Military leadership in the American Revolutionary War

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American Revolutionary War
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis.jpg
Armed Forces
United States
Continental Army
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Related topics
List of battles
Military leadership

Many military leaders played a role in the American Revolutionary War. This list is a compilation of some of the most important leaders among all of the many participants in the war. In order to be listed here, an individual must satisfy one of the following criteria:

  • was a nation's top civilian responsible for directing military affairs
  • held a commission of at least major general or rear admiral in an organized military during the conflict
  • was the highest-ranking member of a given nation's force that participated in the conflict (if that rank was not at least major general)
  • was the highest-ranking member of a given state/colonial militia
  • was a provincial or territorial governor who is documented to have directed a military action
  • was a Native American tribal leader who is documented to have had a leadership position in a military action

Some individuals simultaneously held positions in more than one organization; a number of Continental Army generals also held high-ranking positions in their state militia organizations.

United States[edit]

When the war began, the American colonists did not have a regular army (also known as a "standing army"). Each colony had traditionally provided for its own defenses through the use of local militia, which had their own command hierarchy. Some states, most notably Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, also had their own navies.

Seeking to coordinate military efforts, the Continental Congress established (on paper) a regular army—the Continental Army—in June 1775, and appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. The development of the Continental Army was always a work in progress, and Washington reluctantly augmented the regular troops with militia throughout the war.

Commander-in-Chief[edit]

Washington in his uniform

Continental Army[edit]

Detail from Washington and his generals at Yorktown (c. 1781) by Charles Willson Peale. Lafayette (far left) is at Washington's right, the Comte de Rochambeau to his immediate left.

Major generals[edit]

