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Major General Artemas Ward

1727 - 1800

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Seven Years’ War between England and France came to an end. England claimed supremacy of the seas and France gave up all its territories east of the Mississippi river, ending any military threat to the British colonies. During the war, England had taken on substantial debt and looked to the colonies as a source of revenue. The English Parliament decided to levy an internal tax known as the Stamp Act of 1765 on all paper documents in the colonies. Opposition was widespread – with colonists turning to mob violence. The act inspired the political activity of several men who figured prominently in the struggle for independence. 

Artemas Ward, who had risen to the rank of Colonel during the Seven Year’s War and had been appointed a judge of the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas a year earlier was among those roused. His activity in patriot circles commenced with the Stamp Act.


The Governor of Massachusetts, Sir Francis Bernard, who had been appointed in 1760, addressed the violence and the necessity of submission to the provisions of the Stamp Act. He painted in strong sentences the dangers of refusal to abide by them. Colonel Ward's stand against imperial taxation had been quickly recognized, and on the following day he was added to the committee which was preparing an answer to the governor's message. This was Ward's first appointment on a committee of political protest. The reply respectfully acknowledged the authority of the English Parliament, though emphasized its limitations.  It's tone toward Governor Bernard was of sarcasm and dislike. The Stamp Act was repealed four months later in March 1766.

In June 1767, the English Parliament passed the Townsend Acts. They levied taxes on importations of glass, red lead, white lead, painters’ colors, paper and tea. Their purpose was to raise revenue in the colonies to pay political salaries, enforce compliance with trade regulations and set the precedent that the English Parliament was within its rights to tax the colonies.


In January 1768, the Massachusetts House met the Townsend Revenue Acts with a petition to King George III and addressed members of the English ministry remonstrating against taxation levied by Parliament. The Massachusetts Circular Letter, written by Samuel Adams, was sent to the other colonies informing them of its action and suggesting that all possible care be taken that the provinces should harmonize with each other.

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King George III by Allan Ramsay 1762

As tensions grew Governor Bernard warned of possible insurrection but did not specifically request troops from England. Other officials in Boston voiced similar concerns and were now reiterating demands for troops to hold the people in check. The report that troops were coming resulted in a Boston town meeting where it was voted that all inhabitants should furnish themselves with arms, giving as excuse the possibility of another English – French war. In response to the warnings and demands, British Army troops started to arrive in Boston in late 1768. Skirmishes between Patriots and British soldiers became more common. The community was regularly disturbed by quarrels engaging revenue officers, soldiers, citizens and seamen – the disputes occasionally swelling into violence. In June 1769, Colonel Ward took part in a vote unanimously approving a petition requesting Governor Bernard’s removal. A short while later, Bernard was recalled to England, and Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson became acting governor.


By April 1770, all of the Townshend Acts were repealed, except for the duty on tea. The Patriot element continued to fluctuate in fervor, but largely a brief spell of comparative political peace arrived until January 1773, when Hutchinson convened the General Court.  In a lengthy speech, he set forth his views on the relative positions of the American colonies and the English Parliament, and deplored the recent town meetings throughout the province in which the “supreme authority of Parliament had been denied.”  


Colonel Ward was on the Council Committee appointed to reply to Hutchinson. The committee declared that the unrest in the province rose from attempts of Parliament to subject its inhabitants to taxes without their consent; and it cited Magna Carta and other authorities in support of its declaration that Parliament could not constitutionally levy taxes in any form, direct or indirect, on the people of Massachusetts.


But Parliament still believed it had the right to tax the colonies. In 1773 they passed the Tea Act which they said was not to raise revenue, but to revive the East India Company, an important player in the British economy. The Townshend tax on tea was still intact, but many colonists had stopped drinking tea or were smuggling in less expensive Dutch tea.  

The Tea Act allowed the East India Company to ship directly to the colonies without first paying a tax in England, which let the company lower the cost of its tea. It did not, however, lower the tax on tea.  Many colonists saw the act as a way to seduce them into accepting Parliament’s right to taxation. The Tea Act drove colonial resistance and re-energized the boycott on tea, resulting in a group of organized colonists boarding ships in Boston and dumping 342 chests of tea into the harbor. 

Word of the ‘Boston Tea Party’ reached England before the end of January 1774. The British Parliament struck back with the Boston Port Act, closing the port and requiring the city’s residents pay for the tea dumped into Boston Harbor. On May 10, two merchantmen brought copies of the Port Act to Boston. Three days later, His Majesty's ship Lively delivered General Thomas Gage, now commissioned to succeed Hutchinson as governor of Massachusetts. He had come with instructions to close the harbor of Boston; to transfer the port of entry to Marblehead; to remove the capital to Salem; and to punish the leaders of the opposition to British legislation.


General Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley

General Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley.jpg

On June 1, the King’s ships took possession of the harbor. The closing of the port threw hundreds out of employment and brought scores of business houses to an abrupt halt. On June 9, during the General Court session at Salem, the House and Council delivered their replies to General Gage. Prepared by Colonel Ward, their replies stirred the governor to great ire. The council recognized that the position that Gage was assuming had been rendered more difficult by ‘the peculiar circumstances of the times,’ but they hoped that his administration in ‘principles and general conduct’ might be a ‘happy contrast’ to that of his two immediate predecessors. It was reported that when the section requesting a ‘happy contrast’ was read to Gage, he told them to stop reading, declaring that he could not receive an address which reflected so severely on his predecessors. 

