Revolution: Military Leadership, American

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Revolution: Military Leadership, American

In 1775, the year of revolution, the Constitution's clear delineation of military authority was still twelve years in the future. An untried political body, the Continental Congress, combined what would later be defined as executive and legislative authority. Revolutionary leaders had a profound fear of a standing army, a permanent establishment maintained by government and supplied by public treasury. They believed it was the path to tyranny and well knew that throughout history tyrants arose from the ranks of successful military leaders. Yet to win the war Congress had to create a standing army and appoint men to lead it. The tensions between political beliefs and military necessity seriously impaired the rebels' war effort.

organizing for war: the first appointments

In June 1775 Massachusetts delegates asked the Continental Congress to accept responsibility for the New England militia who were blockading the British in Boston. Congress agreed and appointed George Washington as the army's commander in chief. Congress also created the ranks of major general and brigadier general to serve as Washington's senior subordinates.

Congress commissioned all officers, but individual states actually nominated candidates up to and including the rank of colonel. The states chose men who were prominent leaders in their local communities. The basis for their selection was experience, the ability to raise men, and political reliability. These qualifications did not necessarily equate with military talent or even competency. In addition, each state was anxious that it receive its "quota" of senior leaders.

The first set of appointments demonstrated the importance of political considerations. Congress named Artemas Ward of Massachusetts first major general. Ward had an excellent record as a militia administrator and was an experienced politician. Because Massachusetts supplied the most men to the so-called Boston Army, it was politically prudent to make him the senior major general. There was less

consensus regarding Washington's recommendation that Charles Lee be the second major general. Lee had served as an officer in both the British and the Polish armies and was politically reliable. However, his arrogant personality offended many. Only the staunch backing of John Adams confirmed Lee. Horatio Gates was another former British officer with the right political connections. Gates filled the position of adjutant general with the rank of brigadier general. Congress hoped that his staff experience would provide Washington with strong administrative assistance.

Trouble came when northern delegates observed that, although Virginia had yet to enlist a single Continental soldier, Virginians held three of the army's four top positions. A furious political scuffle ensued. Each colony strongly promoted its own favorite sons, with men being nominated and confirmed largely on the basis of which colony they represented. Congress even doubled the number of major generals to appease New York and Connecticut.

Philip Schuyler belonged to one of New York's leading families. He had served as a major in the French and Indian War, specializing in logistics. Schuyler's combination of political connections, extensive business interests in the Albany area, and friendship with Washington made him a logical choice to command the northern army on the Canadian–New York border. Also a French and Indian War veteran, Israel Putnam was appointed because of an impasse among the Connecticut delegation. Putnam was an early, vocal leader of the Connecticut Sons of Liberty, but he was fifty-seven years old and wore his years hard. Ultimately, his status as a folk hero trumped doubts about his age.

Having dealt with the politically tricky business of creating major generals, Congress tackled the challenge of selecting brigadier generals. Again politics reigned supreme. Three were granted to Massachusetts (Seth Pomeroy, William Heath, John Thomas), two to Connecticut (David Wooster, Joseph Spencer), and one each to New York (Richard Montgomery), New Hampshire (John Sullivan), and Rhode Island (Nathanael Greene). Congress gave little regard to these men's seniority within their respective colonial establishments. This proved a serious blunder as rank-conscious officers quarreled with one another about who deserved to command what. Joseph Spencer of Connecticut went home when he learned that his former subordinate, Putnam, was senior to him.

The newly appointed brigadiers all had military experience of some kind. Many had fought in the French and Indian War although none had particularly distinguished himself. When making its first selections, Congress had tried to bridge the gap between provincial jealousy and Continental unity. The result was a mixed bag of military leaders. Some had been promoted beyond their capacity. Others lacked either the physical or moral courage necessary for high command. The sixty-nine-year-old Massachusetts brigadier, Seth Pomeroy, lacked the physical stamina required for field service. Among the most egregious displays of ego, Charles Lee believed that because of his service in the British army he deserved the highest appointment. He proceeded to undermine Washington's standing with Congress. Eventually, Washington replaced Lee after his notable blunders at Monmouth (28 June 1778).

Under British rule American officers had little chance to gain military experience at the higher command levels. Consequently, Congress had to choose among men who had yet to prove themselves. Not surprisingly, many were unequal to the challenge. Yet among the original appointments were several rough gems. Greene developed into one of the best American strategists. Montgomery showed brilliant potential before his death at Quebec (1 January 1776). Heath, through his stewardship of the vital Hudson Highland post, became one of the few generals Washington could entrust with independent command.

