Revolutionary Rookies


April 3, 2018
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


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Performing as a general atop an independent command is the most difficult military assignment and for which prior experience critically fosters improved strategic and tactical decision-making. Many people think that the Revolutionary War British generals were highly experienced while the Rebel generals, although possessing battle proficiency as junior officers, principally gained their military strategy and army command experience through on-the-job training.[1] In reality, at the start of the American War of Independence, both sides’ top generals were equally unproven general officers lacking experience in developing campaign strategies and in commanding multi-regiment forces during complex battles.

Selected for command by King George III and his government, Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne sailed into Boston harbor on HMS Cerberus in May 1775 shortly after the opening shots on Lexington Green. Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis joined the leadership trio early in 1776.[2] Starting with the massive amphibious invasion of New York City during the summer of 1776, these four generals would command the largest foreign military force ever deployed in North America. King George III and his government placed their military might and confidence on the shoulders of these four generals to put down the American armed rebellion and return the colonists’ allegiance to the crown.

Strikingly, while all four British generals had battle experience leading company or regimental sized forces, none had led a multi-regiment army before the Revolutionary War. In fact, the four British generals ranked in the bottom ten on an ordered list of one hundred and twenty available generals.[3] All four had made the Army their life’s work and had moved into the general officer corps based on patronage, politics, and family heritage. While the British Cabinet unanimously approved the appointments, several higher ranking and more experienced generals refused service in America.[4] Despite having Whig leanings and being somewhat sympathetic to the colonialist plight, the four British generals believed that serving in America could significantly advance their military and political careers.

To counter the British military threat, the Continental Congress picked George Washington to lead the nascent Continental Army. Under Washington, the Continental Congress chose four major generals, Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler and Israel Putnam, with Horatio Gates named as adjutant general. Excluding Ward, who commanded only briefly in Boston, and Schuyler, who principally served in political and logistical roles in Albany, New York, the remaining four Rebel generals all led independent forces in army-scale Revolutionary War battles against the top four British commanders.

The Continental Congress selected its generals from a much smaller, though similarly experienced pool with none of the generals having experience in leading armies in combat. With an eye on knitting the thirteen colonies together, Congress sought to balance regional representation with the need for previous military experience. Congress chose Virginians Charles Lee and Horatio Gates principally because of their British Army service records on European and American battlefields. Among New Englanders, Israel Putnam’s legendary folk hero status cemented his major general appointment.

The four Rebel commanders were on average two years older than the four British generals. All eight generals received sparse formal college educations with just Cornwallis and Howe having graduated from Eton.[5] Only the youngest, Charles Cornwallis, attended a military arts school.[6] As customary in the eighteenth century, the other officers extensively read military treatises and learned military arts through independent study. All four British commanders served as Members of Parliament; on the American side, only Washington attended the Continental Congress, as a member from Virginia.[7]

Except for Washington and Putnam, the other six officers began their military careers in the British Army. Howe and Burgoyne entered military service as lieutenants and captains in the British dragoons, mounted infantry formations. A recent innovation, dragoons were highly valued as light cavalry units in European warfare, but Howe and Burgoyne did not leverage this new mounted unit experience on American battlefields. Howe, Burgoyne, and Gates received initial, though unremarkable combat experiences in the 1746 War of Austrian Succession. Clinton commanded a garrison of homeland militia during this conflict.

Battlefield experience accelerated during the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War) in which all eight generals served as junior infantry or dragoon officers. Each commanded companies or regiments under the direction of general officers who introduced them to campaign strategies and battle tactics. Of the four British generals, only Howe did not serve in the European theater, which British officers widely regarded as more militarily advanced than the North American conflicts. Clinton sat out the first years of the war but deployed to Germany in 1760 where he fought in two allied defeats at the battles of Corbach and Kloster Kampen before being wounded in 1762 north of Frankfort-am-Main. Clinton gained a reputation for valor through his participation in the German campaign.[8]

In Colonial America, several of these generals fought together in battles including Washington, Gates, and Lee at the infamous British defeat at the Battle of Monongahela. In the advance guard, Gates suffered an early gunshot wound with Washington and Lee escaping the ferocious battle unscathed. Revolutionary opponents Putnam and Howe served in the successful campaign to capture the Cuban city of Havana in which more soldiers died from tropical diseases than in combat.

