General John Cadwalader


General John Cadwalader commanded Pennsylvania troops during the American Revolutionary War. He participated in several key battles, won the trust of General George Washington, and participated in a duel with General Thomas Conway after Conway conspired to have Washington removed as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

General John Cadwalader, Portrait

General John Cadwalader. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Quick Facts

  • Born on January 10, 1742, in Trenton, New Jersey.  His parents were Thomas Cadwalader and Hannah Lambert.
  • He attended the Academy and College of Philadelphia from 1751 to 1758. He did not finish his education. He left school early to go into business with his brother, Lambert.
  • On September 25, 1768, he married Elizabeth Lloyd. They had six children together.
  • He commanded the Philadelphia Associators in during the 10 Crucial Days in New Jersey, which took place during the Winter Campaign of 1776–1777.
  • In 1778, he fought a duel with General Thomas Conway in protest of Conway’s attempt to replace George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
  • He died on February 10, 1786, in Kent County, Maryland.


In the early days of the American Revolution, Cadwalader was a member of the Philadelphia Committee of Safety. He was also the Captain of the City Troop, which was also referred to as the “Silk Stocking Company.” Nearly all the members of his company went on to hold commissions in the Continental Army during the course of the American Revolutionary War.

When Philadelphia called up the Philadelphia Associators to fight the British, Cadwalader was appointed as a Colonel and then promoted to Brigadier General. He was put in command of the Pennsylvania troops during the Winter Campaign of 1776 and 1777.

10 Crucial Days in New Jersey — Trenton and Princeton

In preparation for the Battle of Trenton, Cadwalader and his men were not able to cross the Delaware River into New Jersey on Christmas night and were unable to join General George Washington in the surprise attack on the Hessian troops.

Cadwalader mistakenly assumed Washington had not been able to cross, and when he learned of the American victory, he was embarrassed that he had stayed in Pennsylvania. After the British broke up their camps near Trenton along the Delaware River and moved north to Princeton, Cadwalader crossed over the river and occupied Trenton.

On December 27, Cadwalader sent word to Washington that he had been reinforced by militia from Pennsylvania, under the command of General Thomas Mifflin, and that he was moving toward Burlington. He was also able to obtain detailed information about the British positions in Princeton, which he passed on to Washington. Cadwalader also told Washington the British were retreating and that as the American forces moved through towns the people were removing the red rags nailed to their doors, which indicated they were Loyalists.

Unfortunately, Washington could not join Cadwalader right away. He was short on food and was faced with the fact that the enlistments for most of his men ended at midnight on December 31. He wanted to launch another attack on the British while he had his men and had momentum. He offered his men a bounty of 10 dollars to extend their enlistment for six more weeks and many of them accepted the offer.

On December 30, Washington led his men back over the Delaware River and occupied Trenton. He had around 5,200 men, including 3,600 Pennsylvania militia who arrived to reinforce him. Washington’s men were not only tired and inexperienced but were inspired by the victory at Trenton.

Second Battle of Trenton — Assunpink Creek

American forces were scattered around Trenton. When Brigadier General William Howe heard about the American victory at Trenton, he ordered General Charles Cornwallis to take command of the British forces gathered at Princeton.

Washington anticipated an attack from Cornwallis, and moved his forces to the shore of Assunpink Creek, outside of Trenton. Colonel Edward Hand and others were southwest of Maidenhead on the Trenton Road. Cadwalader was at Bordentown, south of Trenton.

After a small skirmish at Maidenhead on January 2, Cornwallis marched on Washington and his men, who were pinned in with their back to the Assunpink Creek. The Americans were able to keep the British from crossing the river. When Cornwallis decided to allow his men to rest, Washington was able to plan an escape, which was perfectly executed in the middle of the night. He marched his men around the right flank of the British forces, completely undetected.

Battle of Princeton

Washington marched on Princeton, where Cadwalader and his men joined in the fighting near Clarke’s Farm. The British fired on Cadwalader and his men with artillery, and the Pennsylvania line started to break. In the midst of the battle, Washington rode into the fray and called for the retreating Americans to rally around him, despite intense fire from the British. American artillery under command of Joseph Moulder opened fire on the British and pushed them back toward Clarke’s farmhouse. When his main force was in position, Washington rushed to the front of the line and the Americans lost sight of him through the smoke. When he reappeared the Americans rallied and Washington ordered them to charge the British.

From there, American forces pushed into Princeton and routed the British. Washington and his men moved out of Princeton just as Cornwallis and his men arrived. The American rear guard covered Washington’s escape by removing the wood planks from Stony Creek Bridge, which force the British to wade across the creek. The Americans fought them off long enough for Washington to march north along the Millstone River to Somerset Court House.

