General Artemas Ward

General Artemas Ward played a key role in the early days of the Revolutionary War. He commanded the American militia forces from mid-April 1775 to early-July, during the Siege of Boston and Battle of Bunker Hill.

Artemas Ward

November 26, 1727–October 28, 1800

Artemas Ward was a general in the Massachusetts militia at the outset of the American Revolution. He assumed command of the colonial forces during the early days of the Siege of Boston and directed operations until General George Washington arrived in July 1775.

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Facts About His Early Life, Education, and Family

Artemas Ward was born in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts on November 26, 1727.

  • His father was Colonel Nahum Ward, one of the founders of Shrewsbury, a local political leader, and an officer in the militia.
  • His mother was Martha Howe.
  • Artemas was the youngest of six children.
  • He went to school locally before going to Harvard.
  • He graduated from Harvard on July 6, 1748.

After graduating from Harvard in 1750, Ward was a teacher in the town of Groton, Massachusetts. While working there, he boarded at the home of the Reverend Caleb Trowbridge. It was there that he met the Reverend’s daughter, Sarah.

  • Ward left his teaching position and returned to Shrewsbury.
  • He married Sarah Trowbridge on July 31, 1750.
  • Artemas and Sarah had eight children together.
  • He received his master of arts degree from Harvard in 1751.

Facts About His Early Business and Political Career

After returning to Shrewsbury, he opened a general store on April 21, 1750. Not long after, he became involved in local politics. Leading up to the French and Indian War, he filled several roles in the governments of the town and the colony, including justice of the peace and representative to the General Court in Boston.

  • He was elected as tax assessor on March 4, 1751.
  • On June 22, 1751, he was elected justice of the peace.
  • He was elected as town clerk and selectman in 1752.
  • He was re-elected as selectman 20 more times over the course of his life.

Facts About His Role in the French and Indian War

He served in the British army during the French and Indian War and participated in the British attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758 (Battle of Carillon) under the command of James Abercrombie. Unfortunately, his health began to suffer during this time, and it would plague him for the rest of his life.

On January 28, 1755, his military career began when he was:

  • Commissioned as a major of the 3rd Regiment of militia for Middlesex County and Worcester County.
  • Commissioned as captain of the 1st Company of Shrewsbury militia.

In August 1757, the French, under the command of General Louis-Joseph Montcalm, laid siege to Fort William Henry, which was located at the southern end of Lake George. When the British were forced to surrender the fort and retreat, there was concern that Montcalm would continue south and attack Fort Edward. Ward and his regiment were ordered to go to Fort Edward to help defend against the impending attack. However, Montcalm went north instead of south, sparing Fort Edward. Ward and his men arrived after the danger had passed.

In 1758, Ward enlisted in the regiment of Colonel William Williams as a major, and he saw action in battle at Fort Carillon when James Abercrombie tried to take the fort from the French.

  • Ward and four companies left Worcester on May 30, 1758, and headed to Lake George.
  • On July 3 Ward was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
  • Williams’s regiment was part of the advance force, which attacked the French lines outside of the fort. The attack was unsuccessful.
  • The regiment was eventually sent home on October 24.

During his time of service as part of Abercrombie’s campaign, Ward met men who would go on to play key roles in the remainder of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, including:

After he returned to Shrewsbury, he was promoted to colonel. Due to his health issues — he had bladder stones —  he was unable to serve in the field, so he put his time and energy into recruiting men for the regiment.

Facts About His Role in the Stamp Act Crisis and Beginning of the American Revolution

After the war, he continued to participate in local politics and held several positions over the years.

  • Town moderator of Shrewsbury.
  • Church moderator.
  • Representative to the General Court for Worcester County county.
  • On January 21, 1762, he was also appointed as a judge for the Court of Common Pleas.
  • He also served on a taxation committee in the General Court with Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

During the Stamp Act Crisis, Ward took an active role in speaking out against British taxation and his stance on the issue created problems for him.  First, his military commission was revoked in 1767 by the Massachusetts Royal Governor, Francis Bernard. Then he was elected to the Governor’s Council in May 1770 but was denied by Bernard’s successor, Thomas Hutchison. Ward’s spot on the council was eventually given to one of the Mandamus Councillors in 1774.

Ward continued to be an advocate for the rights and liberties of the colonists and protested the oppression of Parliament, the King, and the Royal Governor alongside key figures of the American Revolution such as John Adams and James Otis.

After the Boston Tea Party, Parliament decided to punish Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the so-called Coercive Acts. This increased tensions between the colonists and the British. The colonies responded by holding the First Continental Congress and crafting a unified response in opposition to the Coercive Acts.

