Varnum, James Mitchell

views updated

Varnum, James Mitchell

VARNUM, JAMES MITCHELL. (1748–1789). Continental general. Massachusetts-Rhode Island. Born at Dracut, Massachusetts, on 17 december 1748, Varnum entered Harvard College in 1765 and remained until April 1768, his junior year, When he was asked to leave after leading a protest against the college tutors. He entered Rhode Island College (now Brown University) and graduated with honors in its first class in 1769. He was admitted to the Rhode Island bar in 1771, and rapidly became a successful lawyer renowned for his courtroom oratory. A physically powerful man who was interested in gymnastics and military drill, he was elected captain of the Kentish Guards, an elite militia unit in which his friend Nathanael Greene served as a private.

Before dawn on the day of Lexington and Concord (19 April 1775), Varnum was awakened at Dracut by the alarm gun at Tewksbury, where Paul Revere's message had been received at 2 a.m. He was commissioned colonel of the First Rhode Island Regiment on 3 May, and marched to the Boston siege, where he and his regiment served on the right wing of the army in a brigade commanded by Greene, his former subordinate. Varnum re-raised the regiment, now called the Ninth Continental Regiment (Rhode Island) for 1776, and let it go to New York, where it helped to erect fortifications around Brooklyn Heights. The regiment fought in the Battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights (though Varnum was absent), and White Plains. Dissatisfied with his prospects for promotion to brigadier general, he left the continental service in mid-December after the Rhode Island Assembly named him brigadier general of the state militia. On 1 January 1777, he was appointed colonel of the First Rhode Island for 1777, but it was death of his rival Daniel Hitchcock, wounded at Princeton and dead a weak later, that cleared the way for his promotion to brigadier general on 21 February and his return to the continental service. He spent the winter recruiting and overseeing smallpox inoculations, and had just rejoined Washington's army when the British undertook their perplexing "June maneuvers" of the Philadelphia campaign. His brigade of Connecticut and Rhode Island troops was not formally assigned to a division, and he did not receive an order to attack the retreating British forces around Brunswick on 22 June. After taking part in the Battle of Germantown, he displayed personal heroism in the failed defense of Forts Mercer and Mifflin.

He took a dim view of Valley Forge. "The situation of the camp is such that in all human probability the army must soon dissolve," he wrote Greene on 12 February 1778 from that dismal encampment. "It is unparalleled in the history of mankind to establish winter quarters in a country wasted and without a single magazine." After having an active part in the Monmouth campaign, serving in Lee's division, he marched under Lafayette to support General John Sullivan at Newport in July-August 1778. In Rhode Island he advocated that an African American unit be raised, and the battalion that was created performed well in the action of 29 August.

A mutiny broke out in Varnum's brigade in early 1779. After Varnum expressed sympathy for his unpaid troops, he entered into an extended controversy with Sullivan that led to Varnum's resignation from the Continental army on 5 March 1779. Returning to his law practice, Varnum was named major general of the Rhode Island militia in April 1779. In this capacity he supported the French army of Rochambeau in July and August 1780. He was elected in May 1780 to the Continental Congress, serving in 1780–1782 and 1786–1787. In August 1787 Varnum, a director of the Ohio Company (its mandate being to purchase Northwest Territory lands west of the Seven Ranges), was appointed a judge for the Northwest Territory. Although in poor health, he rode on horseback to Marietta, Ohio, arriving on 5 June 1788. He had an active role in framing a code of territorial laws before his death there on 9 January 1789.

SEE ALSO Greene, Nathanael; Monmouth, New Jersey; Newport, Rhode Island (29 July-31 August 1778); Philadelphia Campaign.


Greene, Nathanael. Papers. Vols. 1 to 4. Edited by Richard K. Showman et al. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Rhode Island Historical Society, 1976–1986.

Shipton, Clifford K. Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College, 17. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1975.

Varnum, James M. The Varnums of Dracutt in Massachusetts. Boston: David Clark, 1907.

Walker, Anthony. So Few the Brave (Rhode Island Continentals, 1775–1789). Newport: Seafield Press for the Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, 1981.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles