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This Day in History: The General who almost superseded George Washington

On this day in 1727, a Patriot is born. In later years, some people would think that Artemas Ward was the obvious choice to lead the American army through the long Revolutionary War years—not George Washington!


Can you imagine our nation today if there had never been a General Washington?

Probably not. But what you don’t know is that there might not have been an army to lead in the first place, but for Ward’s contributions during the early weeks of the war.


Ward was a graduate of Harvard College who was popular and respected in his community. He was elected to public offices and fought in the French and Indian War. When tensions rose with England, he was at the forefront of the Patriot cause. The Royal Governor stripped Ward of his command, but Ward reportedly declared that he was “twice honored.” It was “evidence that I am, what he is not, a friend to my country.”


The colonial government in Massachusetts later named Ward a brigadier general.   Thus, when the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord, Ward left to meet the Massachusetts militia outside Boston. Once there, he discovered a problem.


One of Ward’s early biographers explains the “duty of the Massachusetts militia to turn out on an alarm—to the last man if need be—and to march at a moment’s notice to ‘repel,’ ‘pursue,’ and ‘destroy’ whatever enemy had put the province—or the township—in peril. But neither law nor tradition expected the militia, as such, to keep the field.” In short, many of these men thought they could simply go home once the immediate crisis had passed.


Clearly, that wouldn’t work in this situation. The colonists had the British trapped in Boston. They couldn’t just up and leave, as tradition might allow. Something had to be done! Thanks to Ward’s leadership, these men were held together and maintained a siege of Boston. Ward also ensured that the ad hoc army took up its strategic position at Bunker’s Hill.


Ward was effectively commander of the first American army—essentially a conglomeration of militia from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, gathered outside Boston.


Meanwhile, the Continental Congress was in Philadelphia, considering the creation of a Continental Army. Ultimately, George Washington would be appointed as its Commander-in-Chief and would take over Ward’s position outside Boston. The two men had different leadership styles and did not always see eye-to-eye. Nevertheless, Ward remained throughout the Siege of Boston. Once the British evacuated, he resigned from the army, citing health problems that he’d had since the French and Indian War. Ward’s resignation was ultimately accepted, but he also agreed to serve in Massachusetts until he could be replaced.


In retrospect, one wonders if Ward could have held the Continental Army together through the long Revolutionary War years, as Washington did. Scribners Monthly would later describe Ward as “loyal rather than an inciter to loyalty; ready rather than ambitious. . . . [A plain man] who did his duty modestly and effectively, his life offers little to fascinate and much to respect.”


He may have been a plain man, and his contributions might live in the shadow of Washington’s. Nevertheless, Ward made important early contributions that made the existence of an American army possible.


Primary Sources:

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