Washington’s Revolutionary War Generals


November 18, 2019
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


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Washington’s Revolutionary War Generals by Stephen R. Taaffe. Campaigns and Commanders Series, Volume 68. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Selection, promotion and performance of Revolutionary War generals is a critically under-researched aspect of the rebellion. In his second book on the Revolutionary War, Stephen R. Taaffe closes this gap in scholarship with his evaluation of the Continental Congress’s promotion decisions and the strategic and tactical performance of Continental Army generals. Professor Taaffe’s ambitious volume is the first book on the politics among the generals, and the politics between the generals and Congress, since the 1975 controversial volume The Politics of Command in the American Revolution by Jonathan Gregory Rossie.[1] While Rossie focused much of his work on the three-year running dispute between generals Horatio Gates and Philip Schuyler, Taaffe takes on a more difficult remit by providing a more comprehensive view of the politics and evaluation of the generals throughout the entire eight-year conflict. This fast-paced, engaging book is divided into six chapters along with introductory and concluding sections. Throughout, the reader is provided with attention-grabbing statistical data on the age, home state and number of generals by rank. One of the book’s best features is the incisive conclusions provided at the end of each chapter.

The book’s central thesis is that, with only a few exceptions, Congress appointed brave officers but mediocre generals. Taaffe, who has built a wide-ranging historical career writing about generals and admirals, asserts that only ten of the seventy-three generals made a notable difference in the Rebellion’s success.[2] The rest of the generals either got in the way or failed in their duties or provided minimal contributions.

At first glance, this provocative thesis is appealing as historians have long pointed out high-profile mistakes by senior generals such as Nathanael Greene’s decision to maintain Ft. Washington in the face of superior forces, Benjamin Lincoln’s decision to defend Charleston rather than retreat inland to save his army, and Horatio Gates’s decision, without adequate intelligence, to offer battle to Lord Cornwallis at Camden. In addition, the author cites several examples of horrible performances by lesser-profile generals such as Joseph Spencer demonstrating a lack of basic military prowess at Newport, Preudhomme de Borre collapsing command cohesion at Brandywine, and Robert Howe failing in his assault on the city of Savannah. Historians have made numerous disparaging comments about many other generals.

The first part of the thesis that the Continental Army generals widely exhibited considerable courage on the battlefield is indisputable. Personal honor was a common trait among the generals and they believed they gained this honor by being firm, resolute and brave in combat. For example, the author highlights the warrior proficiency and courage of Benedict Arnold, Daniel Morgan, and Anthony Wayne. On the other side, the only cowardness example is Matthias de Roche Fermoy abandoning his command at Princeton. Bravery in battle was almost universal among the generals with six generals killed in battle and many more suffering severe wounds.[3]

The second part of Taaffe’s argument asserts that the Rebellion suffered from mediocre generalship. While clearly there were major gaps in the Continental Army generals’ performance, there is a weakness in Taaffe’s argument as the Rebel commanders were not evaluated relative to the capabilities and performance of their opponents. The Rebel generals did not have to be great, only equal or better than the British generals. In fact, both sides’ top generals were equally unproven as general officers. Remarkably, as colonels not one of the British senior command generals had even directed their regiments into battle, let alone full-sized armies.[4] At the war’s outset both British and American generals lacked field army command experience in developing campaign strategies and in leading multi-regiment forces during complex battles. Neither side had proven, battle tested generals.

To buttress his thesis, Taaffe posits that politics among the states greatly inhibited the selection and promotion processes by advancing generals based upon their state residences and not strictly on military leadership attributes and demonstrated capabilities. However, the British Army labored under similar constraints. The British officers moved up the ranks into the general officer corps based on patronage, politics, and family heritage. For example, of the senior British commanders, only Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis received any formal military education. Further hindering British success, several higher ranking and more experienced generals refused service in America.[5] Both British and Rebel commanders were forced to deploy and lead generals who lacked sufficient military experience.

In several cases, Taaffe could have more fully explored the motives of politicians and generals who alleged generalship weaknesses in fellow colleagues. Many of these leaders had an axe to grind and may have offered self-serving criticisms. For example, Congress sent a committee to entice the Canadians to join the Rebellion and to provide oversight for the military under the command of David Wooster. When it became clear that the Canadians did not want to join the Rebellion and the invasion was failing, did the Congressional committee use David Wooster as a scapegoat? Also, did the delegation inappropriately focus the reasons for defeat on the purported unruly New England troops under Wooster’s direct leadership?  Certainly, early in the Canadian campaign, Wooster’s military leadership was critical to the capture of Ft. John garnering laudatory comments on his performance from then senior commander Richard Montgomery.[6] Adam Stephen is another example of an underexplored, allegedly weak general.  Subordinate and competing officers charged that Stephen was incapacitated by alcohol. Stephen’s biographer Henry Ward states that there is no evidence that he was drunk on the battlefield.[7] One of the few Rebel generals to be financially prosperous after the war, Stephen led a long life as a successful businessman and served on the Virginia Constitutional Convention which would not be hallmarks of a debilitated alcoholic. Lastly, Taaffe reports that Washington opposed promoting Daniel Morgan to brigadier general. One has to wonder if Washington had a pre-war prejudice against Morgan and whether Morgan was too close to Washington’s rival Gates. Contrary to the assertions of many historians, maybe Washington was not magnanimously sending “his best light infantry officer” to fend off the 1777 British invasion from Canada but getting rid of an officer who did not garner his support. This would be an interesting question to answer.

On the other side of the ledger, observers and historians have not provided high marks to the performance of British generals. A field officer during most of the American Revolution, British Maj. James Wemyss’s in his written evaluation of thirty-five British generals officers most often used the words “weak,” “without abilities,” and “useless.” Concurring with Wemyss, British historian Piers Mackesy offered similar views on the performance of generals William Howe and Henry Clinton, “Their fertility of invention was spent on devising reasons for inaction.”[8] Numerous other historians have also blamed poor leadership by British generals as a reason for the loss of the colonies. This would imply that the Rebels out-generaled them.  However, recent historians such as Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy have tempered this negative assessment of British generals and attributed the loss to other factors.[9] Whichever view that you ascribe to, the Rebel leadership was at least as effective or as effective as it needed to be vis-a-vis the much-vaunted British Army.

In the most seminal and dangerous conflict among the Continental Army generals, Taaffe’s conclusion is also controversial. An intercepted letter from Thomas Conway to Horatio Gates which appears to foment the replacement of Washington as commander-in-chief triggered a political intrigue historians refer to as the Conway Cabal. In reviewing the evidence, Taaffe construes that the Conway Cabal only existed in the minds of Washington and his supporters and that there were no coordinated efforts by Gates, Thomas Mifflin, and Conway to replace Washington as commander-in-chief. Recently, Mark Edward Lender has taken the view that while the three generals did not seek an immediate replacement of Washington, the newly-developed Congressional Board of War on which they sat represented a clear threat to his duties as commander-in-chief. A Board of War staffed by Washington’s opponents would seek to expand and jealously guard its prerogatives thereby taking responsibilities away from a commander-in-chief. Under this construct, Washington would become a commander-in-chief in name only.[10] While Taaffe’s narrow conclusion is right about the three generals and their correspondence, additional coverage of the threats from a usurping board of war would have benefited his work.

Throughout the book, Taaffe reports a thought-provoking series of Washington recommendations which warrants supplementary scholarship. Taaffe offers that the commander-in-chief continually advocated that Congress authorize additional brigadier generals. Often, Washington assigned colonels to duties that he preferred generals to perform. Did this really hurt strategic war plans and operational effectiveness? Did Washington really need more generals? On the other side, the British Army regularly advanced colonels to assume brigadier responsibilities in-theater with good results. One example is Col. Francis, Lord Rawdon who soundly defeated Nathanael Greene at the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill near Camden, South Carolina.

Taaffe’s scholarship ends with the sentiment that “it’s not where you start, but where you end,” a conclusion that all can support. Washington began with an inexperienced and unproven general officer corps which had the task of overcoming the enormous advantages the British Army enjoyed including institutional capabilities, funding, and military resources. The British placed these advantages in the in the hands of brave, promising but equally untested general officers. Understandably, each side’s equally inexperienced generals made mistakes and exhibited instances of mediocrity. But what is extraordinary is how well both British and Rebel officers performed as first-time generals. Remarkably, the green, politically selected, and administratively promoted Rebel generals, hamstrung by limited resources and inadequately sized forces, prevailed over a highly competent adversary. Despite holding a differing view to Taaffe’s central thesis, I highly recommend the book as an excellent overview of the Continental Army general officers’ personalities and capabilities as well as a well-written view of their contributions to the war effort. Recognizing that the last word has not been written, Taaffe cogently states, “the evaluation of generals is very tricky.” So true!

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[1]Jonathan Gregory Rossie, The Politics of Command in the American Revolution (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1975).Rossie has been criticized as unduly anti-Schuyler and pro-Gates.  In addition, there are reported gaps in his scholarship.

[2]The ten generals include battlefield tacticians (Benedict Arnold, John Glover, Daniel Morgan, John Stark and Anthony Wayne), strategists (Nathaniel Greene, Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington) and support functions (Henry Knox, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben).

[3]The generals who died in battle are Johann de Kalb, Hugh Mercer, Richard Montgomery, Francis Nash, Casimir Pulaski and David Wooster

[4]The four senior British commanders are Major Generals William Howe, Henry Clinton, John Burgoyne and Charles Cornwallis.

[5]The four British generals who declined to serve in America were Lord Frederick Cavendish, Henry Seymour Conway, Sir George Howard and Sir John Griffin.

