Forgotten Heroes Who Changed the Course of American History

A few months back, we asked you guys to submit your article ideas to us on Pinterest and then we asked you to vote for the winning idea. The overwhelming winner of the popular vote was Marilyn Terrell, who came up with the idea of Forgotten Heroes and Villains Who Changed American History. In putting together the article, I found way too many heroes, so there are no villains here, but I’m sure you’ll all agree that these men and women certainly made an impact on history.

Joseph Warren

While during his time he was regarded as the architect of the American Revolution and at least fourteen US states have a Warren County named after him, few people recognize the name Joseph Warren.

Dr. Joseph Warren wrote a series of resolves that helped serve as the blueprints for the first American government, he sent Paul Revere on his famous ride, he fought in the battles of Lexington and Concord, and he was a close associate with other leading revolutionaries such as John Hancock, John Adams and Samuel Addams. So why haven't you heard of him?

Likely because most of the patriots we're taught about since elementary school went on to do great things after the war, but Warren actually died in the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, where he chose to serve as a private although he was ranked as a Major General. Even after he ran out of ammo, he chose to stay on the front lines so the militia could make its escape.

While it might be the very reason he's not widely remembered today, Warren's death did help the revolutionary cause by providing them with a martyr who helped inspired even more patriots to fight the British.

Sources: National Parks Service, The American Revolution, NCBI, Forest Hills Trust and MW Site

Sybil Ludington


Speaking of the famous midnight ride, there are a lot of people who deserve a lot more credit than Paul Revere, who didn’t even finish his ride before being captured by the British. One particularly notable rider was Sybil Ludington, a sixteen year old girl who rode sidesaddle, alone, in the rain for forty miles (twice the distance Revere covered) to alert her father’s troops that they needed to meet at the Ludington farm to fight back against British raiders in Danbury, Connecticut. During the trip, she used a long stick to not only knock on the doors of the troops, but also to fight off a highwayman she encountered on her route.

Thanks to Sybil’s actions, 400 troops were ready to fight the next day and the group was able to join the Continental Army and chase the British out of Connecticut. For those wondering why we remember Paul Revere’s name above all the other successful riders from the Revolution, the simple reason is because Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found that Revere rhymes with a lot of things, including “listen my children and you shall hear.”

Sources: The Smithsonian, Historic Patterson, About.com

James Armistead Lafayette

During the Revolutionary War, some aristocrats sent their slaves to battle in their place, but James Armistead Lafayette actually asked his master for permission to fight on the side of the patriots. That isn’t what made him so notable, instead it’s the fact that he was the first African American double agent.

First, he was assigned to spy on the recent defector, General Benedict Arnold, who trusted him so much that he asked Armistead to guide British troops through the local roads. After Arnold went north in 1781, James went to serve General Cornwallis. While spending time in the camp, he relayed vital information to the Americans regarding the British troop and arms deployment. His reports were considered critical in the defeat of the British in the Battle of Yorktown and the capture of General Cornwallis.

After the war ended, James returned to his life of servitude as a 1783 law that freed slaves who served in placed of their masters didn’t apply to him since he was technically a volunteer. With the help of his master, William Armistead, and General Lafayette, whom he served under the war, James was granted his freedom in 1787. Thereafter, he continued to live in New Kent County as a farmer.

Sources: Lafayette College, Black Past, Time and History Tube

Henry Shoemaker

On a hot afternoon in 1842, Henry Shoemaker was working as a farmhand in Indiana when he remembered it was Election Day. He quickly rode to his local polling place and cast his ballot for state representative, Madison Marsh.

Marsh won the election by one vote and Shoemaker’s forgetting the ballot box could have made all the difference between his getting elected. That wouldn’t have been a huge deal if it weren’t for the fact that state legislators elected senators at the time and the Indiana election of 1842 was a close contest. In fact, the results kept ended up a tie and on the sixth ballot, Marsh finally changed his vote, which allowed Edward Hannegan to win his seat in the U.S. Senate.

Again, all that may not have made a huge impact if it weren’t for the fact that a few years later, the U.S. Senate was voting on whether or not to go to war with Mexico. Hannegan was absent in the voting and was finally called in to break the deadlock between those for and those against the war. As a result, America went to war with Mexico and California became part of the U.S. And it’s possible that the entire chain of events never would have occurred if Henry Shoemaker didn’t remember or care to head off to the polls on that fateful day in 1842.

