John Cadwalader, Twice Refuses to be a General

The War Years (1775-1783)

September 13, 2022
by Jeff Dacus Also by this Author


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During the Revolutionary War, several men refused commissions as generals in the Continental Army. Seth Pomeroy and John Whitcomb were unable to accept the honor due to ill health. John Philip de Haas concentrated on his business after distinguished service as a colonel. One officer, John Cadwalader of Pennsylvania, not only turned the down the offer from Congress for the appointment of brigadier general but he did it twice.

Born in New Jersey, Cadwalader was the son of a respected doctor and a cousin to Philemon and John Dickinson, two important leaders in the middle colonies. Thanks to a privileged upbringing, Cadwalader became a wealthy merchant with an eye for grand furniture in his beautiful home. He served on the local committee of safety in the years prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Good looking and wealthy, he would marry twice and father six children. A taciturn yet loving family man who could often be contrary, he was reluctant to leave his local community but nevertheless served throughout the Revolution.

When the events at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 signaled the beginning of a violent conflict with the mother country, Cadwalader was commanding a company of militia in the Philadelphia Associators, referred to derisively by some and respectfully by others as the “Silk Stockings.” His polished manners, fine clothes, and wealth made him the perfect stereotype of the men in his company. In 1776 he became a regimental commander of Pennsylvania militia with the rank of colonel. His militia, augmented with other troops, including sailors and Marines from the Continental and Pennsylvania navies, figured importantly in Washington’s plans to cross the Delaware River and surprise the Hessians at Trenton at Christmas. Washington told him: “If you cannot do nothing real, at least create as great a diversion as possible.”[1] On December 25, 1776, Cadwalader attempted to cross the river south of Trenton but was unable to transport all his men to the Jersey shore due to the weather, thus he was unable to take part in Washington’s triumph. Undaunted, Cadwalader crossed the river two days later and sent a message to Washington that he was ready to support a further move into New Jersey.

Taking Cadwalader’s advice, Washington crossed again on December 29 and joined Cadwalader on the east side of the Delaware. During the action at Princeton on January 3, 1777, Cadwalader’s men were routed but he showed extreme personal bravery in helping Washington organize the remnants of his men and Hugh Mercer’s detachment to join a counterattack that resulted in an American victory. Washington was impressed with Cadwalader’s abilities and wrote the president of Congress: “I shall take the liberty of recommending Genl. Cadwalader as one of the first for the New appointments, I have found him a Man of Ability, a good disciplinarian, attentive to Service, firm in his principles, and of Intrepid Bravery.”[2]

On February 21, 1777, the Continental Congress:

proceeded to the election of brigadiers general and the ballots being taken, the following gentlemen were elected. (It being previously agreed that their rank be settled after the election is made.)
Colonel Enoch Poor, Colonel J. Glover, Colonel J. Patterson, Colonel Anthony Wayne, Colonel James Mitchel Varnum, Colonel John P. De Haas, Colonel G. Weedon, Colonel P. Muhlenberg, Colonel J. Cadwalader, and Colonel W. Woodford.
Resolved, That the rank of the foregoing brigadiers general, and that of Brigadier General Nash, be appointed settled tomorrow.[3]

A few weeks later, hearing that Cadwalader was reluctant to accept the promotion, Washington expressed his hopes to him:

The satisfaction I received in perceiving your name on the List of Brigadiers of Continental Appointment, met with some little Alloy upon recollecting a Conversation had with You at this place upon that subject, in which You seemed to have doubts, which, I wish most ardently, to hear are removed. Let me beseech You, my good Sir, to reflect, that the Period is now arrived when our most vigorous Exertions are wanted; when it is highly and indispensably necessary for Gentlemen of Abilities and Influence to step forth; and do not suffer any small Punctilios to withhold your services in the Continental line. The Cause requires your Aid—your Friends wish it; none of whom more sincerely than I do.[4]

Unfortunately, Washington was to be disappointed; Horatio Gates prefaced a letter on March 7 with news: “General Cadwallader having Absolutely declined accepting his Commission as Continental Brigadier.”[5]

Cadwalader did participate in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown but as a volunteer. During this period, he was sent to help organize the defenses on Maryland’s eastern shore, a task endorsed by Washington:

Under this persuasion, If you have not already appointed a General Officer—or have no particular Gentleman in view for the purpose, I would beg leave to mention John Cadwalader, Esqre, for your consideration. This Gentleman I know to be a judicious—valuable Officer, and I have often regretted, that he did not hold a high command in the Army of the States. If you should entertain the same Opinion of him, and there is no Objection to appointing him, I am satisfied he would render essential services at the Head of the Eastern Shore Militia.[6]