In the European theater, Howe and Burgoyne jointly participated in the successful capture of Belle Isle off the coast of France. In 1762, Burgoyne deployed with his 16th Light Dragoon regiment to help defend Portugal from French and Spanish invasion. Burgoyne led a component of the joint Portuguese and British force under the direction of Count La Lippe, a German ruler invited by the Portuguese government to conduct its defense. Historians credit Burgoyne for executing excellent battle plans in the capture of the cities of Valencia and Vila Velha. In a twist of fate, Charles Lee served under Burgoyne and distinguished himself in leading a detached unit of three hundred soldiers in the daring assault on the fortified Vila Velha.[9]

Between the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the start of the American Rebellion in 1775, a few of the generals augmented their military and battlefield proficiencies. Putnam led a four hundred soldier Connecticut provincial regiment under the overall command of British Col. John Bradstreet to relieve a Native American siege of Detroit during Pontiac’s Rebellion. In Europe, Lee worked as aide-de-camp to the King of Poland, Clinton led an inspection tour of the Russian army and Burgoyne penned an insightful analysis of the state of the Prussian, Austrian and French military forces that was well received by British leaders.[10] Notably impressing King George III, Howe perfected light infantry maneuvers in simulated war games in Britain.[11] Ironically, Howe did not employ these innovative attacking tactics on Bunker Hill.[12]

However, the interwar years were mostly uneventful with Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne, and Cornwallis continuing with mostly absentee responsibilities in a peacetime army. However, the four well-heeled officers received promotions to major general and continued to serve as Members of Parliament. Notably, Clinton cultivated political relationships through his 1764 appointment as groom of the bedchamber for the Duke of Gloucester (brother of King George III) and learned defensive tactics through his deputy command position in 1769 at the vital British fortress of Gibraltar. Likewise, the Rebel generals did not add to their battlefield command experience during the twelve-year interwar period. Perceiving few advancement opportunities and lacking family connections, Gates and Lee resigned from the British Army and immigrated to America, becoming Virginia plantation owners. Washington honed his surveyor skills, which aided in planning and conducting troop movements and battle plans. Lastly, Putnam became politically active in early rebellious activities and continued to drill with the Connecticut militia.

By the time of the American Rebellion, these eight generals had amassed experience as competent junior officers, but none had commanded a force great than one-thousand soldiers in battle and none had the responsibility of independent command, the most difficult military assignment. Remarkably, as colonels not one of the British generals had even directed their regiments into battle. And finally, it had been over twelve years since these eight generals had participated in combat.

As first-time general officers leading independent commands, it is no surprise that these commanders made several poor campaign strategy and battlefield decisions. What is surprising is how well they performed, especially being geographically disconnected from military and political superiors many miles away. In 1776, Howe came close to defeating the Rebels, and in 1780 Cornwallis appeared on the verge of winning the southern campaign. However, in both cases, Rebel generals responded with brilliant defensive strategies and daring counter-attacks. Further, the extended conflict provided time for the Rebels to grow highly talented general officers such as Nathanael Greene, Daniel Morgan and Henry Knox.

Counterfactual suppositions should not be used to form conclusions, but they can offer thought-provoking perspectives to contemplate. All eight Revolutionary generals served under British Army generals with similar battlefield experiences and six of eight formally held junior officer commissions in the British Army. A reasonable conjecture is that, except for Washington and his leadership and political acumen, the war’s outcome would have likely been the same if the two sides had swapped battlefield generals. Clinton would have frustrated Washington in the same manner as Gates and Burgoyne acted just as impetuously as Putnam. Finally, Cornwallis’s independent, headstrong personality rivaled Lee’s.

What is established is that the British army enjoyed enormous advantages due to its institutional capabilities, funding, and military resources. However, the British placed these advantages in the in the hands of promising but untested general officers. At the war’s outset, both sides deployed generals without previous general officer experience in planning military campaigns, in leading independent commands and in directing large units in battle. Understandably, each side’s equally inexperienced generals made mistakes, but what is remarkable is how well they performed as first-time general officers.


[1] A good example of this view is exposed in Robert P Broadwater, American Generals of the Revolutionary War: A Biographical Dictionary (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012), 3.

[2] For a thorough analysis of the list of American theater military commander candidates and the government’s selection process see Ira D Gruber, “King George III Chooses a Commander In Chief,” Arms and Independence – The Military Character of the American Revolution (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1984), 166.

[3] Many elderly British generals did not retire and stayed in the army until death, which overstated the number of candidates and inhibited the promotion of younger officers. A List of the General and Field-Officers, As They Rank in the Army; of the Officers in the Several Regiments of Horse, Dragoons, and Foot, on the British and Irish Establishments (London: J. McElan, 1775).

[4] The four generals who declined to serve in America were Lord Frederick Cavendish, Henry Seymour Conway, Sir George Howard and Sir John Griffin. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 90.

[5] In Britain, the Royal Military College was formed in 1799 to train infantry and cavalry officers. The Royal Military Academy devoted to developing artillery and engineering officers was started in 1720. These schools were precursors to the current British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

[6] Turin Royal Academy in modern day Modena, Italy Charles Ross, Esq., ed., Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis (London: John Murray, 1859), 4.

[7] Washington resigned from the Continental Congress but the four British generals continued to serve as members of parliament. Over ten percent of the MP’s were also army officers. “The Members History of Parliament Online,” 1964,, accessed February 16, 2018.

[8] Acting more like a junior officer as he had in Germany, senior British commander Clinton exhibited valorous behavior at the 1778 Battle of Monmouth in which he precariously exposed himself to fire while personally commanding counter-attacking forces.

[9] F. J. Hudleston, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne – Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1927), 19–20.

[10] Burgoyne’s 1766 Observations and Reflections Upon the Present Military State of Prussia, Austria and France is reproduced in full in Edward Barrington De Fonblanque, Political and Military Episodes in the Latter Half of the Eighteenth Century Derived from the Life and Correspondence of The Right Honorable John Burgoyne: General, Statesman, Dramatist (London: Macmillan and Co., LTD, 1876), 62.

[11] “Light Infantry Discipline Established by Major General Howe 1774,” Scribd,, accessed February 21, 2018.

[12] Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence Military Attitudes, Policies and Practice, 1763-1789 (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1971), 76.


  • A minor correction, Philip Schuyler was also a member of the Second Continental Congress, serving from 15 May until 23 June 1775. Like Washington, he left congress to take his own military command, and they traveled together from Philadelphia until their paths parted at New York City.

  • “A recent innovation, dragoons were highly valued as light cavalry units in European warfare.”

    Another small point, perhaps, but the concept of the dragoon as a form of mounted infantry had emerged at the turn of the 17th century with most Dragoon regiments in the British army dating their origin to the 1680s. The mounted infantry concept soon fell into abeyance with the cheaper Dragoon regiments taking a subsidiary role to the heavier, more prestigious regiments of Horse. Perhaps you were referring to _Light_ Dragoon regiments, which were introduced during the Seven Years’ War with the formation of Elliot’s Light Horse, the 15th or Light Dragoons, in 1759. This was followed by the formation of the 16th and 17th Light Dragoons in the same year. These latter two regiments both served in America during the War of Independence.

    With regards to Burgoyne’s colonelcy of the 16th LD, as well as those held by Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis, colonels did not excercise tactical command of their regiments, these commissions being best seen as a franchise granted by the Crown for administration of the Army at regimental level.

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