MAXWELL, WILLIAM. (1733–1793). Continental general. Ireland-New Jersey. Coming to America with his Scots-Irish parents around 1747, Maxwell received a very ordinary education as a farm boy in what became Warren County. At the age of twenty-five, during the French and Indian War, he became an ensign in Colonel John Johnston's New Jersey Regiment and subsequently a lieutenant in the New Jersey Regiment of Colonel Peter Schuyler. On 8 July 1758 he and his fellow New Jersey Blues were ensconced in the rear guard of General James Abercromby's expeditionary force in its futile, bloody assault on Fort Ticonderoga.
Leaving the army in 1760, Maxwell entered British military service as a civilian post commissary and was stationed at frontier forts of New York and the Great Lakes area, ranging from Schenectady to Detroit. From 1766 to 1773 Maxwell dispensed provisions for two companies of the Royal (Sixtieth) American Regiment at Fort Michimackinac. Maxwell managed to hold his own among the rough-hewn, carefree troops at Michimackinac. When most of the Sixtieth was transferred to the West Indies, Maxwell returned to New Jersey to work his parents' farm. He soon became a leader in the Revolutionary movement.
"Scotch Willie" was a tall, ruddy-faced, stalwart man who spoke with a Scottish brogue. He was a member of the New Jersey Provincial Congresses of May and October 1775 and in August of that year became chairman of the Sussex county committee of safety. On 8 November he was commissioned colonel and raised the Second New Jersey Regiment. In February 1776 he marched north with five full companies and joined the American force invading Canada just as it began its retreat. He had charge of the rear guard of American troops as it skirmished with the enemy. Maxwell commanded his regiment in the disaster at Trois Rivières on 8 June and was one of those who, the next month, opposed abandonment of Crown Point. He complained to Congress when Arthur St. Clair was promoted ahead of him on 9 August. On 23 October he was appointed brigadier general. He returned to his home state about the time that the British turned to chase Washington's army across the Delaware. Maxwell had the assignment of clearing boats from the Delaware River so that the British could not use them. In command of four new regiments of New Jersey Continentals, on 21 December, Maxwell was sent by Washington to take charge of the militia at Morristown. A few days later, after the American success at Trenton, Maxwell got Washington's appeal for a diversionary effort against the British flank to speed the enemy's withdrawal from New Jersey, but he was not able to accomplish anything worthwhile.
Maxwell became the first commander of the light infantry corps, which was initially formed to oppose the advance of the enemy on Philadelphia. His troops bravely engaged the British van on 3 September 1777 at Cooch's Bridge (Iron Hill). At the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, Maxwell's light infantry harassed lead units of the British army as he and his men conducted a retrograde movement back across the Brandywine. A principal critic of Maxwell at this time was one of the light infantrymen, Major William Heth, a veteran of Morgan's Rifles, who wrote his former commander on 2 October that since the enemy's landing at Head of Elk, "Maxwell's Corps 'twas expected would do great things—we had opportunities—and any body but an old-woman, would have availd themselves of them—He is to be sure—a Damnd bitch of a General."
At the Battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777, the New Jersey Continentals suffered heavy casualties as they unsuccessfully stormed the Benjamin Chew house. After this battle Maxwell stood a court-martial, charged generally with misconduct and excessive drinking. On 4 November he was given what the historian Douglas Freeman has called "something of a Scotch verdict" (Freeman, vol. 4, p. 535). He was not exonerated, but the charges were not proved. During the winter at Valley Forge, Maxwell's brigade comprised the First, Second, Third, and Fourth New Jersey Regiments.
On 7 May 1778 Maxwell was ordered to Mount Holly, New Jersey, as Washington coped with the complex strategic problems preceding the Monmouth campaign. Maxwell figured prominently in the maneuvers that followed and in the Battle of Monmouth on 28 June. He testified at Lee's court-martial that the accused was so out of touch with the tactical situation in the initial phase of the battle that he did not know on which wing Maxwell's brigade was located.
In July 1778 Maxwell guarded the New Jersey coast opposite Staten Island, and he continued with this mission until the next year, when he led his brigade in Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois. He returned to New Jersey and opposed General Wilhelm Knyphausen's Springfield raid on 7 and 23 June 1780. For reasons unknown, but certainly relating to a cabal of New Jersey officers from the Elizabethtown area, Maxwell was pressured into resigning from the army in July 1780; upon reflection he tried to withdraw his resignation, but Congress accepted it. Maxwell was elected to the New Jersey assembly for one term in 1783. He took over the ownership and management of his parents' farm (just south of Phillipsburg, New Jersey; the farmhouse is extant). Maxwell never married. He died suddenly while visiting the farm of his neighbor, Colonel Charles Stewart.
Maxwell was one of Washington's most reliable generals. Although regarded as a bit of a comical character, he performed brilliantly whenever he was given command responsibility in the field.
Smith, Justin H. Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada and the American Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Putnam's Sons, 1907.
Smith, Samuel S. The Battle of Brandywine. Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1976.
Ward, Harry M. General William Maxwell and the New Jersey Continentals. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
revised by Harry M. Ward