorite is American Generals of the Revolutionary War by Robert P. Broadwater.[2]

Although low, the number and quality of the major general biographies have been increasing. In the last twenty-five years, twelve of the twenty-seven best biographies have been published. Only five biographies on this list of the best are over one hundred years old.

Following in order of seniority are the best full-length biographies of each Continental Army major general.[3] Please take a look and provide your own candidates.

Artemus Ward 

Charles Martyn, The Life of Artemas Ward, the First Commander-in-Chief of the American Revolution (Kennikat American Bicentennial Series. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1970).

Charles Lee 

Phillip Papas, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

Philip Schuyler

Don R. Gerlach, Proud Patriot: Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987).

Israel Putnam

Robert Ernest Hubbard, Major General Israel Putnam: Hero of the American Revolution (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017).

Richard Montgomery

Hal T. Shelton, General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

John Thomas

Charles Coffin, The Life and Services of Major General John Thomas (New York: Egbert, Hovey & King, 1844).[4]

Horatio Gates

Paul David Nelson, General Horatio Gates: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976).

William Heath

William Heath and Sean M. Heuvel, The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Major General William Heath (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014).

Joseph Spencer

Charles Barney Whittelsey, Historical Sketch of Joseph Spencer, Major-General of the Continental Troops, Member of the Council of Safety, Congressman, Judge, Deputy, Deacon and Farmer (Hartford: The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1904).

John Sullivan

Karl F. Stephens, Neither the Charm nor the Luck: Major-General John Sullivan (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2009).

Nathanael Greene

Terry Golway, Washington’s General: Nathanael Greene and the Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: H. Holt, 2005).

Benedict Arnold

James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

William Alexander, Lord Sterling

William Alexander Duer, William Alexander, Earl of Sterling. Major General in the Army of the United States During the Revolution (New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1847).

Thomas Mifflin

Kenneth R. Rossman, Thomas Mifflin and the Politics of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1952).

Arthur St. Clair

R. W. Dick Phillips, Arthur St. Clair: The Invisible Patriot (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse. 2014).

Adam Stephen

Harry M. Ward, Major General Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989).

Benjamin Lincoln

David B. Mattern, Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998).

Paul J. G. de M. Lafayette

Laura Auricchio, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

Philippe du Coudray

Robert P. Broadwater, American Generals of the Revolutionary War: A Biographical Dictionary (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012).[5]

Johann de Kalb

Percy K. Fitzhugh, The Story of General Johann DeKalb (New York: McLoughlin Brothers, 1906).

Robert Howe

Charles E, Bennett and Donald R Lennon, Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

Alexander McDougall

William L. MacDougall, American Revolutionary: A Biography of General Alexander McDougall (Contributions in American History, no. 57. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977).

Thomas Conway

Amos Blanchard, The American Biography: Containing Biographical Sketches of the Officers of the Revolution, and of the Principal Statesmen of That Period, to Which Are Added the Life and Character of Benedict Arnold, and the Narrative of Major Andre (Wheeling, WV: Kenyon, 1833).[6]

Friedrich “Baron” von Steuben

Paul Douglas Lockhart, The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army (New York, NY: Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2008).

William Smallwood

Ross M. Kimmel, In Perspective:  William Smallwood (Chicago, IL: The Smallwood Foundation, 2000).

Samuel H. Parsons

Charles S. Hall, Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons Major General in the Continental Army and Chief Judge of the Southwestern Territory 1787-1789 (Binghamton, NY: Otseningo Publishing Co., 1905).

Henry Knox 

Mark Puls, Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Louis L. Duportail

Elizabeth S. Kite, General Louis Lebegue Duportail, Commandant of Engineers in the Continental Army, 1777-1783 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1933).[7]

William Moultrie

C. L. Bragg, Crescent Moon over Carolina: William Moultrie and American Liberty (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2013).


[1] Ron Chernow, “C-SPAN Transcript Viewer,” accessed June 25, 2017,

[2] Five collections of biographical sketches on Revolutionary War Major Generals are:

George Athan Billias, ed.. George Washington’s Generals and Opponents: Their Exploits and Leadership (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994).

Amos Blanchard, The American Biography: Containing Biographical Sketches of the Officers of the Revolution, and of the Principal Statesmen of That Period, to Which Are Added the Life and Character of Benedict Arnold, and the Narrative of Major Andre (Wheeling, WV: Kenyon, 1833).

Robert P. Broadwater, American Generals of the Revolutionary War: A Biographical Dictionary (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012).

Rufus Griswold, William Gilmore Simms, and Edward D. Ingraham, Washington and the Generals of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1847).

J.T. Headley, Washington and His Generals (New York: A. L. Burt Company, n.d.).

[3] For a complete list of major general biographies see,

[4] This is a thirty-three-page essay.

[5] A good source for the basics of du Coudray’s life as there is no comprehensive biography.

[6] This is the best source of biographical information on Conway.

[7] Readers of French may rate a modern Duportail biography available in French as superior. Serge La Pottier, Duportail, ou, Le génie de Washington (Paris: Economica, 2011).


  • Hi Gene
    Good job highlighting how most of these MG’s have been ignored in terms of good biographies. I think you have under stated the number of biographies about Benedict Arnold. He has more than Israel Putnam. I have 30 bios of Arnold in my collection. I agree with you that the best one by far is by Jim Martin. I am amazed at the number of authors who have written about Arnold over the years.

    Steve Darley

  • Very nice list, Gene. I can only imagine how difficult it was to come up with biographies on the likes of say Spencer. (Nothing against Spencer) I agree that Kirby’s Arnold biography is by far the best on him. I also like Golway’s on Greene, Shelton’s on Montgomery, and Lockhart’s on von Steuben.

    My initial thoughts are that Arnold would have the most biographies after Washington. Then the Marquis de Lafayette after him. Granted there are many books on events Arnold was a key figure in such as the Canadian expedition, Saratoga, Valcour, etc., that those might be skewing my numbers a bit.

    Good point on Israel Putnam. He certainly was no dynamic leader during the Revolutionary War, but was already legendary from his French and Indian War exploits. With the number of locations and monuments in Connecticut named after him, (I think he even has a statue in Hartford as does the Marquis de Lafayette) I’m not too surprised by the number of biographies out there on him.

    I’d also like to see more out there on Gates. Given his background, it would be interesting to see how he developed that ruthless ambition, especially having been an asset to Washington early on.

  • The bio of Alexander McDougall by Roger Champagne is, in my opinion, much superior to the one mentioned.

  • Missing is Major General John Stark, commander of the Northern Department. See the 1949 Life of General John Stark of NH by Howard Parker Moore.

  • While Moore’s book is considerbly older and lesser known that many recent John Stark biographies, I agree that it is the best Stark bio. It is my “go to” source on Stark.

    Great suggestion for a list of best bios for all Revolutionary War generals. However on this list, I included only the 29 commissioned Major Generals and not the Brigadier Generals who were breveted to Major General at the end of the war. I should have added a clarifying note on this distinction and my source; Francis Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army.

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