Dickinson, Philemon

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Dickinson, Philemon

DICKINSON, PHILEMON. (1739–1809). Militia general. Born on 5 April 1739 in Talbot County, Maryland, Philemon Dickinson moved to Philadelphia in 1757 to attend the College of Philadelphia. He then studied law with his brother John, but quit to oversee the family estate in Trenton, New Jersey. In July 1775 he was named a colonel of the Hunterdon County militia, and on 19 October became brigadier general of the New Jersey militia. In 1776 he was elected to the New Jersey provincial congress. Present at the Battle of Trenton on 26 December 1776, he ordered the artillery to shell his own house, which the British were using as a command post. A great deal of his personal property was destroyed in the battle. That same month, Dickinson became embroiled in a political controversy when a letter from his brother John advising him to refuse Continental currency and resign his commission became public.

While General George Washington occupied winter quarters at Morristown, Dickinson led one of the raids that seriously jeopardized British attempts to get provisions. He marched 400 untrained troops through a waist-deep river to surprise and defeat a large foraging party near Somerset Courthouse, New Jersey (20-22 January 1777). On 15 February 1777 he resigned his commission as militia brigadier general, but on 6 June he was named major general and commander in chief of the New Jersey militia, a post he retained until the end of the war. During the Philadelphia campaign (June to December 1777), he and David Forman were in the field with militia detachments, but Washington was unable to draw Dickinson's command to the main army for the battle of Germantown (4 October). On 27 November he took part in an attack on Staten Island. On 9 May 1778 he led the militia in repulsing Major John Maitland's attack on Trenton. During the Monmouth campaign (June-July 1778) Dickinson's militia performed usefully in destroying roads and bridges to retard the British retreat across New Jersey and provided important intelligence. On 4 July 1778 he stood as second for his cousin, John Cadwalader, in the latter's duel with Thomas Conway. When General Wilhelm Knyphausen undertook his raid on Springfield, (7-23 June 1780), Dickinson and his militia performed a valuable service by acting as a delaying force, and they fought well at the battle of Springfield, New Jersey.

Starting in 1778, Dickinson ran for governor of New Jersey against William Livingston three times, losing each election. From 1782 to 1783, while his brother John was president of Delaware, Philemon served as a delegate to Congress from that state. In 1783 and 1784 he was vice president of the New Jersey State Council. In 1785 he, Robert Morris, and Philip Schuyler constituted a commission to select the site for the national capital. He was defeated by William Paterson as a candidate for U.S. senator in 1789, but served the unexpired term, 1790 to 1793, when Paterson left the Senate to become governor. Though raised a Quaker and married to one, Dickinson owned slaves and defended the institution, getting into an extended and heated debate with his brother when the latter insisted that he free his slaves. Dickinson died at his Trenton estate on 4 February 1809.

SEE ALSO Monmouth, New Jersey; Philadelphia; Springfield, New Jersey, Raid of Knyphausen.


Philemon Dickinson papers. New Jersey Historical Society: Newark, New Jersey.

Prince, Carl E., et al., eds. The Papers of William Livingston. Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J.: New Jersey Historical Commission and Rutgers University Press, 1979–1988.

                            revised by Michael Bellesiles

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