Friday, June 12, 2015

Remembering Jemima Warner

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.

Why to some heroes achieve fame while others do not?

Most Americans are uninterested in most details of American history. If you ask someone to name a few heroes of the American Revolution, you might get a few answers such as George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, or John Paul Jones.  Few people outside of history professors or avid history buffs could name many others who served.  Gen. Henry Knox or Gen. Nathaniel Greene are hardly household names today despite their valorous actions and recognition at the time.  A few other offices such as Alexander Hamilton or James Monroe might be remembered, but only because of their future roles in politics.  Even experts would be hard pressed to name a veteran of the war who served in the enlisted ranks.  Yet these are the men who endured incredible hardships and engaged in amazing acts of bravery to give us the freedom we have today.

We honor the sacrifices and accomplishments in the abstract, but remember few actual heroes.  Heroes of more modern wars such as Sgt. York of WWI or Audie Murphy of WWII achieved fame through movies after their wars.  But heroes of earlier wars simply never gained or maintained the recognition.  Many of the heroes themselves might argue that so many people stood up and did the incredible deeds demanded of them that there are too many to remember and that is is unfair to single out only a few for historical recognition.

But even so, those few who seem to achieve even a small part of the public memory seem to do so not for specific merit but rather due to some accident of fate.  Paul Revere is remembered primarily because one man chose to write a poem about his small role in a much larger effort..  Betsy Ross receives recognition because her descendants worked to publicize her minor part in developing the flag.  Deborah Sampson has become a feminist champion for breaking the rules and serving in the army while posing as a male.  While all of their roles may be laudable, do they really stand out above all the other efforts of those serving the cause?

Jemima Warner: Forgotten Hero

It got me thinking, what really allows one person to be remembered while so many more are forgotten?  This brings me to the title subject of this essay: Jemima Warner.  Even most historians who know the American Revolution quite well could say much about Jemima Warner.  Yet her story is filled with heroism and sacrifice.

The Mission:

In late 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Army was besieging the British in Boston.  Americans had already captured several military bases around the country, including Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York.  Americans feared the British would launch a counter offensive from Canada to retake those forts and to continue down the Hudson River to New York City, thus cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.  The British were already attempting to enlist Tory units and several Native American tribes to assist with this action.

To counter this risk, the Continental Army attempted an invasion that would deprive the British of a staging area in Quebec.and Montreal.  A main invasion force under Gen. Philip Schuyler would proceed up the Champlain valley from New York into Canada  A secondary force under Gen. Benedict Arnold  would attempt a second route through the wilderness of what is today Maine and Canada to link up with Schuyler’s forces and crush any British resistance.

Soldiers on the Quebec March faced some of the most difficult conditions of the war.

Private James Warner was a member of the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.  His unit joined Gen. Arnold’s attempt to seize Quebec.  This would be no easy task.  The wilderness area was deemed virtually impassible, especially in winter.  The harsh conditions and hostile Indians made any such invasion highly unlikely to succeed.  Jemima Warner joined her husband on this dangerous mission in order to assist him with the inevitable difficulties.

The conditions were harsh and many men died as a result.  About one-third of the force turned back and returned to Massachusetts in violation of Gen. Arnold’s orders   The commanding officer of the retreating force later faced a court martial for abandoning the effort.  He was acquitted because the court agreed that the dangers of proceeding posed too great a risk to his men.  Yet the teen-aged Jemima, who was under no military obligation to continue, stayed the course, remaining with her husband’s unit through all the difficulties.  These difficulties were not minor.  The men were ill clad and many died from exposure.  They were ill-fed, leading to near starvation.  At one point they were forced to eat one of the officer’s dogs.  Disease also took many lives.

One of the men who fell prey to the conditions was Private James Warner.   The men were unable to carry him and could not simply stop to care for him.  He was left under a tree to die.  He would have died alone except that his wife Jemima opted to remain by his side, despite knowing that she had no way to care for him and that both would likely die shortly from the conditions.  Shortly thereafter Private Warner died.  His wife did her best to bury him, then took his gun and powder.  Rather than heading home, she caught up with the advancing army.