  • William Alexander spent most of the war with the Main Army under Washington. Captured during the 1776 Battle of Long Island, he was exchanged for Montfort Browne not long after, and served with distinction in many battles in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He died in 1783 shortly before the end of the war.
  • Benedict Arnold was a leading force in the early days of the war, participating in the 1775 capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the invasion of Quebec, and played a crucial role in the 1777 Battles of Saratoga, in which he was severely wounded. In 1780 he acquired the command of the Highlands Department with the intent of surrendering West Point to the British. The plot was uncovered, and he fled to join the British, for whom he served until the end of 1781 as a brigadier general.
  • James Clinton was active in his native New York, and was a leading figure of the 1779 Sullivan Expedition to destroy Iroquois settlements in that state. He also served in Quebec and at Yorktown, and commanded American troops at Fort Clinton in their 1777 defeat there.
  • Louis Lebègue Duportail was French military engineer who served as the Continental Army's chief engineer. He oversaw the improvement of defenses throughout the states, and directed the engineering efforts at Yorktown. He was a brigadier general until November 1781, when he received a brevet promotion to major general.
  • Horatio Gates served at first as Washington's adjutant, and then in the Northern Department. There he was in command during the pivotal battles at Saratoga in 1777, following which he lobbied Congress as a potential replacement for Washington. He was afterward given command of the Southern Department, where his army was disastrously defeated at Camden in 1780, ending his field leadership.
  • Nathanael Greene was one of the best strategists in the Continental Army. He served under Washington in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and served for a time as the army's Quartermaster General. He led the ultimately successful campaign in 1780 and 1781 against the British "Southern Strategy" as commander of the Southern Department, effectively becoming the Continental Army's number two general, outranked only by Washington.
  • Edward Hand spent much of the war defending Pennsylvania, serving as the commander at Fort Pitt for a time. He was present at Yorktown, and was given a brevet promotion to major general as the war was coming to an end in 1783.
  • William Heath was a Massachusetts general with a prominent role training troops in the early days of the war at the Siege of Boston. He spent most of the war leading the Highland Department, since Washington was apparently not confident of his ability in the field.
  • Robert Howe was a major general from North Carolina. As commander of the Southern Department, he led a campaign against East Florida that failed due to disagreements with state militia commanders, and was forced to surrender Savannah. He then served under Anthony Wayne in the Highlands Department, seeing action at Stony Point, and under Washington in the Main Army, where he put down a mutiny in 1781.
  • Johann de Kalb  was a German who served as major general. He served under Washington at Valley Forge, and was sent to the Southern Department with Horatio Gates when he took over that department. De Kalb was killed in the Battle of Camden in August 1780.
  • Henry Knox was the chief artillery officer of the Continental Army. Active with Washington throughout most of the war, he brought Ticonderoga's cannons to Boston in early 1776, and saw much action from New York to Yorktown. He oversaw the creation of an artillery training center that was a precursor to the United States Military Academy, and later served as the first United States Secretary of War.
  • Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette was a young French nobleman who served as major general. He served with Washington in the Philadelphia campaign, fought in the Battle of Rhode Island, and successfully resisted significant engagements with British forces in Virginia before the armies of Washington and Rochambeau arrived. He was a favorite of Washington's, who treated him like a son.
  • Charles Lee was an experienced British military officer who had hoped to be appointed commander-in-chief instead of Washington. He was a somewhat difficult subordinate of Washington's, delaying execution of orders or deliberately flouting them at times. During the retreat across New Jersey from New York, Lee was captured by the British in a surprise raid. Quickly exchanged, he participated in the Philadelphia campaign. After he was convicted by a court martial for disobeying orders during the Battle of Monmouth, he resigned from the army in 1780.
  • Benjamin Lincoln was a major general from Massachusetts, who was present at three major surrenders during the war. Active in the New York campaign, Washington sent him to assist Horatio Gates in the Northern Department, where he was wounded after the Battle of Bemis Heights. Next put in command of the Southern Department, he was forced to surrender his surrounded army to Sir Henry Clinton at Charleston in 1780. Exchanged later that year, he was present at Yorktown, where as second-in-command to Washington he accepted Cornwallis' sword, which Cornwallis had sent his second-in-command to deliver. From 1781 to 1783 he served as Secretary of War.
  • Lachlan McIntosh was a Georgia general. Injured in a duel with Button Gwinnett in 1777, he served as head of the Western Department in 1778 and 1779 before returning to the south. He was captured in the 1780 siege of Charleston, and was not released until after hostilities had effectively ended in 1782.
