James Mitchell Varnum

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James Mitchell Varnum
James Mitchell Varnum.jpg
James Mitchell Varnum, painted posthumously in 1804 by Charles Willson Peale
Born (1748-12-17)December 17, 1748
Dracut, Massachusetts
Died January 9, 1789(1789-01-09) (aged 40)
Marietta, Ohio
Place of burial Oak Grove Cemetery, Marietta, Ohio
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Continental Army
Years of service 1774–1779
Other work twice elected delegate to the Continental Congress (1780-82 and 1786-87), pioneer to the Ohio Country, justice of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territory
Signature Appletons' Varnum James Mitchel signature.png
Varnum marker in Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta, Ohio
General James Mitchell Varnum, wife Martha Child inset.

James Mitchell Varnum (December 17, 1748 – January 9, 1789) was an American legislator, lawyer, general[1] in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and a pioneer to the Ohio Country.[2][3][4][5][6] "The career of Gen. Varnum was active, but brief. He graduated at twenty; was admitted to the bar at twenty-two; entered the army at twenty-seven; resigned his commission at thirty-one; was member of Congress the same year; resumed practice at thirty-three, and continued four years, was elected to Congress again at thirty-seven; emigrated to the west at thirty-nine, and died at the early age of forty."[7]

James Mitchell Varnum was "a man of boundless zeal, of warm feelings, of great honesty, of singular disinterestedness; and, as to talents, of prodigal imagination, a dextrous reasoner, and a splendid orator. He was a man made on a gigantic scale; his very defects were masculine and powerful, 'and, we shall not soon look upon his like again.'"[8]

Early life

James Mitchell Varnum was born in Dracut, Massachusetts. As a young man he matriculated at Harvard College only to transfer to the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the college later named Brown University),[9] where he graduated with honors in 1769. In Rhode Island he met his future wife, Martha Chile.

Leadership in the American Revolution

In October 1774, while tensions were rising between the American colonies and Great Britain, Varnum was elected as captain in command of the newly organized Kentish Guards, a chartered militia company in Varnum's home town of East Greenwich. Another member of the company was Private Nathanael Greene who would rise to become one of the most distinguished officers in the Continental Army and would soon be Varnum's immediate superior.

In May 1775, following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Varnum was commissioned as colonel in command of one of the three regiments from Rhode Island, under the command of Brigadier General Nathanael Greene, which served in the Army of Observation during the Siege of Boston. In July General George Washington arrived to take command of the Army of Observation which then became the Continental Army.

Varnum continued to command his regiment, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, until he was promoted to brigadier general in February 1777. He then served as a brigade commander until he resigned in March 1779. During his service in the Continental Army he fought at the battles at Long Island, White Plains, Red Bank, at Valley Forge and the Battle of Rhode Island.

Varnum advocated allowing African Americans to enlist in the Continental Army, which resulted in the reorganization of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment as a racially integrated unit in 1778. Varnum was a disciple of Major General Charles Lee and a serious critic of the position of Inspector General held in 1778 by Baron Von Steuben.

Legal career and later life

After Varnum resigned his Continental Army commission because of personal business matters, he was appointed major general in command of the Rhode Island Militia in May 1779 and held the position until he was relieved by Major General (and future U.S. Senator) Joseph Stanton, Jr. in May 1788. He led troops in the service of the United States in July and August, 1780, under the Comte de Rochambeau who commanded allied troops sent by King Louis XVI of France.[10]

In common with 33 of the 81 generals in the Continental Army, Varnum was a Freemason. He attended St. John's Lodge, No. 1 in Providence. [11]

After the Revolutionary War, along with General George Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and several others, he became an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati and served as president of the Rhode Island Society from 1786 until his death in 1789.[12][13]

He later represented Rhode Island at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia from May 3, 1780 to May 1, 1782 and in the 8th Confederation Congress which convened in New York from November 6, 1786 to October 30, 1787. The 8th Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance on July 13, 1787 which opened settlement in the Northwest Territories (now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota).

Varnum was also well known as a jurist. He successfully represented the defendant in Trevett v. Weeden, one of the earliest cases of judicial review. In 1787, Varnum was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territory, and moved to Marietta, Ohio, to take up his duties; he was one of the early pioneers to the Northwest Territory, arriving in Marietta in June 1788.


General Varnum died only seven months later of consumption, and his grave marker is located in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta, Ohio.

His college classmate the distinguished physician Solomon Drowne eulogized him during an oration at the one-year anniversary celebration of the founding of Marietta:

But of these worthies who have most exerted themselves in promoting this settlement, one, alas! is no more; one whose eloquence, like the music of Orpheus, attractive of the listening crowd, seemed designed to reconcile mankind to the closest bonds of society. Ah! what avail his manly virtues now! Slow through yon winding path his corse was borne, and on the steepy hill interred with funeral honors meet. What bosom refuses the tribute of a sigh, on the recollection of that melancholy scene, when, unusual spectacle, the fathers of the land, the chiefs of the aboriginal nations, in solemn train attended; while the mournful dirge was rendered doubly mournful mid the gloomy nodding grove. On that day even nature seemed to mourn. O Varnum ! Varnum! thy name shall not be forgotten, while gratitude and generosity continue to be the characteristics of those inhabiting the country, once thy care. Thy fair fame is deeply rooted in our fostering memories…[14]


General Varnum was the son of Samuel Varnum (1715–1797) and his second wife Hannah Mitchell. He had three brothers and two sisters of which only two brothers, Joseph Bradley Varnum (1751–1821) and Samuel Varnum (1762–1822), lived to maturity.

Joseph Bradley Varnum served as a United States Representative from Massachusetts from 1795 to 1811 and then as a United States Senator from 1811 to 1817.


Varnum's house at 57 Peirce Street in East Greenwich, Rhode Island

General Varnum's home, the Gen. James Mitchell Varnum House in East Greenwich, Rhode Island is a historic house museum today. Varnum's brother was Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Joseph Bradley Varnum.

The Varnum Continentals, an historic military command in East Greenwich, were founded in 1907 and are named after General Varnum.

Dates of rank

  • Captain, Kentish Guards, Rhode Island Militia – November 1774
  • Colonel, Varnum's Regiment, Army of Observation – 3 May 1775
  • Colonel, Varnum's Regiment, Continental Army – 3 July 1775
  • Colonel, 9th Continental Regiment – 1 January 1776
  • Colonel, 1st Rhode Island Regiment – 1 January 1777
  • Brigadier General, Continental Army – 27 February 1777
  • Resigned from Continental Army – 5 March 1779
  • Major General, Rhode Island Militia – May 1779 to May 1788

See also


  1. ^ Heitman, Officers of the Continental Army, 559.
  2. ^ Wilkins, Memoirs of the Rhode Island Bar, 145-239.
  3. ^ Hildreth, Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, 165-85.
  4. ^ Conley, Rhode Island's Founders, 134-37.
  5. ^ Dodge, Directory of the United States Congress 1774-2005, 2089.
  6. ^ Leiter, Generals of the Continental Army, 102-03.
  7. ^ Hildreth, Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, 184-85.
  8. ^ Hildreth, Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, 185.
  9. ^ Charles Theodore Greve (1904). Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens, Volume 1. Biographical Publishing Company. p. 104. Retrieved 2013-05-22. 
  10. ^ "Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution: History - Nathanael Greene, genealogy, reenacting". Rhodeislandsar.org. Retrieved 2013-11-02. 
  11. ^ https://scottishrite.org/scottish-rite-myths-and-facts/george-washingtons-generals/
  12. ^ "General James Mitchell Varnum House Armory History". Varnum Continentals. Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2013-11-02. 
  13. ^ "James Mitchell Varnum". Nps.gov. 2001-10-17. Retrieved 2013-11-02. 
  14. ^ Hildreth, Pioneer History, 520.


  • Conley, P. T.: Rhode Island's Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina (2010).
  • Dodge, A. R.: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-2005, Sixteenth Edition, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (2005).
  • Heitman, Francis B.: Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, Rare Book Shop Publishing Co., Washington, D.C. (1914).
  • Hildreth, S. P.: Biographical and Historical Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, H. W. Derby and Co., Cincinnati, Ohio (1852).
  • Hildreth, S. P.: Pioneer History: Being an Account of the First Examinations of the Ohio Valley, and the Early Settlement of the Northwest Territory, H. W. Derby and Co., Cincinnati, Ohio (1848).
  • Leiter, M. T.: Biographical Sketches of the Generals of the Continental Army of the Revolution, University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1889).
  • Updike, W.: Memoirs of the Rhode Island Bar, Thomas H. Webb and Co., Boston, Massachusetts (1842).
  • Varnum, J. M.: A Sketch of the Life and Public Services of James Mitchell Varnum of Rhode Island, David Clapp and Son Printers, Boston, Massachusetts (1906).

External links

  • Society of the Cincinnati
  • Website of Varnum Continentals
  • Encyclopedia Brunoniana
  • National Park Service Museum Collections: American Revolutionary War
  • Letter from General George Washington to Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum, November 1, 1777[permanent dead link]
  • Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution
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