[6]For an alternative view of David Wooster’s performance during the 1775-6 Canadian invasion see Mark R. Anderson,The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony: America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774-1776 (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2013).

[7]Harry M Ward, Major General Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 190.

[8]Piers Mackesy, The War for America: 1775-1783 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992).

[9]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).

[10]An example of an alternative interpretation of the Conway Cabal crisis see Mark Edward Lender, Cabal! The Plot against George Washington (Yardley, PA:  Westholme Publishing, 2019).



  • Thanks for the review. I particularly appreciate your point about needing to put the effectiveness of American generals into context by comparing them with their adversaries. Without that context, it’s hard to reach any solid conclusions. I’ve really enjoyed Taafe’s various books over the years and this one is among the many on my “to read” pile. He always asks interesting questions and leads me to consider things in a different light.

    I’m glad you mentioned his interpretation of the “Conway Cabal.” Taafe offered much the same interpretation of the kerfuffle in his book on the Philadelphia Campaign. He made a good argument then that the plot existed more in Washington’s mind–and that of his staff–than in reality. The existing data may not support a full-blown conspiracy and Lender’s interpretation may be the right one. But, I wondered then if the existing data points represented the bulk of the evidence Washington had access to or if they weren’t simply the 10% of the iceberg we seen now. His over-reaction seemed out of character for the mature man, but might indicate he knew more then than we do now rather than reflecting the insecurities and honor-obsessed individual of Washington’s youth.

    1. Eric, thanks for your comment. I just finished a bio of Dr. Benjamin Rush who spent a lifetime trying to rid the historical record of his complicity in effort to oust/restrain Washington. I suspect others did the same. Wouldn’t be wonderful to find these lost materials and any other materials that would flesh out the leadership crisis!

  • The Continental Army had the most extreme ratio of officers to enlisted men I’ve ever encountered in my studies. At Valley Forge it was something like 1 to 5. They were also the most “generaled” army I’ve encountered, with more Brigadier and Major Generals present in camp to command never much more than 10 thousand men. By comparison Napoleon used as many generals as Washington to command five and ten times as many troops. Curious what these ratios were in the British Army as it appeared in North America at this time?

    1. Ed, certainly the British press mocked the Rebels for having so many generals! There were good reasons why this is the case. In some cases, Continental Army officers leading militia units (ie, LInclon at Saratoga), many posts consisted of only a few soldiers (John Stark as northern commander at Albany) and there was a high rate of death and disablement. However, as you point out, in the main army, there was a higher ratio of generals to soldiers than in the British combat units. Even then, Washington was continually seeking from Congress the appointment of more generals officers, so the higher ratio must have been required.

      There were approximately 40 British officers (versus the 80 plus on the Rebel side) who served in the American conflict. For a partial list, see http://researchingtheamericanrevolution.com/

      Just as with the Rebels, some of these generals performed garrison duties outside the combat zones (ie, Hallifax) while others were in the supply and logistics functions.

  • I have to disagree with the assertion that the British command lacked experience and the description that they were “untested”. The battles fought in North America were mostly small in scale when compared with a European battlefield, the armies arrayed in North America would have been the equivalent of a corps command in a European war. The generation of British officers particularly the axis of Cornwallis, Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne, all gained significant experience in the Seven Years Wars, and were probably the best the British army had to offer at the time. Cornwallis in particular participated in many large scale battles in Germany commanding a regiment, Clinton served on the staff of Duke Ferdinand had learnt the art of manoeuvre warfare, which contributed the relative success of the British operations in New York. In Portugal, Burgoyne led a composite force of fast moving light cavalry and infantry in a lightening campaign which stopped the advance of the Spanish army into Portugal. Whilst Howe lacked major command experience on the European front, he had commanded a composite battalion of light infantry in several major amphibious operations in North America, and his trust in the application of light infantry and tactical aggression made him well suited to command the British army (although admittedly maybe not as commander in chief). At the time I don’t think there were more experienced or capable British officers who could have gone to North America (apart from those who had been killed early such as Wolfe). There are only really two alternatives; Jeffrey Amherst who probably could have done a better job as a strategic commander in chief however did not have nearly as much battlefield experience as the four commanders previously mentioned and Robert Monckton who’s health by this time had declined too far for him to survive the Atlantic crossing. The other officers mentioned in the linked article did not have close to the experience of Cornwallis, Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne at the start of the war.

    1. John, Thank you for your comments and perspectives. I agree with you that the British generals had battlefield experience as junior officers. For further perspectives on my views on their preparatory experiences as general officers see a previous article, I wrote for JAR https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/04/revolutionary-rookies/. Included are references to the process the British Government followed to select its commanders for the North American theater of operations including the four men who passed on the chance to command the forces to put down the rebellion.

      My principle point in this review is that it is unfair to conclude the Rebel generals’ performance as mediocre in isolation from the performance of their opponents.

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