On August 9, there gathered in Worcester the first County Convention of Committees of Correspondence and delegates. The fifty-two men who came together represented twenty-two townships. From Shrewsbury came Colonel Ward, accompanied by Phinehas Heywood. The convention adopted a letter to the Massachusetts delegates of the newly forming Continental Congress, which would meet for the first time in Philadelphia on September 5. In the letter they drew up a set of resolutions declaring that the people of Massachusetts owed no obedience to the English Parliament, that they recognized no right but their own to legislate for them, that the charter of the province was the basis of their allegiance to the King of England, and that any attempt to vacate the charter would have a tendency to dissolve the union between Great Britain and the province.

The Worcester County convention sat again on September 20 and 21. The convention emphasized that every town provide itself with one or more field pieces, mounted and fitted for use. They recommended that one third of the men between 16 and 60 years of age be enlisted, to be ready to act at a minute’s warning, otherwise known as minutemen.

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In late October, a Committee of Safety was established with the duties of watchfulness, the power to call out and direct the militia, create a subordinate Committee of Supplies, and appoint general officers to command. It also urged any inhabitants of the province, not already supplied, immediately provide themselves with arms and ammunition. One of the first actions of the Committee was to appoint Colonel Artemas Ward as General and Commander-In-Chief of the colony’s militia.  The appointment was a high tribute to the esteem in which he was held by the province representatives.

Massachusetts was preparing for war against one of the world’s great powers. Many thought the patriots were mad to consider a hostile opposition to the army and navy of Great Britain, but that is what the leaders of Massachusetts were deliberately planning, unless the English government should grant the province total independence.

The first quarter of 1775 was rich with happenings, with the minutemen in various towns drilling and arming.    The Worcester County Convention met again on January 26 for another two day session. General Ward acted as chairman and also served on a committee appointed to “take the affairs of trade into consideration, and to remonstrate against riots and routs.”  The committee’s report declared that the enemies of the Colony’s cause were trying to provoke the patriot party to acts of violence so that they might show them as the aggressors. The committee advised great care in suppressing all acts of violence. It continued that, confident of the justice of their cause, they were determined, firmly and religiously to support and maintain their rights - even to the loss of our lives and fortunes.

The story of Lexington and Concord - the battle of April 19 - are well known. Revere and Dawes and Dr. Prescott riding to arouse the country. The firing of the first shots of the war. The confident tramp of the English onto Concord. The swelling tide of the militia. Then - the retreat of the British regulars.  The speed and stress of running the twenty mile fight back to Boston.

On the morning of April 20, General Ward mounted his horse and set out toward Boston, joining and passing company after company of the militiamen filling the roads, as they also hurried eastward. On Ward‘s arrival at Cambridge he took command of the besieging forces and called a council of war - the first revolutionary council of war. Three general officers were present - Ward himself, William Heath, and John Whitcomb; six colonels, and six lieutenant colonels. General Ward took his place at the head of the council table. He was dressed in the manner of the times: a powdered wig; a long coat with silver buttons; a long waist coat and riding boots.  He was a God-fearing man; strongly believing in and living up to the religion he professed; quiet, thoughtful, and rather over-stern in demeanor. There was no time that afternoon for sentiment or rhetoric, nor to discuss high military or political topics. Instead, the imperative essentials were to position, house, and feed the colonists that had sprung into action and attend to the men marching in from the western counties, from Connecticut and New Hampshire, and later from Rhode Island.

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There quickly arose though, the need for decisive action by the Provincial Congress. It had been 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 no one expected the militia, as such, to keep the field and some of the besieging force had already started to return to their homes and farms.

Many colonists had dropped everything on the alarm, many of them marching in the clothes they had been wearing in the fields, and without a farthing in their pockets. After a few hours in camp, they began to think of their unfinished work at home and reasoned that there was no imperative reason to remain for the Redcoats displayed no indication of conflict. General Ward knew that until the Provincial Congress acted, he was without authority to enlist the men around him, or to pay them, or to hold them in any way. 

On April 23 General Ward wrote to the provincial congress imploring immediate action. “My situation is such that if I have not enlisting orders immediately, I shall be left all alone. It is impossible to keep the men here. I therefore pray that the plan may be completed and handed to me this morning, that you, gentlemen of the Congress, issue orders for enlisting men.”  Congress responded with a declaration to raise of an army of 13,600 men.

On May 19, the Provincial Congress accepted the commission for General Ward and the next day appointed him General and Commander-in-Chief of the Massachusetts forces.

On June 17, Congress appointed Artemas Ward a Major General - second in command to General George Washington. Over the next nine months he helped convert the assembled militia units into the Continental Army.

Charles Martyn, The Life of Artemas Ward, The First Commander-In-Chief of the American Revolution (Artemas Ward, New York, 1921)

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