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Several military leaders played a role in the American Revolutionary War. This is a compilation of some of the most important leaders among the many participants in the war. Militia: a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency or a body of citizens organized for military service.[1] In order to be listed here an individual must satisfy one of the following criteria:

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

United States

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.
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.

When the war began, because the American colonists feared a very strong armed force (also known as a "standing army"), each colony had traditionally provided its own defense through the use of local militia. Each of 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.

General and Commander-in-chief

Name Period of service in the rank, promotions and previous military experience. Termination of service Commentary
George Washington June 15, 1775 to Dec. 23, 1783.[2] Member of the Second Continental Congress. Former Colonel of the Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War.[3]
Resigned at the end of the war.[4]
George Washington was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, reporting to the Second Continental Congress. His activities, including command of the Main Army, the direction of the overall war effort on behalf of the United States, and administration of the entire army, were overseen by the Board of War, established in June 1776. He held the rank of General during the war. He was subsequently appointed Lieutenant General in 1798 and was posthumously promoted to General of the Armies of the United States in 1976.

Continental Army

Major generals

Name Period of service in the rank, promotions and previous military experience. Termination of service Commentary
Artemas Ward June 17, 1775 to April 23, 1776.[2] General and Commander-in-Chief of the Massachusetts troops.[5]
Resigned officially due to "want of health", but really did not want to leave Boston after the British evacuation.[6]
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
Charles Lee June 17, 1775 to January 10, 1780.[2] Half-pay Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, formerly of the 103rd Foot.[7]
Dismissed by Congress.[8]
An experienced British military officer, Lee 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.
Philip Schuyler June 19, 1775 to April 19, 1779.[2] Member of the Second Continental Congress.[9]
Resigned due to a dispute with Horatio Gates.[10]
As head of the Northern Department, Schuyler planned the 1775 invasion of Quebec, but was prevented from leading it by an illness. 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.
Israel Putnam June 19, 1775 to June 3, 1783.[2] Promoted from Colonel of the 3rd Connecticut Regiment.[11]
Resigned officially at the end of the war. However, his active service ended in December 1779 due to a stroke.[12]
Active from the first days of the revolution, Putnam 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.
Richard Montgomery Dec. 9, 1775 to Dec. 31, 1775. (Brigadier General June 22, 1775).[2] Former Captain in the 17th Foot.[13]
Killed in action during the Battle of Quebec.[14]
Leading the Invasion of Canada in 1775 as a brigadier, Montgomery was killed in the Battle of Quebec, without knowing that he had been promoted to major general following the Siege of Fort St. Jean.
John Thomas March 6, 1776 to June 2, 1776. (Brigadier General June 22, 1775).[2] Lieutenant General of Massachusetts Militia.[15]
Died from smallpox during the retreat from Canada.[16]
Active from the beginning of the war in Boston, Thomas 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.
William Heath Aug. 9, 1776 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General June 22, 1775).[2] Major General of Massachusetts Militia.[17] Having a prominent role training troops in the early days of the war at the Siege of Boston, Heath spent most of the war leading the Highland Department, since Washington was apparently not confident of his ability in the field.[citation needed]
Horatio Gates May 16, 1776 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General June 17, 1775).[2]
Half-pay Major in the British Army, formerly of the Royal American Regiment.[18]
Served at first as Washington's adjutant, and then in the Northern Department. He was in command during the pivotal battle of 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.
Joseph Spencer Aug. 9, 1776 to Jan. 13, 1778. (Brigadier General June 22, 1775 from Colonel of 2nd Connecticut Regiment).[2][19]
Resigned because Congress had ordered an investigation of his military conduct.[20]
John Sullivan Aug. 9, 1776 to Nov. 30, 1779. (Brigadier General June 22, 1775 when member of the Second Continental Congress).[2][21]
Resigned due to ill health.[21]
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.
Nathanael Greene Aug. 9, 1776 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General June 22, 1775).[2] Brigadier General of Rhode Island troops.[22] 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.
Benedict Arnold Feb. 17, 1777 to Sept 25, 1780. (Brigadier General Jan. 10, 1776 from Colonel of 20th Continental Regiment).[2][23]
Deserted to the enemy.[24]
A leading force in the early days of the war, participating in the 1775 capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the invasion of Quebec. He played a crucial role in the 1777 Battles of Saratoga, in which he was severely wounded. In 1780 he acquired 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.
William Alexander Feb. 19, 1777 to Jan. 15, 1783. (Brigadier General March 1, 1776 from Colonel of 1st New Jersey Regiment).[2][25]
Died in active service.[26]
Spending most of the war with the Main Army under Washington, he was captured during the Battle of Long Island in 1776 and not long after that, exchanged for Montfort Browne. He also served with distinction in numerous battles in New Jersey and . He died in 1783 shortly before the end of the war.
Thomas Mifflin Feb. 19, 1777 to Feb. 25, 1779. (Brigadier General May 16, 1776 from Quartermaster General with rank of Colonel).[2][27]
Resigned when under investigation by Congress for his actions as Quartermaster General.[28]
