Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2020-103
30 Nov. 2020
Review by Ricardo A. Herrera, School of Advanced Military Studies
Washington's Revolutionary War Generals
By Stephen R. Taaffe
Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2019. Pp. xi, 342. ISBN 978–0–8061–6431–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2020, 18th Century, American War of Independence, Leadership Print Version

During the American War of Independence, the Continental Congress appointed or promoted sixty-four men to the rank of brigadier general and another twenty-nine to major general. They served in various departments of the Continental Army with mixed degrees of success. To call them a motley bunch would be an understatement. As historian Stephen Taaffe (Stephen F. Austin State Univ.) puts it, "With a few notable exceptions such as [Henry] Knox, most of [George] Washington's subordinate generals were mediocre at best, and frequently a good bit worse than that. They failed to demonstrate much strategic, tactical, or administrative acumen" (5). American colonial society produced some talented political leaders and theorists, but not many particularly competent military commanders. Taaffe blames the "colonies' peculiar decentralized political culture" (5), lack of experience, and colonists' fear of standing armies and the placemen they spawned. And, too, the deference paid to social elites as presumed natural leaders impeded the rise of more accomplished generals. Regional and state jealousies, egotism, personal disputes, provincialism, overwork, and inexperience often stalled Congress's attempt to repair the officer selection system. The delegates were, after all, the representatives of thirteen autonomous republics united in a confederation, who looked after their own interests before those of the so-called United States. Seniority and politicking by delegates, governors, and generals combined, and the inefficiencies continued unabated.[1]


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Taaffe's previous studies in military history have concentrated on senior commanders and their campaigns.[2] In Washington's Revolutionary War Generals, he provides a solid overview of operations and useful biographical sketches of the generals who served under Washington. His performance assessments are straightforward and fair, but are sometimes flawed by an under-appreciation of historical context.

Taaffe notes the punctilious, often querulous nature of the general officer corps. As a group, they were quick to take offense at any perceived slight. In the manner of early-modern European officer corps, "independent-minded local leaders were more familiar with giving directions and following their own inclinations. Like Washington, they were inordinately sensitive to their honor and often placed satisfying it ahead of military necessity" (13). True enough, but there is more to the story than this. While many of the generals ranked among the social and economic elites in their home colonies, some, like Brig. Gen. John Glover of Massachusetts, were not far removed from the socio-economic class of the soldiers they commanded. Like field and company grade army officers, they were a notoriously prickly bunch, intensely concerned with appearances and the "proper" conduct and bearing of officers.

The author stresses as well Washington's skill in managing his generals based on an understanding of their personalities, aptitudes, and shortcomings. He particularly favored (and ignored the faults of) those who showed promise, among them, Nathanael Greene, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John Sullivan. In short, Washington's leadership qualities went beyond tactical and strategic acumen to getting the best out of less promising officers or at least mitigating their faults.

Taaffe observes that the generals often lacked tactical, strategic, and administrative competence. Washington himself demonstrated all these traits throughout the war, yet he, too, matured and developed, if unevenly. His plans for Trenton in December 1776 and Germantown in October 1777 entailed too many moving parts and high risks of failure. In the event, one succeeded, the other did not. Yet, despite the pervasive mediocrity of Continental Army generals, some possessed an acute sense of strategy and the implications of military actions beyond the battlefield. Before the Continental Army took a position at Whitemarsh (Nov. 1777) after its failure at Germantown the previous month, Washington held a council of war to discuss its next moves. In particular, he repeatedly asked his generals whether the army should wage a campaign before seeking winter quarters, constantly revising his thinking about the relevant operational and strategic environments based on their responses, which ranged from laconic to painfully prolix. They addressed the tactical and strategic implications of success and failure, the potential effects on Continental currency, and the images of the army and Washington himself, among many other things. In short, Washington's generals were more strategically astute than Taaffe gives them credit for.

Middling though they were, the Continental Army's generals learned on the job, some better than others. When compared to their opponents, Washington's generals were good enough. It is true that, more often than not, George III's generals prevailed on the battlefield and their troops were, by and large, superior to the Continentals. But to focus narrowly on battlefield victories is myopic and misleading. As in all early-modern armies, the king's generals were fundamentally tactical creatures whose greatest victories went for naught. General Sir Henry Clinton's campaign to conquer the Southern colonies was an able bit of soldiering, but he and his subordinates squandered their successes by alienating Carolinians and the Overmountain Men. Their chimera of a Loyalist uprising came to a definitive end at Yorktown in 1781. At the end of each campaign season, even with the Continental Army on the ropes, not one British campaign was a strategic success.

The author of Washington's Revolutionary War Generals is not so much preoccupied with the generals themselves as with Washington's skillful molding of a disparate group into a team by praising many, sidelining others, and correcting a few. Taaffe has produced a useful overview of the voluminous scholarship on the generals' lives and battlefield performance, but his greatest contribution lies in his stress on the managerial and political talents Washington brought to bear on improving his army's senior leadership. He also shines a welcome light on selection and promotion processes and the interplay between Washington, Continental Congress delegates, and the colonels and generals jockeying for position.

[1] See, further, Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April, 1775, to December, 1783, rev. ed. (Washington: Rare Book Shop, 1914) 9–10.

[2] E.g., Commanding Lincoln's Navy: Union Naval Leadership during the Civil War (Annapolis: Naval Inst Pr, 2009); Marshall and His Generals: US Army Commanders in World War II (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 2011); Commanding the Army of the Potomac (id., 2006); The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777–1778 (id., 2003); MacArthur's Jungle War: The 1944 New Guinea Campaign (id. 1998).

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