Massachusetts responded to the Coercive Acts by setting up its own provincial government and also began to prepare for hostilities with the British, and Ward was prominently involved.

  • The Worcester County Commission re-elected him as colonel of the militia on October 3, 1774.
  • He participated in the first Massachusetts Provincial Congress on October 11
  • On October 27, 1774, he was appointed Brigadier General of the Massachusetts militia by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
  • Jedediah Preble and Seth Pomeroy were also appointed as generals, but they were too old to play an active role in preparing the colony for war, so most of the planning fell to Ward.

Facts About His Role in the Revolutionary War

In February 1775, the second Massachusetts Provincial Congress once again appointed him as a general, along with Preble and Pomeroy. Ward also served as a delegate to the Provincial Congress. Unfortunately, all the responsibility put him under a great amount of stress and he began to suffer from bladder stones again. He was forced to spend a considerable amount of time off of his feet and in bed.

When the first shots of the American Revolution were fired, Ward was at home in his bed when the news of Lexington and Concord reached Shrewsbury. Then next morning, he made his way into Boston and took command of the Massachusetts militia that had followed the British back from Concord, and was holding the city in siege.

  • Ward set up his headquarters at the house of Jonathan Hastings.
  • The house also became the meeting place for the Massachusetts Committee of Safety.
  • He was appointed captain general of the Massachusetts troops by the Provincial Congress on April 22.
  • On May 20, the Provincial Congress named him commander-in-chief of all Massachusetts troops.
  • Eventually, the militia units from Connecticut and New Hampshire, which were part of the siege, were placed under his command.

Ward and the Committee of Safety were faced with the incredibly difficult task of continuing the Siege of Boston and keeping the British trapped in the city. The men that made up the American force surrounding the city were militia. They had dropped everything, grabbed their muskets, and answered the call to arms. Most of them were not prepared to be away from their homes, families, and responsibilities for more than a day or two. They were short on food, supplies, clothing, and, maybe worst of all, ammunition. Ward also found himself clashing with the military leaders from the other colonies, who were not necessarily willing to take orders from someone representing Massachusetts.

In mid-June, rumors began circulating that the British were going to attempt to break the siege by fortifying Dorchester Heights, which would allow them to march on American forces at Roxbury. From there, they would march on Charlestown. In response, the Committee of Safety ordered Ward to send troops to build fortifications on Bunker Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula. On the night of June 16, the Americans, led by Colonel William Prescott, built their fortifications on Breed’s Hill.

Ward was appointed by the Second Continental Congress as the senior Major General of the Continental Army and second in command to George Washington, on June 17, 1775. That same day, the British, who woke to see the Americans had fortified Breed’s Hill, launched an offensive on those positions. Although the Americans lost the Battle of Bunker Hill, they fought with bravery and inflicted heavy casualties on the British. Ward was responsible for coordinating troop movements and the overall defense of the site line during the battle, even though he did so from his headquarters.

For the next two weeks, Ward held the siege — and the army — together while Washington traveled from Philadelphia to Boston. Washington arrived at Cambridge on July 2 and Ward relinquished command to him on July 3. Although Washington and Ward worked together during the Siege of Boston, they did not care for each other. Ward did not like the fact that Washington had been named Commander-in-Chief, and Washington did not believe the Massachusetts militia met his expectations of what an army should be. Despite their differences, Ward was placed in command of the right division of the Army on July 22. Charles Lee was put in command of the left division.

Although Ward was elected as chief justice of the court of common pleas on October 17, 1775, he remained in Boston and continued his military service under Washington.

During the siege, Washington tried several times to convince his commanding officers that they should launch an attack on the British. However, the lack of ammunition, cannons, and artillery kept the officers from agreeing to Washington’s plan. However, Henry Knox arrived at Cambridge on January 24, 1776, with a train of artillery that had been transported from Fort Ticonderoga, which had been captured in May 1775 by Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys. On March 4, Ward and his men built fortifications on Dorchester Heights. Some of the cannons from Ticonderoga were placed there and were used to bombard the British ships in Boston Harbor. The British evacuated Boston on March 17th, and never returned for the duration of the war.

On March 22, 1776, with his bladder stones flaring up again, Ward submitted his resignation. He promptly withdrew it, and then resigned again on April 12. The Continental Congress accepted his resignation on April 23. However, Washington asked Ward to stay on until the end of May, until he could find a suitable replacement.

