Ward, Artemas

views updated

Ward, Artemas

WARD, ARTEMAS. (1727–1800). American politician and Continental general. Massachusetts. Artemas Ward was born in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, and was graduated from Harvard College in 1748. He opened a retail store in his home town, married, and became a prominent figure in local political and judicial affairs. Appointed a major in the local militia regiment on 28 January 1755, Ward turned out with his men in August 1757 when the French took Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George. The next year he was appointed major in Colonel William Williams's Massachusetts provincial regiment, was promoted lieutenant colonel on 3 July 1758, and five days later participated in James Abercromby's disastrous attack on Ticonderoga. He returned from that campaign with his health permanently impaired.

A strong and vocal supporter of colonial rights, he worked with Samuel Adams and other leaders to oppose the Stamp Act in 1765. In retaliation, the royal governor, Francis Bernard, removed him from the colonelcy of the local militia regiment to which he had been appointed on 1 July 1762. From that point on, Ward was a principal leader of the resistance in Worcester County. He believed that Providence had blessed Massachusetts and its inhabitants as the chosen people, and that British policies were interfering with that happy relationship. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed him a brigadier general on 26 October 1774, and promoted him to senior major general on 15 January 1775. Sick in bed when news of the Lexington alarm (19 April) reached him, he rode at dawn the next day to assume command of the forces around Boston, and directed operations until Washington arrived on 2 July. On 19 May the provincial congress named this stern-looking man of medium height, heavy in body and slow of speech (Freeman, George Washington, III, p. 477), as commander in chief of the Massachusetts army. In that position, Ward also exercised significant coordinating authority over the contingents from other colonies. Involved in planning the occupation of the Charlestown peninsula in mid-June 1775, he ably funneled men and material to the battle of Bunker Hill (17 June) from his headquarters at Cambridge.

On the same day, in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress appointed Ward the senior major general of the Continental army, second only to George Washington as commander-in-chief. Washington and Ward had a sometimes tense working relationship. Although Washington placed Ward in command of the important right wing of the American army at Roxbury, Ward, understandably, was disappointed about being superseded as commander-in-chief. He also resented Washington's evident conviction that troops of the Boston army, including those from Massachusetts, left something to be desired in the way of military proficiency.

After the British evacuated from Boston, Ward submitted his resignation (22 March), withdrew it, and then resubmitted it on 12 April. On 23 April Congress accepted it with little appearance of reluctance, but at Washington's request Ward retained his post until the end of May, until the problem of a replacement could be solved. Tensions exploded when Washington wrote Ward that he had been informed that troops performing outpost duty on Bunker Hill and Dorchester Neck were being excused from work on the city's fortifications. Ward fired back on 9 May that this information was an "injurious falsehood" and complained that "because 1,500 men could not throw up the works as fast as 6,000 or 7,000 had done in time past, there appeared to some an unaccountable delay." When he learned that Ward had withdrawn his original resignation, Washington wrote Charles Lee that Ward probably wanted to stay by "the smoke of his own chimney." The Massachusetts authorities had begun to indicate some dissatisfaction with Ward's performance, and when this was reported to Washington he asked (13 May), "If General W is judged an improper person to command five Regiments in a peaceful camp or garrison … why was he appointed to the first military command in the Massachusetts government?" After giving up direct responsibility for the defense of Boston, Ward remained as commander of the Eastern Department until succeeded by William Heath on 20 March 1777.

Ward remained an important leader in Massachusetts civil government, to the extent his poor health would allow. He was a member of the Executive Council (1778 and 1780–1782), a delegate to the Continental Congress (1780–1781), and a member of the state legislature (1782–1787). He strongly opposed Shays's Rebellion, to the point of standing before insurgent bayonets on 5 September 1786 in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the Worcester County courts open. A Federalist, he sat in the House of Representatives from 1791 until illness forced him to resign in 1795. He died at his home (still standing) in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

Of this austere, unsympathetic Yankee who might well have had Washington's task, Douglas S. Freeman has this epitaph: "Perhaps he deserved more credit than he received. He kept the Army together in front of Boston until Washington came, and after that, however much he felt aggrieved, he did not add to his successor's difficulties by organizing the discontented" (George Washington, III, p. 495a). Ward's papers are scattered among the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Massachusetts State Archives, and the American Antiquarian Society.

SEE ALSO Boston Siege; Washington, George.


Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. 7 vols. New York: Scribner, 1948–57.

Martyn, Charles. The Life of Artemas Ward. New York: A. Ward, 1921.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky