Joseph Warren was a leader in the early days of the fight for freedom. In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, he was out in front as a protagonist. He died at the Battle of Bunker Hill early in the War.
Few today know of him. I did not till this past week when I came across a short story which mentioned him. Roused my curiosity. Motivated me to learn more about him.
He was a man!
Warren was born June 11, 1741. Died, June 17, 1775. His life short lived. Thirty four years. Much accomplished however during that time.
He was part of the fomenting years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Trained as a physician, he began his practice at the age of 22. In Boston.
Warren was considered a foremost physician. His patients from the upper crust. Men such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
Even prominent loyalists sought his professional services. His patients included the children of the Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, the British General Thomas Gage, and Gage’s American born wife Margaret.
Warren used his medical practice to spy on the British. His wife had died. He became involved with General Gage’s wife Margaret. Margaret provided Warren with advance notice of the planned British movement on Concord. Margaret being American born was disposed to the colonial cause. She was a constant source of information.
General Gage finally dealt with the Margaret problem. He put her on a British vessel and sent her off to Britain. She played no part in colonial matters thereafter.
Warren was a leader of the Sons of Liberty. A foremost patriot. As time went on, his patriot disposition became more apparent. Open and public.
There was a time he was a grave robber. As such, a member of Spunkers. Spunkers was a group of Harvard medical students who raided grave yards, jails and poor houses in search of bodies. Bodies that could be used for medical training purposes.
The Boston Massacre occurred in 1770. It became a rallying point for those opposed to British treatment of the colonists.
The Boston Massacre was commemorated each year thereafter. Warren twice spoke to two separate annual meetings.
The second such meeting took place on March 6, 1775. The meeting was held in the Old South Meeting House in Boston. The enemy was present. Hundreds of British officers and soldiers surrounded the building and were stationed inside.
The crowd of colonists spilled into the aisles.
Warren had no fear. He was a man of brass testicles. He appeared at the meeting dressed as Cato. A flowing white Roman toga. A symbol of democracy at the time.
Not intimidated, Warren delivered a rousing address.
Warren was the Masonic Grand Master of St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons. A big deal. The group met at the Green Dragon Tavern. The Tavern was considered the early headquarters for the Revolution.
Many of the Masons meeting were members of the Sons of Liberty. Paul Revere was one. Warren and Revere were best friends.
The Boston Tea Party did not go over well with King George III and Parliament. The colonists were considered upstarts who needed to be put in their place. Taught manners. Made to know who their uppers were.
Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts of 1774. The Acts suspended colonial government and closed the Port of Boston till payment was made in full for the lost tea.
No way the colonists would accept such submission. It was not part of their psyche. Warren in September 1774 drafted a radical set of resolutions in opposition for Suffolk County communities. Boston area communities. Titled the Suffolk Resolves.
The Suffolk Resolves stated, “No obedience is due” to the Intolerable Acts. The Resolves called for a boycott of British goods and for local militias to prepare for armed resistance.
The Suffolk Resolves were endorsed overwhelmingly by the Continental Congress. The British called the document “undoubtedly treasonable.”
Warren sensed fighting might take place soon. He sent Paul Revere on a five day ride to Philadelphia to warn of the possibility. This was not the famous Paul Revere ride. The “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” That was to come later.
The time did come later. Warren learned the British troops were preparing to cross the Charles River and march to Lexington. The British intended to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Then on to Concord to seize colonial munitions. Thank you, Margaret Gage.
Warren dispatched Paul Revere on the famous midnight ride. He sent Revere across the Charles River and into the surrounding country side. He dispatched William Dawes on the longer land route.
Boston was under siege following Lexington and Concord. The patriots needed cannons to give them the firepower to force the British out of Boston.
Where to get them? Benedict Arnold said, “I know.” There were 80 canons at Fort Ticonderoga which at the time was under British control. The British force defending Ticonderoga was small. Arnold was confident he could overtake the force and capture the cannons.
Warren gave Arnold approval to try. Arnold succeeded. The canons were a major help in evicting the British from Boston in March 1776.
Warren also served on the Boston Committee of Correspondence.
It was June 1775. Warren was supposed to be at a meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Instead, he opted to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Three days before, Warren had been appointed a Major General by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
Thirty four years old at the time.
