Philemon Dickinson — New Jersey Hero of the American Revolution


Philemon Dickinson was a Patriot leader from New Jersey during the American Revolution and a Brigadier General in the New Jersey Militia during the American Revolutionary War.

Philemon Dickinson, General, American Revolution, NYPL

Philemon Dickinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Philemon Dickinson Quick Facts

  • Born — Philemon Dickinson was born on April 5, 1739.
  • Parents — His parents were Samuel Dickinson and Judith Troth.
  • Died — Dickinson died on February 4, 1809, at the age of 69.
  • Famous For — Dickinson is most famous for defending New Jersey during the American Revolutionary War.

Philemon Dickinson Overview and History

Philemon Dickinson was a soldier and politician from New Jersey who rose to prominence during the American Revolution. Dickinson served as a Brigadier General in the New Jersey Militia. In 1777, he was promoted to Major General and became the Commander-in-Chief of the state militia.

Early Life and Famous Brother

Dickinson was born on April 5, 1739, in Talbot County, Maryland. In 1757, he went to Philadelphia to attend the College of Philadelphia. Afterward, he studied the law and was an apprentice for his brother, John Dickinson, a Founding Father who is known as the “Penman of the Revolution.”

John Dickinson, Illustration
John Dickinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Hermitage in Trenton

However, Philemon decided to end his legal studies. He returned to New Jersey, where he took over management of the family estate. In 1767, he married and moved to a farm outside of Trenton, New Jersey, which he called “The Hermitage.”

New Jersey Militia

In July 1775, he became a Colonel in the Hunterdon County Militia. A few months later, on October 19, he was appointed as Brigadier General in the New Jersey Militia. In 1776, he was appointed to the New Jersey Provincial Congress.

Dickinson and his men were with General George Washington during the Retreat Across New Jersey (1776) and into Pennsylvania.

The Battles of Trenton

During the Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776), Dickinson was with General James Ewing and his brigade. Ewing was supposed to cross the Delaware River at Trenton Ferry and block the Hessian escape routes over Assunpink Creek. However, Ewing and his men were unable to cross the river.

After the first shots of the battle were fired, Hessian troops retreated to Dickinson’s farm, “The Hermitage,” which was occupied by a contingent of Hessian Jaegers and the British dragoons.  

The Americans attacked the Hessians in a fast, furious assault. A Hessian Lieutenant said, “…the rebels were coming in strong force already at the Dickinson House…with bayonets fixed.”

Although Dickinson was on the other side of the river, he ordered American artillery units to fire on his estate, helping drive the British forces away, despite causing significant damage to his property.

Dickinson fought at the Second Battle of Trenton (Assunpink Creek) on January 2, 1777.

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, Trumbull, Painting
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776, by John Trumbull. Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery.

The Forage War

Following the Battle of Princeton (January 2, 1777), Washington and the Continental Army moved into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. Over the winter, the Americans sent foraging parties out to look for food and to raid British supply lines.

On January 20, 1777, Dickinson led a force consisting of 400 New Jersey Militia and 50 Pennsylvania riflemen and engaged a British foraging party at Somerset Courthouse, located on the Millstone River in New Jersey. After a brief but intense battle, the British withdrew.

Commander-in-Chief of the New Jersey Militia

Dickinson resigned from his commission on February 15, 1777. However, he was appointed as Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the New Jersey Militia on June 6. He held this position for the remainder of the war.

Philadelphia and Monmouth

During the Philadelphia Campaign (June–December 1777), Dickinson and his militia forces were active in the field. Although Dickinson was at the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777), he did not play a significant role.

On May 9, 1778, British forces led by Major John Maitland raided Trenton. Dickinson led a successful attack that forced the British to withdraw. On May 14, he stopped another British raid on Bordentown.

In the Monmouth Campaign (June–July 1778), Dickinson and his militia played a key role in disrupting the British retreat across New Jersey by destroying roads and bridges and providing valuable intelligence.

The Cadwalader-Conway Duel

On July 4, 1778, General John Cadwalader fought a duel with General Thomas Conway. The dispute was over the conspiracy known as the “Conway Cabal,” where some officers and members of Congress conspired to replace George Washington with General Horatio Gates. Dickinson, who was Cadwadaler’s cousin, acted as his second in the duel. Although Cadwalader and Conway both survived, Conway was seriously wounded when Cadwalader shot him through the mouth.

Raid on Springfield

In June 1780, General Wilhelm von Knyphausen led British forces in a raid on Springfield, New Jersey. At the time, Dickinson and his men were under the command of General Nathanael Greene.

As the British approached Springfield on June 23, they encountered American regulars led by Greene, along with Dickinson and the New Jersey Militia. The Americans conducted several delaying actions against the advancing British forces, eventually forcing Knyphausen to withdraw. 

Political Career, Later Years, and Death

Starting in 1778, Dickinson ran for the office of Governor of New Jersey. In total, he ran three times, and each time he lost to William Livingston.

From 1782 to 1783, during his brother’s tenure as President of Delaware, Dickinson represented Delaware as a delegate to the Confederation Congress. Following this, in 1783 and 1784, he was Vice President of the New Jersey State Council. 

In 1785, Dickinson, Robert Morris, and Philip Schuyler were placed on a commission by the Confederation Congress and tasked with selecting the site for the nation’s capital. Dickinson wrote a report that named Trenton as the top choice, and Philadelphia as the second choice.

Dickinson ran for the U.S. Senate in 1789 but lost to William Paterson. However, Paterson vacated the seat when he was elected Governor, and Dickinson served the remainder of the term in the Senate, from 1790 to 1793.

Dickinson died at his home in Trenton on February 4, 1809.

Interesting Facts About Philemon Dickinson

  • Dickinson supported New Jersey’s Non-Importation Resolutions (November 7, 1765), which protested the Stamp Act.
  • In 1767, he married Mary Cadwalader, his first cousin.
  • The New Jersey Constitution included a clause that made it null and void if Britain decided to accept colonial demands.
  • During the New York Campaign (1777), Dickinson and his men operated in Eastern New Jersey, guarding against British forces on Staten Island and New York.
  • On the night of January 1, 1777, Dickinson and his men remained at the camp at Assunpink Creek while General Washington and the Continental Army moved around the British and marched to Princeton.
  • As the “second” in Cadwalader’s duel with Conway, it was Dickinson’s responsibility to ensure the rules of the duel were followed.
  • Because Dickinson owned large amounts of land in Delaware and New Jersey, he was eligible for election in both states.

Philemon Dickinson APUSH Review

Philemon Dickinson is associated with APUSH Unit 3: 1754–1800, which is part of our Guide to AP US History (APUSH).

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Philemon Dickinson — New Jersey Hero of the American Revolution
  • Date 1739–1809
  • Author
  • Keywords Philemon Dickinson, American Revolution, American Revolutionary War, John Dickinson, New Jersey Militia, Battle of Trenton, Battle of Assunpink Creek, Forage War, Philadelphia Campaign, Battle of Monmouth, Cadwalader-Conway Duel, Raid on Springfield
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 1, 2024