  • Alexander McDougall was a major general from New York. Active in the New York and Philadelphia campaigns, he spent most of the war in the Highlands Department under Michael Heath.
  • Richard Montgomery  was a major general from New York. He led the Invasion of Canada in 1775 as a brigadier, and was killed in the Battle of Quebec, without knowing that he had been promoted to major general following the Siege of Fort St. Jean.
  • Peter Muhlenberg was a Virginia general who led the 8th Virginia Regiment. First assigned to coastal defenses in the South, he also saw action in the Philadelphia campaign. He was then sent to lead the defense of Virginia, leading mainly militia forces, but then led forward light infantry companies at Yorktown under Lafayette.
  • John Paterson was a Massachusetts general active in the most of the early northern campaigns, from Quebec to Philadelphia. He received a brevet promotion to major general in 1783.
  • Israel Putnam was the most senior general in the Continental Army, only outranked by Washington. Active from the first days of the revolution, he led the forces in the field at the Battle of Bunker Hill. After performing poorly in the Battle of Long Island, Washington assigned him to do primarily recruiting in the Highlands Department. He suffered a stroke in 1779, which ended his military career.
  • Philip Schuyler was a New York major general. As head of the Northern Department, he planned the 1775 invasion of Quebec, but was prevented by illness from leading it. He was active in the defense of New York in 1777, but the withdrawal from Ticonderoga led Congress to replace him with Horatio Gates. He was also active in Indian relations, cultivating the neutrality or support of tribes in New York.
  • William Smallwood led forces from Maryland in the war. He served with distinction in the New York campaign, and was twice wounded at White Plains. He then served in the Philadelphia campaign, and was in the debacle at Camden in 1780. Unhappy with the presence of foreign officers, he refused to serve under von Steuben, and spent the rest of the war directing the defense of Maryland.
  • Arthur St. Clair was a large landholder in western Pennsylvania when the war began. He led troops during the Quebec, New York, and New Jersey campaigns, and was then put in command of Fort Ticonderoga, where he made the critical decision to retreat before Burgoyne's advancing army. Publicly criticized for this step, which saved his army, he held no more field commands, serving as an aide to Washington for the rest of the war.
  • Adam Stephen was general from Virginia, who led forces under Washington in the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia campaigns. Following a misstep in the Battle of Germantown in which, against orders, he advanced his troops to a point where they accidentally exchanged friendly fire with forces of Anthony Wayne, Stephen was court martialed and cashiered out of the army.
  • Friedrich von Steuben was a Prussian aristocrat and military officer. His military drills and instruction, especially at Valley Forge, are generally credited with significantly improving the performance of the Continental Army. He served in active roles in the Philadelphia campaign, and under Nathanael Greene in his southern campaign, before returning to Washington's army at Yorktown. He authored Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, the United States Army's training guide until the War of 1812.
  • John Sullivan was from New Hampshire. Active from the first days of the war, he led a relief column and ended up in command of the invasion of Quebec during its final weeks in 1776. He then served under Washington in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. He led American forces in the failed Battle of Rhode Island, and then led the 1779 Sullivan Expedition, which destroyed Indian villages in New York.
  • John Thomas was a Massachusetts general active from the beginning of the war in Boston, where he commanded the besieging forces at Roxbury. Sent to take over the forces besieging Quebec City, he died of smallpox during the army's retreat in June 1776.
  • Artemas Ward was the first overall leader of the assembled militia forces outside Boston after the war began, and ranked second in seniority to Washington in the Continental Army. He commanded the Eastern Department, which was largely responsible for containing the British at Newport, until 1777, when he resigned due to poor health.
  • Joseph Warren   was an American doctor who played a key role in American Patriot organizations in Boston in the early days of the war, eventually serving as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He fought in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He was killed in action at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  • "Mad" Anthony Wayne was a Pennsylvania general. Active in the Quebec invasion, he was stationed at Fort Ticonderoga during the winter of 1776-1777. He then participated in the Philadelphia campaign, playing a key role in the Battle of Monmouth. He held a variety of commands thereafter, and negotiated peace agreements with Indians along the southern frontiers. He was promoted to major general in 1783.
  • David Wooster  participated in the Quebec invasion, serving as military governor of Montreal. He led the Canadian Department after the death of Richard Montgomery. Following the retreat from Quebec, he returned to his native Connecticut, where he led the state militia. He was killed in the 1777 Battle of Ridgefield.