Winter in Morristown, New Jersey

Cornwallis wanted to mount another attack on the Americans, but Washington moved north to Morristown, New Jersey. The area provided hills covered with thick woods, which would help protect the Americans from a British attack.

On January 4, Washington and the Continental Army continued their march north and arrived at Morristown over January 5th and January 6th, where they established winter headquarters. The position put the Americans on the flank of the British line. This caused General Howe to withdraw all British troops in New Jersey, including Cornwallis and his men, back to New Brunswick.

Cadwalader Remains with the Pennsylvania Militia

Later in January, Washington requested Congress to appoint Cadwalader to the Continental army, describing him as “a man of ability, a good disciplinarian, firm in his principles, and of intrepid bravery.”

On February 21, 1777, Congress offered Cadwalader a commission as a Brigadier General in the Continental Army.  However, he declined because he wanted to remain in the Provincial service with the Pennsylvania Militia.

Over the course of 1777, he fought in the Philadelphia Campaign and took part in the Battle of Brandywine and the Battle of Germantown.

He also helped organize the Maryland Militia, at the request of Washington.

In early 1778, Congress voted to appoint Cadwalader as a General of the cavalry. Even though the vote was unanimous, he declined again, because he felt he would be more useful to the cause leading the Pennsylvania forces.

Duel with Thomas Conway

After the British captured Philadelphia, General Thomas Conway and others conspired with members of Congress, including Benjamin Rush, to replace Washington as Commander-in-Chief with General Horatio Gates.

Cadwalader was a strong supporter of General Washington and when he learned about the “Conway Cabal” he challenged Conway to a duel. This account of the duel from the “Anecdotes of the Revolutionary War,” was written by Alexander Garden and published in 1822.

“The particulars of this duel, originating in the honorable feelings of General Cadwalader, indignant at the attempt of his adversary to injure the reputation of the Commander-in-Chief, by representing him as unqualified for the exalted station which he held, appears worthy of record.

Nor ought the coolness observed on the occasion by the parties, to be forgotten, as it evinces very strongly, that though imperious circumstances may compel men of nice feeling to meet, that the dictates of honor may be satisfied, without the smallest deviation from the most rigid rules of politeness.

When arrived at the appointed rendezvous, General Cadwalader, accompanied by General Dickinson of Pennsylvania, General Conway by Colonel Morgan of Princeton, it was agreed upon by the seconds, that, on the word being given, the principals might fire in their own time, and at discretion, either by an off-hand shot, or by taking a deliberate aim.

The parties having declared themselves ready, the word was given to proceed.

General Conway immediately raised his pistol, and fired with great composure, but without effect.

General Cadwalader was about, to do so, when a sudden gust of wind occurring, he kept his pistol down and remained tranquil.

‘Why do you not fire, General Cadwalader?’ exclaimed Conway.

‘Because,’ replied General Cadwalader, ‘we came not here to trifle. Let the gale pass, and I shall act my part.’

‘You shall have a fair chance of performing it well,’ rejoined Conway, and immediately presented a full front.

General Cadwalader fired, and his ball entering the mouth of his antagonist, he fell directly forward on his face.

Colonel Morgan running to his assistance found the blood spouting from behind his neck, and lifting up the club of hair, saw the ball drop from it. It had passed through his head greatly to the derangement of his tongue and teeth but did not inflict a mortal wound. As soon as the blood was sufficiently washed away to allow him to speak, General Conway, turning to his opponent, said, good-humoredly, ‘You fire, General, with much deliberation, and certainly with a great deal of effect.’

The parties then parted, free from all resentment.”

Thanks from Washington for His Service and Leadership

Cadwalader went on to participate in the Battle of Monmouth and saw action in other battles during the remainder of the war. Throughout the conflict, he consistently received thanks from Washington for his efforts.

Later Years and Death

After the war, Cadwalader moved to Maryland and was elected to the state legislature. He died from pneumonia on February 10, 1786, and was buried at Shrewsbury Chapen in Kent County, Maryland.

His epitaph was written by Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis.” The epitaph reads:

“His early and inflexible patriotism will endear his memory to all true friends of the American Revolution. It may with strictest justice be said of him, that he possessed a heart incapable of deceiving. His manners were formed on the nicest sense of honor and the whole tenor of his life was governed by this principle. The companions of his youth were the companions of his manhood. He never lost a friend by insincerity nor made one by deception. His domestic virtues were truly exemplary and while they served to endear the remembrances they embitter the loss of him to all his numerous friends and connections.”