Jemima Warner remained with the invasion force as it entered Canada and laid siege to Quebec.  A contingent of soldiers attempted to approach the city under a flag of truce to discuss terms, but was fired on by British canon.  After that, Jemima volunteered to approach  the city by herself and present the terms.  The terms were torn up and she was thrown in prison.  Five days later, the British released her and she returned to the American lines.  She continued to operate under enemy fire, bringing food, water, and ammunition to soldiers on the front lines.  Several days later she was shot in the head by British fire and died instantly.

Shortly after her death, the American force withdrew to await reinforcements.  They eventually invaded the city, but failed to take control, with most of the Americans either killed or captured.

Why is she forgotten?

There is nothing in what is known of Jemima Warner to suggest that she is anything less than a great hero.  She showed only bravery, sacrifice, endurance, and personal strength throughout  the action.  She gave the ultimate sacrifice for the cause.  Yet there are probably thousands of people better known and better honored from this era, often for far less than she gave.  Why?


There are several reasons why she is likely not remembered.

To start, the commanding officer of the mission was Gen. Benedict Arnold.  While he was one of the most active and heroic officers of the early war, his later decision to betray his country and offer his services to the British made him infamous.  There was little effort to celebrate or remember any of his earlier actions.  Even though those who served under him had nothing to do with his later infamy, they pay the price in their shared heroism being forgotten.

The mission itself was a failure.  Despite the heroic actions, Continental forces could not take and hold Quebec.  Although their actions probably prevented the British from mobilizing an invasion force in 1776, the immediate goal was not achieved.  History rarely remembers participants in a failed campaign, despite any individual heroism.

She died in the war.  When we publicize stories of heroes, we tend to want people who struggled against all odds and prevailed.  A death in battle only reminds us that many of those who struggle valiantly do not prevail and do not live to see the ultimate success of the war.

She left no descendants.  Many notable figures are remembered because their children or grandchildren continue to remember their small contributions to the great cause.  It’s the reason Betsy Ross as a bridge named after her in Philadelphia.  Jemima had no such cheering section.

She did not challenge authority.  Deborah Sampson became famous because she joined the army, in violation of the laws and norms of the time.  She is held up as a champion to feminism, proving that women could serve well as soldiers if they had the chance.  By contrast, Jemima was a civilian camp follower.  Although she put her life in every bit as much risk as any soldier,  her main day to day roles were the drudgery of cooking, laundry, and other menial labor that is never remembered by history.

Her name is uncomfortable.  It probably does not help that the name “Jemima” has become understood as a derogatory term for African Americans (even though Jemima Warner was a white woman).

She never had any real brush with greatness.  She certainly met Benedict Arnold, who is known to history, but as already stated,  is not remembered fondly because of his future actions.  Had she been close to a primary historical figure such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, she would have a better chance at fame.  That is the only reason why many of us know the name of Sally Hemmings, who never really did anything exceptional in her own right.

Beyond heroics, Why Remember?

All that said, she did have a few things going for her.  First, she was on the winning side.  As little effort as we make to remember those on the winning side, we make even less for the losers.  Even historians are hard pressed to name many famous Tory leaders or soldiers.

She was a woman, which makes her heroic role unusual.  To the extent she is remembered at all, you can find Jemima Warner’s name on a few lists of female heroes of the Revolution.  She is sometimes credited with being the first female casualty of the war.  If Private James Warner had gone to war alone, his bravery and sacrifice would likely not even be remembered by this essay.  He would have been one of many thousands who died in complete obscurity, despite showing nothing but bravery, valor, and sacrifice.

There are, of course many thousands, perhaps millions who have made great sacrifices and who were part of great movement that give us the country and world we have today.  Most of them are not remembered individually, but we owe them great honor and thanks for what they have done.

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.


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