Brigadier generals[edit]

Militia[edit]

Continental Navy[edit]

Operating out of France[edit]

Frontier[edit]

Surgeon[edit]

British Empire[edit]

At the head of the British forces was the king, who was captain general of all forces both naval and military. It was usual for him to delegate his military powers as captain general or commander-in-chief. From 1772 to 1778 the office was vacant, but from 1778 to 1782 Sir Jeffery Amherst officiated as Commander-in-Chief with the title of General on the Staff. He was succeeded in February, 1782 by Henry Seymour Conway.

Next in importance to the Commander-in-Chief was the Secretary at War, who served as head of the War Office, and was bidden "to observe and follow such orders and directions as he should from time to time receive from the king or the general of the forces". Not until 1783 was he a minister responsible to parliament. At the start of part of the war the secretary was Lord Barrington. He was replaced in 1778 by Charles Jenkinson, 1st Earl of Liverpool who held this position until the fall of Lord North's government.

Crown and Government officials[edit]

Commander-in-Chief of the Forces[edit]

Secretaries at War[edit]

Commander-in-Chief, North America[edit]

Until the war was widened into a global conflict by France's entry into the war in 1778, the war's military activities were primarily directed by the Commander-in-Chief, North America.

  • Thomas Gage was commander-in-chief of North American forces from 1763 until 1775, and governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay from 1774 to 1776. He presided over the rising tensions (with his actions sometimes contributing to them, in the opinions of some historians) that led to the outbreak of the war. He was recalled after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  • William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe replaced Gage, and personally directed the war effort in 1776 and 1777, including the British captures of New York City and Philadelphia. He failed to gain control over New Jersey, and his actions in taking Philadelphia contributed to the failure of John Burgoyne's Saratoga campaign. He resigned in early 1778.
  • Sir Henry Clinton served as commander-in-chief from 1778 to 1782. He oversaw the British army's retreat from Philadelphia, and then directed the Siege of Charleston, the landing of a large body of troops early in the "Southern strategy". He directed most British activities afterward from his base in New York, and played a role in negotiating Benedict Arnold's change of allegiance. Following Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, he was replaced by Guy Carleton.
  • Sir Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester was governor of Quebec from 1768 to 1777, overseeing the province's defense against the 1775 invasion, and its first counterattack. Denied command of what became John Burgoyne's campaign, he resigned in 1777. In 1782 King George appointed him to replace Clinton as commander-in-chief. He directed the withdrawal of British troops from the states, and helped to organize the relocation of thousands of Loyalists to other British territories.

Lieutenant and Major Generals[edit]