Serving in a variety of roles during and after the American Revolution, several of which qualify him to be counted among the Founding Fathers. He was the first Governor of Pennsylvania, serving from 1790 to 1799; he was also the last President of Pennsylvania, succeeding Benjamin Franklin and serving from 1788 until 1790.
Arthur St. Clair Feb. 19, 1777 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General Aug. 9, 1776 from Colonel of 2nd Pennsylvania Battalion).[2][29] Leading troops during the Quebec, New York, and New Jersey campaigns, and 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, but served as an aide to Washington for the rest of the war.
Adam Stephen Feb. 19, 1777 to Feb. 25, 1777. (Brigadier General Sep. 4, 1776 from Colonel of 4th Virginia Regiment).[2][30]
Court-martialed and cashiered for drunkenness and firing on friendly troops at the battle of Germantown.[31]
Leading 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.
Benjamin Lincoln Feb. 19, 1777 to Oct. 29, 1783.[2] Commissioned from Major General of Massachusetts Militia.[32] 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 he was put in command of the Southern Department, he was forced to surrender his army to Sir Henry Clinton when they were surrounded in Charleston in 1780. Exchanged later that year, he was present at the Siege of 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 at War.
Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette July 31, 1777 to Nov. 3, 1783.[2] Captain in the French Régiment de Noailles dragons.[33] Serving with Washington in the Philadelphia campaign, he 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.
Philip De Coudray Aug. 11, 1777 to Sept. 15, 1777.[2] Chef de brigade in the French Corps-Royal d'artillerie.[34]
Died in a riding accident.[34]
Johann de Kalb Sept. 15, 1777 to Aug. 19, 1780.[2] Former Captain and Lieutenant Colonel by brevet in the French Régiment d'Anhalt.[35]
Died of wounds received in the battle of Camden.[36]
Serving under Washington at Valley Forge, he was sent to the Southern Department with Horatio Gates when he took over that department.
Robert Howe Oct. 20, 1777 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General March 1, 1776 from Colonel of 2nd North Carolina Regiment).[2][37] Commanding 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 at Stony Point, and under Washington in the Main Army, where he put down a mutiny in 1781.
Alexander McDougall Oct. 20, 1777 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General Aug. 9, 1776.)[2] Former Colonel of 1st New York Regiment).[38] Active in the New York and Philadelphia campaigns, he spent most of the war in the Highlands Department under William Heath.
Thomas Conway Dec. 13, 1777 to April 28, 1778. (Brigadier General May 13, 1777).[2] Colonel in the French Régiment d'Anjou.[39]
Resigned when he lost his command after the Conway Cabal had been revealed.[40]
Inspector General of the Continental Army. Involved with the Conway Cabal together with Horatio Gates, he later served with Émigré forces during the French Revolutionary War.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben May 15, 1778 to April 15, 1784.[2] (Volunteer Inspector General March 28, 1778.)[41] Former Captain in the Prussian Infantry Regiment von Salmuth.[42] His military drills and instruction, which included swearing and shouting commands to officers, were especially helpful 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.
William Smallwood Sept. 15, 1780 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General Oct. 23, 1776 from Colonel of 1st Maryland Regiment).[2][43] 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. He also commanded the militia of North Carolina for a few months.
Samuel Holden Parsons Oct. 23, 1780 to July 22, 1782. (Brigadier General Aug. 9, 1776 from Colonel of 10th Continental Regiment.)[2][44]
Dissatisfied and in poor health, he repeatedly asked leave to resign but it was not granted by Congress until the end of hostilities.[45]
Henry Knox Nov. 15, 1781 to June 20, 1784. (Brigadier General Dec. 27, 1776 from Colonel of Artillery).[2][46] 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 the most action from New York to Yorktown. He oversaw the creation of an artillery training centre that was a precursor to the United States Military Academy, and later served as the first United States Secretary of War. Knox initiated the concept of The Society of the Cincinnati, formally organizing the society and authoring its founding document as the war ended in 1783.[47][48][49]
Louis Lebègue Duportail Nov. 15, 1781 to June 20, 1784. (Brigadier General Nov. 17, 1777 from Colonel of Engineers).[2][50] Lieutenant-Colonel in the French Corps royal du genie.[51] He oversaw the improvement of defenses throughout the states and directed the engineering efforts at Yorktown.
William Moultrie Oct. 15, 1782 to Nov. 3, 1783. (Brigadier General Sept. 16, 1776 from Colonel of 2nd South Carolina Regiment).[2][52] -

Brigadier generals


Continental Navy

Great Britain

At the head of the British forces was the King, George III. From 1772 to 1778 the office of Commander-in-Chief was vacant, but from 1778 to 1782 Sir Jeffery Amherst held the post, 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 who held this position until the fall of Lord North's government.

Crown and Government officials

Commander-in-Chief of the Forces

Secretaries at War

Commander-in-Chief, North America

Sir Henry Clinton

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

Lieutenant and Major Generals

Brigadier generals

Other notable officers

Royal governors

Frontier leaders

Native Americans

Chief Cornplanter portrait by F. Bertoli, 1796
Chief Cornplanter portrait by F. Bertoli, 1796

The following Native American leaders from various nations took part in the American Revolution:

Chickamauga Cherokee



Mohawk people



Seneca people

Shawnee people


Wyandot people

German principalities

Great Britain hired the services of military troops from a number of German dominions 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".


Civilian leaders



Dutch Republic

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



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Cited literature


Further reading