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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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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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.
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).
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).