Sources: Indiana Public Media and The Greatest Stories Never Told

Elizabeth Jennings Graham

Many consider her the nineteenth century’s Rosa Parks, and Elizabeth Jennings Graham may well have influenced Ms. Parks and other Civil Rights crusaders throughout the years. In fact, Ms. Graham’s heroic act against racism even took place before the Civil War, when slavery was still legal in fifteen states.

In the 1850s, the horse-drawn street cars were an increasingly popular mode of transportation, especially in large cities like New York. These privately-owned vehicles were allowed to deny service to anyone for any reason and they chose to take advantage of that right regularly. On Sunday, July 16, 1854, Elizabeth was running late to church and boarded a streetcar. The conductor ordered her to get off, but she refused. When he tried to remove her by force, she struggled to stay onboard. Eventually, it took a police officer to remove her from the streetcar.

Graham’s story inspired African American New Yorkers to stand up for their rights and fight against racial discrimination in public transportation. The story received national attention –especially when Elizabeth filed a lawsuit against the driver and the Third Avenue Railroad Company. Her lawyer, Chester A. Arthur, would later go on to be the president of the US.

In 1855, Graham won her case and the court declared that African American persons should have the same rights as other persons. The public transit system in New York was desegregated by 1861 as a result –all about 100 years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus.

Sources: New York Times, Columbia University and New York City Transit

Edmund G. Ross


While now considered little more than a footnote in history, Edmund Ross made history by serving as the deciding factor in the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. As one of only seven Republican senators to break with his party (and the last to do so), it was his vote that allowed Johnson to stay in office after he was accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” for breaking the senate’s Tenure of Office Act.

Historians disagree about what impact Johnson’s removal of office would have had on the country, but many believe that Ross’ vote saved the South from being punished by radical Republicans who wished to see the area controlled by a military dictatorship.

Ross lost his senate seat as a result of his vote and was ostracized by those in his party and the public at large although he was vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional.

Sources: U.S. Senate, Teaching American History and the L.A. Times

Frank Wills

When it comes to government scandals in America, the most famous is pretty much undoubtedly Watergate. What you might not know though is that the entire issue may never have been uncovered if it weren't for one security guard. While doing his rounds at Watergate office building where the Democratic National Headquarters were located, Frank Wills noticed a strip of duct tape preventing a door latch from closing all the way. He removed the tape and continued his rounds.

Thirty minutes later, he passed the doors again and noticed someone put tape on the latch again. At this point, he figured something weird was going on and called the cops, who found and arrested five men in the DNC offices. This sparked off the entire Watergate Scandal, eventually leading to Nixon's resignation.

As for Frank, he got attention for his discovery immediately after the affair, but quickly faded into obscurity. He eventually left his job as it didn't provide him with enough money to pay his living expenses. Frank had difficulty finding and keeping work anywhere else and was even told by Howard University that they couldn't hire him because they didn't want the government to withhold their funds in retribution. Eventually, he was caught shoplifting a pair of $12 shoes, which resulted in his going to prison for a year -even worse, he never even left the store with the shoes and, according to Frank, was only hiding them in the store so he could surprise a friend with them at the register.

Wills passed away in poverty and obscurity in 2000.

Sources: It's About Time, Spy Busters, Workers and the L.A. Times

Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick


All four of these men, and the other passengers of United Flight 93, helped save countless lives and further tragedy on September 11, 2001 by fighting back against the terrorists that hijacked their plane. These four men used their cell phones and in-flight phones to call their loved ones and authorities after hijackers took over their plane. It was then that they learned of the two prior attacks on the World Trade Center. After assessing the situation, the four men rallied the other passengers to fight back against the terrorists, resulting in the plane coming down in a field in Shanksville, PA.

While everyone aboard died, their sacrifice undoubtedly saved others and prevented another American icon from being destroyed –though no one knows for sure, experts believe the plane was likely intended to be flown into the White House or the Capitol Building.

Note: I’m sure a lot of people will claim these heroes have not been forgotten, but the sad truth is that the heroics of Flight 93 has already been largely overshadowed by the larger tragedies of September 11 and will likely grow to be a footnote in the greater narrative of the day. That’s why we should take every opportunity to remember the brave men and women who fought back.

Sources: Yahoo, ESPN, Mercury News, The Guardian, Minnesota Public Radio, High Beam and United Heroes

Obviously, everyone plays some small role in history, so there are a lot of people who have changed the course of history and not gotten enough credit. If you know of any of them, feel free to write about them in the comments section.


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