The wrangling associated with the selection of only thirteen generals dissuaded Congress from selecting the hundreds of field-grade officers necessary to lead the army at the regimental level. Instead, Congress decided merely to confirm the colonies' recommendations. Like the generals, the field-grade officers needed time and experience to learn the art of command. On 8 December 1775 Congress created a standing committee, composed of one member from each colony, whose job was to review applications for field-grade officers and to report on their qualifications to the full Congress. Thus Congress, although it had the power to appoint and promote all officers above the rank of captain, carefully weighed the preferences of the thirteen states when evaluating officers.

As the war progressed the power to select fieldgrade officers became subsumed in a greater political debate. Congressmen recognized that they were setting a precedent by laying the foundation for an American army and defining that army's relationship to civil rule. Those who wanted a stronger central government wanted more congressional control over the army. Those who wanted to preserve the autonomy of the colonies, and later the states, wanted to retain the power of selection. This debate interfered with the purely military requirement to put the best men in leadership positions.

By the start of 1776, new Continental regiments from the southern and middle colonies had formed. Congress organized four administrative departments: Southern, Middle, Northern, and Canadian. It placed a major general in charge of each department, with Washington retaining his position as commander in chief. Because the expanding war effort required more general officers, Congress elected six more brigadiers: John Armstrong and William Thompson of Pennsylvania, James Moore and Robert Howe of North Carolina, Andrew Lewis of Virginia, and Lord Stirling of New Jersey.

In the summer of 1776, the main army under Washington comprised 31,000 officers and men, its peak strength for the entire war. On 9 August 1776 Congress promoted Heath, Spencer, Sullivan, and Greene to major general and added six more brigadiers. Unique among the original brigadiers, Wooster was passed over for promotion—Congress's punishment for the brigadier's quarrelsome conduct in Canada. In addition to the Continental generals, the militia, which composed some 57 percent of the Main Army, came with their own brigadiers. The states had the power to select officers for the militia.

generals from abroad

When the Americans revolted against British rule, the conflict attracted a host of European military men. Some sincerely sympathized with the rebel cause; others were mere mercenaries who saw better opportunities for promotion in America or impoverished minor nobles seeking to restore their fortunes. Unfortunately, neither American diplomats in Europe, most notably Silas Deane, nor congressmen could evaluate a candidate's true military experience and capabilities. Armed with letters of introduction of dubious validity, European officers swarmed the halls of Congress demanding high-ranking positions. Too often Congress obliged. For example, Congress angered several rank-conscious American generals by elevating Thomas Conway, an Irish veteran of the French army, to the position of inspector general with rank of major general. To make matters worse, Conway was an opinionated officer and a severe critic of Washington's leadership. Congress later defused the volatile situation by backing Washington over Conway when the latter challenged Washington's leadership during the so-called Conway cabal in the winter of 1777–1778.

Overall, Washington considered very few of the foreign officers useful. Most prominent among the exceptions was Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian veteran who had served with Frederick the Great. Steuben began his service as an unpaid volunteer, reporting to Washington at Valley Forge in February 1778. Steuben introduced a new drill system and began personally training the Continentals. Washington recommended and Congress approved his promotion to major general with the position of inspector general. Because of Steuben's invaluable contribution to American military proficiency, he is recalled as the "the first teacher" of the American Army. Another foreign officer who served with distinction was the Marquis de Lafayette, a wealthy young French nobleman whose idealism brought him to America to volunteer. Congress commissioned him major general without command in July 1777. Washington took an immediate liking to the nineteen-year-old. Lafayette behaved gallantly and was wounded in battle at Brandywine, in Pennsylvania, on 11 September 1777, establishing his reputation among Americans.