  • Mariot Arbuthnot was Vice Admiral of the Blue in the Royal Navy, and commanded its North American station from 1779 until 1781. He led the navy in the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Cape Henry. He was also Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia from 1776 to 1778, active in suppressing Patriot sentiment in that province.
  • Sir Robert Boyd was a lieutenant general who served in the garrison at the Great Siege of Gibraltar.
  • John Burgoyne was a lieutenant general who led a British attempt to gain control of the Hudson River valley in 1777 that was stopped at Saratoga. Paroled to England and eventually exchanged, he did not serve further in the war.
  • The Hon. John Byron was the admiral in command of the West Indies naval station in 1778 and 1779. He fought the minor Battle of Grenada against d'Estaing in 1779, and retired the following year.
  • Archibald Campbell, while a lieutenant colonel, regained control of Georgia in 1779 and served as its royal governor. Promoted to major general, he served in Jamaica, becoming its governor in 1782.
  • John Campbell served in the Boston campaign and the New York and New Jersey campaign early in the war, before being given command of the defense of West Florida. Captured in the 1781 Siege of Pensacola, he ended the war in the New York City garrison.
  • Sir George Collier was the commander of the Royal Navy's North American station from 1776 to 1779, providing naval support to a variety of operations, and leading the relief of the 1779 Penobscot Expedition. Thereafter he served in European waters, where he participated in one of the relief convoys to Gibraltar.
  • Sir Eyre Coote was the commander-in-chief of British forces in India. While not personally involved in combat against the French and Dutch there, troops that were part of his command were involved in engagements against French and Dutch targets, while he was preoccupied with the Second Anglo-Mysore War.
  • Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis participated in many campaigns in North America. He served under Howe and Clinton in the New York and Philadelphia campaigns, and was given control of the southern army by Clinton after the Siege of Charleston. At first successfully driving the Continentals from South Carolina, he was eventually forced to surrender his army at Yorktown in the last major engagement between American and British forces.
  • Sir John Dalling, 1st Baronet was a general and governor of Jamaica until 1781, where he coordinate British military affairs throughout the Caribbean and the West Indies.
  • William Dalrymple was in command of the Army troops in Boston at the time of the Boston Massacre. He served as quartermaster general of the British Army in North America from 1779 to 1783.
  • Sir Charles Douglas was an admiral in the Royal Navy. He led the advance fleet that brought relief to Quebec in April 1776, and served under Rodney in the Battle of the Saintes.
  • Sir William Erskine, 1st Baronet was a general who served under Howe and Clinton in the New York and Philadelphia campaigns. He also served for a time as quartermaster general before leaving active service in 1779.
  • Sir William Fawcett became the army's adjutant general in 1781. His most important role in the war was overseeing the embarkation of hired German troops for deployment to the various theaters of war.
  • The Hon. Simon Fraser of Lovat was a general and colonel of the 71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot. While he did not serve in the war, he was responsible for raising the regiment, which saw service throughout much of North America, and was captured at Yorktown.
  • Samuel Graves was the admiral in charge of the navy's North American station at the outbreak of the war. He directed naval activities for much of the Siege of Boston, and gave orders resulting in the politically and literally inflammatory Burning of Falmouth in October 1775. He was recalled in January 1776, and saw no more service in the war.
  • Thomas Graves, 1st Baron Graves was an admiral and the nephew of Samuel Graves. As a lieutenant, he participated in the Battle of Chelsea Creek in 1775. By 1781 he had risen to become commander of the North American station. His fleet was driven off in the critical Battle of the Chesapeake that enabled the French blockade of Yorktown.
  • Sir William Green was a general. He was the chief engineer during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, and had risen to major general by the end of the siege, later full general.
  • Charles Grey, 1st Earl Grey was one of the more successful army leaders. He led a brigade at the Battle of Brandywine, led forces in the so-called Paoli Massacre and in raids on New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
  • Frederick Haldimand was responsible for the British troops in the Siege of Boston, although his authority was often superseded by Thomas Gage, who had overall command. Haldimand served as governor of Quebec from 1778 to 1786, with responsibility for the defense of the province and the organization and support of frontier attacks in the Ohio Country.
  • Samuel Hood, 1st Viscount Hood was an admiral, who served primarily under Rodney in the West Indies. He was also present at the Battle of the Chesapeake under Thomas Graves.
  • Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe was chief of the North American naval station from 1776 to 1778. He was given diplomatic authority by King George to conduct negotiations at the unsuccessful Staten Island Peace Conference. Sympathetic to the colonists' cause, he saw no further service until 1782, when he participated in the relief of Gibraltar.
  • The Hon. Alexander Leslie served under Cornwallis in the southern campaigns, but was commanding forces in Charleston at the time of Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown.
  • William Medows distinguished himself in the Philadelphia campaign and the Battle of St. Lucia in 1778. He was then despatched to India, where he was primarily involved in the Second Anglo-Mysore War.
  • Hector Munro, 8th of Novar was a general active in India. He led the forces that captured Pondicherry in 1778, and led forces against the Mysoreans.
  • William Phillips was an artillery general. He served under Burgoyne and was captured at Saratoga in 1777. Exchanged in 1780, he took over leadership of Benedict Arnold's army in Virginia, before becoming ill and dying.
  • William Picton was a major general who served in the Gibraltar garrison during the siege.
  • George Brydges Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney was the commander of the naval station in the West Indies. He also participated in one of the expeditions to relieve Gibraltar, and, after capturing de Grasse in the Battle of the Saintes, famously wrote, "Within two little years I have taken two Spanish, one French and one Dutch admirals."


Royal governors[edit]

Frontier leaders[edit]

Native Americans[edit]

Chief Cornplanter portrait by F. Bertoli, 1796

German principalities[edit]

Great Britain hired the services of military troops from a number of German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. The largest number arrived in 1776 pursuant to agreements signed in late 1775 or early 1776, but additional forces were recruited in 1778, with only limited success. The single largest contingent came from Hesse-Kassel, hence the term "Hessians".

France[edit]

Civilian leaders[edit]

Generals[edit]

Spain[edit]

Dutch Republic[edit]

The Dutch Republic played a significant economic role in the war, but its military participation was limited, in part due to internal political divisions.

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Black, Jeremy. War for America: The Fight for Independence, 1775–1783. St. Martin's Press (New York) and Sutton Publishing (UK), 1991. ISBN 0-312-06713-5 (1991), ISBN 0-312-12346-9 (1994 paperback), ISBN 0-7509-2808-5 (2001 paperpack).
  • Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: McKay, 1966; revised 1974. ISBN 0-8117-0578-1.

Further reading[edit]