After completing his mission to construct of defenses and organize the Maryland militia, Cadwalader informed Washington that he would again serve the army if needed. Washington was eager to have him with the regular army:

Your favor of the 12th Instt came safe to my hands & gave me sincere pleasure; as it encouraged a hope I had before entertained of seeing you in Camp again—most sincerely do I wish it was in my power to point out some post or place in the army that would invite you to, & fix you in it. We want your aid exceedingly; & the public perhaps at no time since the commencement of the War would be more benefitted by your advice and assistance than at the present, & throughout the whole of this Campaign which must be important & critical. One thing certain is—a seat at my board, & a square on my Floor shall always be reserved for you. but this, though it would add to my pleasure, is not the height of my wishes. I want to see you in a more important Station.[7]

Cadwalader had no intention of resuming an active command with the Continental Army, preferring to serve Washington as a volunteer on his staff. He served in such a capacity during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778.

Cadwalader was a regular fixture at Washington’s headquarters when the army was in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. After hearing Thomas Conway insult Washington on more than one occasion, Cadwalader challenged the Irishman to a duel. The two fought on July 4, 1778, with Cadwalader wounding Conway in the mouth, helping to end Conway’s career in the Continental Army.

On September 10, 1778:

Congress proceeded to the election of a commander of the horse, and the ballots being taken,
John Cadwallader, Esqr. was unanimously elected.
Resolved, That a commission be granted to John Cadwallader, Esq. appointing him brigadier and commander of the cavalry in the service of the United States.[8]

Cadwalader again refused to accept the commission. A note in the Congressional Journal indicated his refusal: “A letter, of 19, from General Cadwallader, was read, expressing the highest sense of the honour conferred upon him by Congress, in appointing him a brigadier, with the command of the cavalry, but informing “them” that he cannot consent to enter into the service at this time, as the war appears to him to be near the close.”[9] He continued to serve both as a volunteer advisor to Washington and as a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia until the end of hostilities.

After the war, Cadwalader moved to Maryland and served in the state legislature until his death on February 11, 1786. He was buried at Shrewsbury Episcopal Church in, Shrewsbury, Maryland. Thomas Paine, with whom Cadwalader was often at odds, penned the epitaph on his tombstone:

His early and inflexible patriotism will endear his memory to all true friends of the American Revolution. It may with strictest justice be said of him, that he possessed a heart incapable of deceiving. His manners were formed on the nicest sense of honor and the whole tenor of his life was governed by this principle. The companions of his youth were the companions of his manhood. He never lost a friend by insincerity nor made one by deception. His domestic virtues were truly exemplary and while they served to endear the remembrances they embitter the loss of him to all his numerous friends and connexions.[10]

John Cadwalader is an example of a man who adapted his provincial interests to continue to serve in the larger cause by serving with the Continental Army when necessary. But his service is distinctive: he refused to be a general in the regular forces, twice!


[1]George Washington to John Cadwalader, December 25, 1776, in Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985 -), 7:439.

[2]Washington to John Hancock, January 22, 1777, The Papers of George Washington, 8:127.

[3]Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937), 7:141.

[4]Washington to Cadwalader, March 3, 1777, The Papers of George Washington, 8:493–494.

[5]Horatio Gates to Washington, March 7, 1777, The Papers of George Washington, 8:533.

[6]Washington to Thomas Johnson, September 3, 1777, The Papers of George Washington, 11:137.

[7]Washington to John Cadwalader, March 20, 1778, The Papers of George Washington, 14:234.

[8]Journals of the Continental Congress, 12:897.

[9]Ibid., 12:941.

[10]Encyclopedia of Contemporary Biography of Pennsylvania Vol. 3 (New York: Atlantic Publishing & Engraving, 1898), 285.


  • Thanks for writing this article, Jeff. I have one in the JAR publication queue entitled “The Significance of John Cadwalader,” which highlights his role in the “Ten Crucial Days” (TCD) campaign of 1776-77. These are both timely from the standpoint of my employer, The Friends of Washington Crossing Park, because they will shortly be unveiling their 2022 challenge coin that features Cadwalader. This is one in a ten-year series of coins that started in 2017, each of which include the name and image of a Rev War figure who played a role in the TCD, and is designed to culminate in 2026 w/ a GW coin.

  • Good article, Jeff. Thanks. Certainly one of the forgotten, yet important, figures of the war. I’m now looking forward to David’s piece. Question. Does anyone know of a Cadwalader biography? I’ve never seen one.

  • As far as I know, the closest thing to a biography is Nicholas B. Wainwright’s “Colonial Grandeur in Philadelphia: The House and Furniture of General John Cadwalader” (Philadelphia, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1964), which I have hopefully made good use of in connection with my upcoming article.

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