The second tier of useful foreign officers includes Johann Kalb, known as Baron de Kalb, a remarkable Bavarian soldier who died gallantly at Camden, South Carolina (16 August 1780); the Polish nobleman Casimir Pulaski, a fiery, quarrelsome cavalry leader who received a mortal wound during a foolish cavalry charge at Savannah (9 October 1779); and the Frenchman General Louis Duportail, who taught the rebels the science of military engineering. Another Pole, Thaddeus Kosciusko, also provided useful engineering expertise when planning the Delaware River forts, fortifying the heights at Saratoga, and planning the defense of West Point. He received a brigadier general's brevet in 1783.

partisan leaders

The Revolutionary War featured relatively few formal battles in the European style. Instead the war was fought by means of innumerable outpost battles, ambushes, and raids involving partisan operations. Rebel partisans provided American leaders with useful military intelligence while making life for the British outside of their own picket lines insecure and dangerous. By threatening British supply lines, the partisans largely restricted the British to coastal enclaves and fortified positions. One of the first successful partisan officers was Ethan Allen. Allen achieved national reknown when he led the "Green Mountain Boys" against Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. Later in the war in the Northeast partisans were active in the Lake Champlain valley during the Saratoga campaign and made the area around New York City a ravaged no-man's-land.

It was in the South that American partisan leaders demonstrated a particular aptitude for guerrilla warfare. After the fall of Charleston in May 1780, Francis Marion kept the war alive through his partisan operations in the coastal swamps and forests of lower South Carolina. In the disputed backcountry, three great partisan leaders, Thomas Sumter, William Davie, and Elijah Clark, fiercely resisted British occupation. Sumter was a wealthy South Carolina planter. Although sometimes careless of routine security and guilty of poor tactical judgment, he fought seven set battles against the British and Loyalists. His tenacity made his name a rallying cry for the rebels throughout the Carolinas. Davie was a prominent North Carolina lawyer who outfitted a mixed cavalry and infantry force at his own expense. A skilled swordsman, Davie led his partisans with dash and courage and is reputed to have personally slain more foes with his saber than any other American officer. Clark was a prosperous Georgia farmer. Although overshadowed by more flamboyant leaders, Clark proved a steady and effective guerrilla leader and almost single-handedly kept the rebel cause alive in Georgia after the British conquered the state.

assessing the leaders

Because militia made up such an important part of the rebel force, the ability to use them effectively was crucial. Not all senior officers had this talent. Washington mishandled them during the New York campaign. Gates suffered a rout at Camden when his illpositioned militia broke on first contact. Yet under the command of generals who understood their weaknesses and strengths, militia provided vital service. One week after receiving a militia commission as brigadier general, John Stark raised 1,492 militia, some 10 percent of all men on New Hampshire's list of enrolled voters. He then led them to victory against German professionals at Bennington, Vermont (16 August 1777). Daniel Morgan's fight talk before battle at Cowpens, South Carolina (17 January 1781), perfectly addressed his militia's anxiety. His brilliant tactical placement led to overwhelming victory. Greene followed Morgan's tactical notions regarding the use of militia to inflict serious losses at the pyrrhic British victory of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina (15 March 1781).

On the formal battlefields, energy, drive, and the determination to win or die separated the top tier from the rest. Benedict Arnold possessed these qualities and contributed enormously to rebel success from the war's start through to the decisive action in New York at Saratoga (19 September 1777). When Congress failed to reward Arnold adequately, the sting of thwarted ambition led him into treachery and treason.

When the war began rebel officers gained leadership positions largely on the basis of their political rather than military credentials. Even those men such as Washington who had a lengthy service record were untried at the higher command levels. In the first two years of war, military blunders very nearly undermined the patriot cause. Then, with fortunes at low ebb, Washington conceived and led his brilliant counterstrokes at Trenton (31 December 1776) and Princeton (3 January 1777). But for these victories there would have been no army to win the decisive battle at Saratoga in the summer of 1777 or the final triumph at Yorktown in 1781.

From 1777 on American military leaders displayed increasing competence. Experience nurtured latent talent while combat exposed the cowards, drunks, and weak leaders. The commander in chief learned which men he could trust and placed them in positions of responsibility. By delegating authority to capable subordinates, Washington could attend to higher strategy. Washington gained the strategic insight that as long as he could maintain an effective Continental force, the British could not win the war. Despite the incessant problems created by having too few men and weapons, insufficient supplies, and widespread hunger and disease, he consistently displayed composure and an unwillingness to accept defeat. Washington and the rebel cause became synonymous. Although not a great strategist and an even poorer battlefield tactician, Washington truly was the indispensable leader of the American Revolution.

See alsoArmy, U.S.; Militias and Militia Service; Saratoga, Battle of; Trenton, Battle of; Washington, George; Yorktown, Battle of .


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Ketchum, Richard M. The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

Matloff, Maurice, ed. American Military History. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1969.

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James R. Arnold

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Revolution: Military Leadership, American

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Revolution: Military Leadership, American