Who was Joseph Warren?
Joseph Warren was an American physician and leader in the American Revolution, who played a significant role in Patriot organizations in Boston. A Harvard graduate, he made a name as a medical practitioner during the smallpox epidemic before becoming involved in politics through his highprofile clients. He became President of the revolutionary Massachusetts Provincial Congress, as well as a leader in the Masonic lodges. He became well-known for sending Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous 'Midnight Rides' to Lexington and Concord to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock about the mobilization of the British troops. Despite being commissioned as a major, he volunteered to fight as a private at Breed's Hill, prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill, and was killed in combat while covering for retreating colonist militia. His death became the ultimate symbol of sacrifice, inspiring a number of revolutionary soldiers.
Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Warren was born on June 11, 1741, in Roxbury, Province of Massachusetts Bay, a colony in British America, to Joseph, a respected apple farmer, and Mary Warren.
He was the eldest child of his parents. He was 14 when his father died after falling from a ladder while gathering fruits in his orchard.
He attended Roxbury Latin School before joining Harvard College, from where he obtained his Master of Arts degree in 1759. Following graduation, he apprenticed with James Lloyd, a leading doctor in London and Boston, and also taught for a year at Roxbury Latin.
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Medical Career & Politics
During the 1763 smallpox epidemic, Joseph Warren practiced medicine and surgery in Boston, where he built a reputation for successfully reducing deaths through his inoculation hospital at Castle William in Boston Harbor. Apart from poor laborers, his list of patients also included influential people such as John Adams, Thomas Hutchinson, Paul Revere and William Dawes.
As his contacts among the Boston leaders expanded, he began political activism by writing about the 1765 Stamp Act, and within a year, became a notable public figure associated with Samuel Adams's the 'Sons of Liberty'. He wrote an incendiary newspaper essay under the pseudonym 'A True Patriot' in 1768, for which the Royal officials had attempted to put his publishers Edes and Gill on trial.
He also joined the Scottish Rite Freemasonry as a member of Lodge St Andrews and was commissioned as 'Grand Master of Masons of Boston, New England, and within one hundred miles of same' in 1769. In a letter dated March 7, 1772, the Earl of Dumfries, the Grand Master of Scotland, appointed him 'Grand Master of Masons for the Continent of America'.
In February 1770, he conducted an autopsy on the body of 11-year-old colonist Christopher Seider and was on the Boston committee that made a report on the Boston Massacre the next month. He was appointed to the Boston Committee of Correspondence during Boston's conflict with the royal government, and twice in 1772 and 1775, he was the featured speaker in the commemoration event of the Massacre.
His song 'Free America', set in the tune of traditional British marching song 'The British Grenadiers', was published in colonial newspapers in 1774. In September that year, he introduced the first draft of the Suffolk Resolves at the Suffolk County Convention of the Committees of Correspondence, rejecting the Massachusetts Government Act and calling for boycott of British imports.
Ahead of the Second Continental Congress scheduled for May 1775 in Philadelphia, the rebel leadership had gathered information that British General Thomas Gage was planning a raid in Boston to destroy munitions. On the afternoon of April 18, after learning that the British troops had mobilized, he sent William Dawes and Paul Revere to ride to Lexington to alert Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
On April 19, as the British troops returned to Boston retreating from the Battle of Lexington and Concord, he was nearly killed while coordinating the local militia in harassing the British. He arranged for a speedy delivery of the Patriots' version of the events to Benjamin Franklin in London, which was widely distributed and caused extreme embarrassment to the British government.
Military Career & Death
On May 31, 1775, Joseph Warren was elected as the president of the Third Provincial Congress. In his new position, he played a significant role in recruiting soldiers for the Siege of Boston.
He was appointed a major general on June 14, 1775, following which he declined General Israel Putnam and Colonel William Prescott's requests to serve as their commander, believing that he had less military experience. Instead, he volunteered to fight as a private defending Breed's Hill after learning that the majority of the fighting will happen there and positioned himself in the redoubt when Prescott's men were already depleted.
As the British breached the walls of the redoubt during their final assault on June 17, 1775, he fought with the cover force until the last bullet to buy time for the retreating militia.
Later, forensic analysis of his remains has revealed that he was killed by a musket ball that was shot from the front and went through his skull, causing instant death. He was likely killed by a British officer, possibly Lieutenant Lord Rawdon, or officer's servant, who recognized him, and his body was disfigured with bayonets before being dumped into a shallow ditch.
Two days later, British Lieutenant James Drew again dug up his body to commit every act of violence imaginable, including, spitting on his face, jumping on his stomach and cutting off his head. On March 21, 1776, after the British left Boston, Paul Revere helped Joseph's brothers identify his body in the battlefield after recognizing the silver bridgework he did to fasten a false tooth in Warren's mouth.
His body was initially interred at the Granary Burying Ground before being moved to St. Paul's Church in 1825. He was eventually placed in his family's vault in Forest Hills Cemetery in 1855.
Personal Life & Legacy
On September 6, 1764, Joseph Warren married 18-year-old heiress Elizabeth Hooten, with whom he had four children, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, and Richard. After her death in 1773, he got engaged to Mercy Scollay, who took care of his children in Worcester during the Siege of Boston and after his death, raising support from other revolutionaries.
At least four statues have been erected in his honor, and his death has been immortalized in John Trumbull's painting 'The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775'. Fort Warren on George's Island in Boston harbor was named after him. 14 counties, 30 townships, five ships in the Continental Navy and United States Navy and several roads and streets are also named in his honor.
He was portrayed by Walter Coy in Disney's 1957 film 'Johnny Tremain' and by Ryan Eggold in the History miniseries 'Sons of Liberty '(2015). He has also been featured on the animated historical fiction series 'Liberty's Kids' (2002) and the song 'Wildfire' (2016) by the band Mandolin Orange in their album ‘Blindfaller’.
It was rumored that Joseph Warren had a highly placed informant, possibly Margaret Kemble Gage, wife of General Thomas Gage, who leaked the information about the arrests of Samuel Adams and John Hancock. However, the British troops had no such orders, and modern scholars largely agree that she never conspired against the British.