An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: James Mitchell Varnum, a Renaissance Man Among Washington’s Generals and his contributions !

Jun 20, 2020 by

James Mitchell Varnum, Charles Willson Peale.jpg

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Again, we look at those heroic men who served General Washington during the Revolutionary War, but also our country in many different ways. One such individual was James Mitchell Varnum, whose rise to general under Washington can only be described as meteoric! Where was he born and where did he go to school?

James Mitchell Varnum was born on December 17, 1748 in Dracut, Massachusetts, a community located in Middlesex County. Varnum obviously possessed a superior intellect, as he gained admission into Harvard College. He remained for only a short while at Harvard, choosing instead to transfer to the newly opened College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—better known today as Brown University.

In 1769, he received his Bachelor’s degree with honors in the first class to graduate from that institution. Ironically in light of subsequent events, in his senior thesis he argued that the British colonies in North America should remain loyal to the crown. Deciding to remain in Rhode Island, Varnum initially tried his hand at teaching, but soon began to study for the bar examination under the tutelage of Oliver Arnold, the Attorney General of Rhode Island.

In 1771, he passed his examination, and gained admission to the bar. Choosing the Providence suburb of East Greenwich to make his home, Varnum established a law office there, and had soon built a successful practice. Thus, by the age of 22 James Varnum had achieved great success. Little did he know that his star would soon rise even higher.

  1. What was this individual like personally?

According to accounts that date from after his demise, James Varnum had a magnetic personality and a superior intellect. A chronicle of the early settlers of the Ohio Territory, for example, described him as “a dexterous reasoner, and a splendid orator.” In a speech given to commemorate the founding of Marietta, Ohio, a former classmate of Varnum said that his speeches could “reconcile mankind to the closest bonds of society.” But perhaps the most telling evidence of the high estimation that Varnum enjoyed from his peers comes from the number of positions of authority, both inside and outside the military, that they entrusted him with.

  1. What were his contributions during the Revolutionary War?

Because of the deteriorating relations between Great Britain and its North American colonies, in the fall of 1774 Rhode Island chose to create a number of militia companies in case hostilities broke out between the two sides. One such military entity drew its recruits from East Greenwich. Designated the Kentish Guards, the unit included James Varnum.

Upon its official organization, the members of the new company chose Varnum as their captain. Interestingly, the roster of the Kentish Guards included a private named Nathaniel Greene, who would later rise to the rank of major general in the Continental Army and become Varnum’s superior officer. After learning of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Rhode Island had consolidated its militia companies into three regiments, giving command of the first of them to Varnum. He then led his unit to Boston, where it became part of the force keeping the British Army bottled up in Boston.

Once the British evacuated Boston in March of 1776, the Continental Army transferred its base of operations to New York, where George Washington correctly surmised the British would make their next move. In an attempt to maximize his chances of holding that strategically important city, Washington kept some of his troops in Manhattan while deploying most of his force to Long Island. Varnum’s unit, designated the 9th Continental Regiment since the first of the year, occupied a position in the center of Washington’s defensive line. Unfortunately, the British flanked the American position there during what became known as the Battle of Long Island. Given orders to retreat, Varnum led his men in good order from the field of battle.

Transported to safety in Manhattan on the night of August 29th, Varnum’s men participated in a gradual retreat northward after the British made a successful landing in New York City. Washington’s army briefly halted the pursuing British at the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, but his force suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of White Plains the following month. This setback forced Washington to retreat in a precipitous manner. He managed to avoid the capture of his entire army by crossing the Delaware River to safety in Pennsylvania in December of 1776.

Attrition by then had reduced Varnum’s regiment to less than 200 men, and because of that he received orders to return to Rhode Island to recruit volunteers. While there, Rhode Island promoted him to the rank of brigadier general in its state militia. Because of this, Varnum missed Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton. In February of 1777, Varnum received promotion to the rank of brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Command of his regiment—which had regained its designation as the 1st Rhode Island Regiment—then passed to Colonel Christopher Greene. In his new role, Varnum supervised the troops who successfully defended Forts Mercer and Mifflin in October of 1777, receiving an official commendation for his actions. After wintering with Washington’s army at Valley Forge, Varnum next saw action at the Battle of Rhode Island. There, troops under his command fought well before eventually abandoning the field of battle. In March of 1779, Varnum resigned his position in the Continental Army, choosing to resume his prewar legal career. Two months later, Rhode Island promoted him to major general of its militia, and Varnum served in that capacity to the end of the war.

  1. Following the war, how did he contribute to the founding of our country?

Varnum had actually started to serve his country politically even before the war ended, as he won election to the Second Continental Congress in 1780. At the end of the American Revolution, Varnum became one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati, and organization that only officers who had served in the Continental Army could belong to. In 1786 he returned to Congress, and in 1787 he received an appointment as a judge for the Ohio Territory.

After establishing residence there in 1788, Varnum helped write the legal code for the territory. Unfortunately, by then Varnum’s health had begun to deteriorate, as he started to display symptoms of what we know today as tuberculosis. Varnum died from this condition in January of 1789, and was buried in Ohio.

  1. How do we recognize him today?

In many respects, James Varnum falls into the same category as many of his fellow generals who served competently, but not brilliantly, during the American Revolution. Indeed, with the exception of his role in the defense of Forts Mercer and Mifflin, Varnum did not compile the same record as many of his contemporaries. Having said that, it should be noted that Varnum deserves high marks for a contribution that he made far from the fields of battle.

As previously noted, Varnum’s Rhode Island regiment had suffered a significant reduction in force during the first two years of American Revolution, and the state had given him the responsibility of finding individuals to make good the losses. Varnum soon identified a group of male adults that Rhode Island could call upon: African-Americans.

His suggestion in one sense did not break ground, as the Continental Army had included African-Americans for the first few months of the conflict. In November of 1775, however, the army had adopted a policy of excluding African-Americans from military service. Thus, when Varnum recommended adding African-Americans to the ranks of his regiment, he was simply asking for the reinstatement of a previous practice. But in retrospect, Varnum’s suggestion seems quite radical, because the concept of a segregated army had had two years to become ingrained in the thinking of the American military.

Observing military protocol, Varnum gave his recommendation to George Washington, his commanding officer. As a slave owner, Washington may have had some qualms about arming African-Americans, but he nonetheless sent the recommendation on to the Rhode Island state legislature. In February of 1778, the members of that body passed an act to allow African-Americans to serve in Varnum’s regiment. Free African-Americans simply enlisted in the same manner as white volunteers, but enrolling slaves involved an intermediate step. Once a slave enlisted, he received his freedom, and the state legislature then compensated his owner for his loss. Estimates vary, but most historians believe that between 100 and 140 African-Americans enlisted in 1778.

Throughout the rest of the war, many people referred to Varnum’s unit as “the Black regiment,” and a famous illustration at the time pictured an African-American dressed in that regiment’s uniform. Because of his role in allowing African-Americans to take their rightful place beside their white counterparts in fighting for the independence of the new nation, Varnum should be much better known to the American citizenry.

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