When he arrived at the site of the battle, the two commanders already there wanted to turn command over to Warren since he outranked them. Warren had no battle field experience. He declined and asked where the toughest fighting was taking place. Breed’s Hill. Warren grabbed a musket and went to Breed’s Hill to fight as a private.
At this stage, it is important to understand how the British viewed the colonials. As traitors. They had opted to fight the mother land.
King George III stated that any colonials in arms against royal authority were traitors and to be treated as such. Death by hanging.
The British normally provided a trial first. Not in the colonies, however. For whatever reason, treason trials were not held. The colonials were either immediately hanged or sent to prisoner of war camps.
Hanging might have been better. The colonials held in prisoner of war camps were maltreated. Brutally. Even beheadings. Torture common place. Much like the Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners of war during World War II.
More American sailors and soldiers died in prisoner camps than from combat itself.
British atrocities of colonials of either sex were commonplace. The British of Revolutionary days were not the nice guys of today. Traitors were scum and to be treated accordingly.
Having set the prevalent British mental attitude, we return to Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Serving as a private at Breed’s Hill.
The colonials bravely fought off the first two advances of the British. The third overwhelmed the colonials.
Warren was out of ammunition. As his fellow colonials were withdrawing, Warren remained behind to fight off the British as best he could. He did not survive long.
British Lt. Lord Rawdon knew Warren. Most British did. As Rawdon came over a small hill, he found himself directly in front of Warren. Not more than a foot apart. Rowdan shot his musket at Warren’s face. The bullet entered his forehead area and came out the back of his skull.
Rawdon neither liked nor respected Warren. Obviously. Otherwise, he would not have shot him.
Rawdon then proceeded to strip Warren’s body of all clothing. Other British soldiers arrived. Warren’s dead body was bayoneted till unrecognizable.
There was a shallow hole nearby. British Captain Walter Laurie pushed Warren’s body into the hole together with a dead colonial farmer. Laurie recollected that as he pushed Warren into the grave, he “stuffed the scoundrel with another rebel into one hole, and there he and his seditious principles may remain.”
Two days later, British Lt. James Drew went to the site. He opened the grave, spit on Warren’s face, and then cut his head off. Following which Drew is reported to have committed every act of violence upon Warren’s body.
Warren’s head was left with his body in the shallow grave. Dirt thrown over.
Though respect was lacking for Warren by lower ranking British officers and soldiers, some higher ranking persons did think well of him for whatever reason. General Gage on learning of Warren’s death said, “Warren’s death is equal to the death of 500 men.”
The British thought Warren’s death would discourage the colonial cause. They were mistaken. Warren’s death encouraged the revolutionary cause. He was viewed as a martyr.
Had Warren lived longer, he would have played a prominent role in the American revolution and the political life of the new nation thereafter.
Many historians of the era believe Warren would have achieved the summit of political life in the United States.
Note that nowhere is Washington’s name mentioned. Turns out that at the time Warren was better known and perceived as a better leader than Washington. Loyalist Peter Oliver surmised in 1782 that if Warren had lived, George Washington would have been “an obscurity.”
Ten months after Warren’s death, Paul Revere and Warren’s brothers exhumed Warren’s body. A question arose. Which body was Warren’s? The one without the head or the one with. Remember, Warren had been buried with a farmer.
Revere was known as a silversmith. He had other talents. He was a dentist of sorts.
Warren had lost his left upper eye tooth. Revere had made an artificial tooth and secured it in Warren’s mouth with a golden wire.
The body without the head was Warren’s. As was the severed head. Therein lie the artificial tooth and golden wire.
Warren left four children. Penniless. His wife had died several years earlier. Warren was engaged at the time of his death. His fiancee Mercy Scolley took the children in and cared for them.
The issue of their education was a matter of concern. Where was the money to come from? His friends and the Continental Congress took care of the situation.
John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Mercy Oates Warren and Benedict Arnold assumed the responsibility together with the Continental Congress.
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote several lines of poetry that many believe are referable to Joseph Warren: “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; But ah, my foes and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!”
Too bad Joseph Warren’s story is little known. At the very least, his life should be reflected in school history books. There is always room for one more American hero.

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