After a replacement was found, Ward was named commander of the Eastern Department on April 4, 1776. He served in that post until March 20, 1777. He was forced to resign due to poor health, and he was replaced in that role by General William Heath.

Facts About His Life After the Siege of Boston

Ward returned home to Shrewsbury and resumed his political career.

  • He served on the Massachusetts Executive Council in 1777 and was eventually elected as its president.
  • He served on a committee that investigated the possibility of launching an attack on the British at Newport, Rhode Island.
  • He served on a committee that investigated the failure of the Penobscot Expedition.

He was elected by the General Court of Massachusetts as a delegate to the Continental Congress on November 18, 1779. He served in Congress in 1780 and was re-elected to serve a second term in 1781. He served the full second term and then retired to Shrewsbury. Soon after, he was chosen to be a state senator.

  • He was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a member of the Federalist party and served Massachusetts in that capacity from October 4, 1791, until March 3, 1795.
  • From 1777 to 1779, he served as the President of the Massachusetts Executive Council, an office similar to Governor.
  • He was elected as Speaker of the House in Massachusetts in 1786.

He was serving as Justice of the Peace of the Worcester Court in 1786 when led a series of attacks on courthouses and other government entities in Western Massachusetts and Worcester County. The brief rebellion came about when farmers who had fought in the Revolutionary War were struggling to make ends meet while the Massachusetts government was raising taxes. The short-lived rebellion, known as Shays’ Rebellion, showed the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation. Ward took the side of the state government in the matter, and would not condone the violent actions of the rebels.

Although his stance on Shays’ Rebellion damaged his popularity, he was still highly regarded for his integrity, fairness as a judge, and honestly as a politician. He was elected to Congress in 1791 and served for two terms, which ended in 1795. Despite his personal dislike for President Washington, Ward was a Federalist.

His problems with bladder stones continued to plague him, and he retired in 1797. He spent the last years of his life with his family. In 1800, he suffered two strokes that left him partially paralyzed. He died on October 28, 1800, and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Shrewsbury.

Significance of General Artemas Ward

After the battles at Lexington and Concord on April 18, 1775, American militia followed the British forces back to Boston, and harassed them the whole way, firing on them from behind trees, behind stone walls, and the inside of buildings. As they moved closer to Boston, more colonial militia from the Massachusetts countryside joined the pursuit of the British. When the British finally reached Boston, they found themselves trapped in the town by the militia. The next day, Artemas Ward arrived at Boston to take command of the Massachusetts militia. As word of the fighting at Lexington and Concord spread throughout New England, militia companies from other colonies marched to Boston to aid Massachusetts. Roughly 20,000 militia surrounded the British during the Siege of Boston, and Artemas Ward was their commander-in-chief until George Washington arrived in early July. Up until that time, Ward was responsible for organizing the militia and maintaining the militia. Without his efforts, the siege may have ended and the British might have been able to retain their position in Boston.

Legacy of Artemas Ward

Although Ward played a key role during the early days of the Revolutionary War, he is overshadowed by Washington and other leaders of the American Revolution that he worked alongside in Massachusetts. Since the early 1800s, his descendants have played a key role in keeping his legacy alive.

In the 1820s, Ward’s grandson, Andrew Henshaw Ward, started studying the history of the family. In 1847, the family erected a monument to General Ward in the Shrewsbury cemetery. That same year, he published a history of the town. In 1851 he published the family genealogy. Andrew set an example for the rest of the family to follow.

In the 1890s, Andrew Ward’s grandniece, Elizabeth, published another history of Shrewsbury. Her history devoted additional pages to General Ward and the family’s role in the development of the town and Worcester County.

The general’s great-grandson, who sometimes referred to himself as Artemas Ward of the Seventh Generation, was a successful merchant and advertising executive. He made millions through advertising in the New York subway and used a portion of his fortune to maintain General Ward’s legacy. IN 1925, he gave the General’s homestead in Shrewsbury to Harvard University, along with a bequest of more than $5 million under the direction that “the income to be applied, among other things, to establish his reputation, too long neglected as a devoted and faithful friend of his country.” Further, Ward instructed the University to preserve the homestead “as a public patriotic museum.”

  • Harvard erected a statue of General Ward in Washington, D.C. in 1938.
  • Harvard established a scholarship fund in Ward’s name to help benefit a graduate student in American history.

Harvard maintains the General Artemas Ward House Museum in Shrewsbury.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Artemas Ward
  • Coverage November 26, 1727–October 28, 1800
  • Author
  • Keywords Artemas Ward, Siege of Boston, Battle of Bunker Hill
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 23, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 29, 2021
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