Having gained extensive military experience during the French and Indian War, Virginian Adam Stephen quickly rose through the ranks of the Continental Army officer corps to become one of the earliest promoted major generals. Stephen ably commanded troops in the early days in Virginia under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. Together, they forced British Governor Lord Dunmore to flee to British Navy ships and prevented a loyalist insurgency. Next, Congress ordered Stephen to join Washington’s army as it retreated through New Jersey after the disastrous New York City campaign.
At the subsequent battle of Trenton is where things started to unravel for Stephen. The night before the sneak attack, a patrol from Stephen’s regiment attacked Hessian pickets probably in retaliation for an earlier Hessian attack. When Washington found out, he exclaimed, “You sir, may have ruined all my plans.”[i] In reality, Stephen’s uncoordinated action had the opposite effect because when the Hessian commander heard reports of Washington’s main army, he dismissed them as being associated with Stephen’s skirmishing.
Not the first harsh encounter, there were several earlier episodes of enmity between Washington and Stephen. Prior to the Revolution, Washington questioned Stephen’s military capabilities and personal courage on several occasions. In addition, Stephen challenged Washington for a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgess. Washington, won, but was piqued and had a long memory.
At the next Revolutionary battle, Brandywine, Stephen acquitted himself as well as any officer in an overwhelming rebel defeat. However, before and after the battle, Stephen vociferously expressed his opinions in councils of war, many times in conflict with Washington’s views. In addition, he rubbed some of his fellow officers the wrong way with his straightforward talk and strong opinions.
It was at Germantown, where things finally unraveled for Stephen. An overly complex rebel attack utterly failed leading to another disastrous loss for Washington. Particularly galling, was a deadly friendly fire incident between Anthony Wayne and Stephen’s regiments. The after action report blamed Stephen. Furthermore, it cited Stephen as drunk and not being able to execute his command duties.
Washington relieved Stephen of command and ordered a court martial. Under the direction of Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, a twelve-man court sat in judgment. After extensive testimony, the court found him guilty and recommended dismissal from the army. Washington and Congress affirmed the sentence and Stephen’s military carrier ended.
One would think that it was an open and shut case. Drunk on the battlefield, Stephen was not able to control his troops leading to a friendly fire debacle and a headlong disorderly retreat leading to a horrendous Patriot loss. However, the case is not as open and shut as it first appears. Harry Ward, Stephen’s most comprehensive biographer, states “There is no evidence that Stephen was drunk at the battle of Brandywine to the extent he was unable to perform his duties.”[ii]
Furthermore the rationale for Stephen’s dismissal was vague and lack specificity. The court cashiered Stephen for unofficerlike behavior during the retreat from Germantown and frequent intoxication to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. His chief accuser, Colonel Charles Scott, had a motive of covering up his own performance errors during the Germantown battle. Interestingly, Scott was also Charles Lee’s chief accuser, the only other Continental Army general to be dismissed from the army. Ironically, Washington later passed over Scott for command duties during the 1790 Native American wars due to reports of drunkenness.
To further stir the kettle, Washington replaced Stephen with Marquis de Lafayette who was a friend, a staunch advocate and sure vote in any council of war. While Stephen was a hard drinker (so was the likeable Lord Sterling), he did not mesh with his fellow officers and was not as gifted of a large unit battlefield commander as others. However, in similar situations, generals such as Robert Howe or William Heath were treated differently and relegated to low risk commands. It seems that Stephen’s challenges to Washington’s military judgment and past experiences were the differentiating factors. After 1777, those who lined up behind Washington were rewarded and those who did not were dismissed or downgraded to unimportant commands.
To Stephen’s credit, he kept his head high and went onto establish several productive businesses and to achieve a successful political career. Stephen founded Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) and operated an armaments factory and several other businesses. He represented his county at the Virginia Constitutional Convention and heartily advocated for the ratification of the new Federal Constitution.
In the end, Adam Stephen was probably treated unduly harshly. However, in 1777 when Washington’s leadership was in doubt, Stephen was sacrificed to better align the officer corps and Congress behind Washington’s leadership. As an early and committed patriot, Stephens contributions not just his limitations should be recognized. For more information on his life, there is only one full-length biography written by Professor Harry Ward. Thoroughly researched and even handed, I highly recommend Ward’s book.
Ward, Harry M. Major General Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989.
[i] Harry M. Ward, Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution, Studies in Military History and International Affairs (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2002), 151.
[ii] Harry M Ward, Major General Adam Stephen and the Cause of American Liberty (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 192.