Dr. Joseph Warren was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, one of the highest-ranking Patriots (combining political and military rank) to die in the war. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had elected Warren as its president on 31 May, and on 14 June the body also appointed him the province’s “second major general.”
Naturally, Warren was quickly made a martyr figure, especially for Bostonians and for Freemasons; at the time of his death he was “Grand Master of Masons for the Continent of America”—at least according to a Scottish charter. The doctor’s prominence caused people to record and romanticize what he’d done leading up to the battle, and I’ll explore three versions of those events this week.
One of the earlier and more detailed accounts appears in the notebooks of the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society:
August 24, 1787. I was informed by Mr. Sheriff [Joseph] Henderson that he was one of ye Clerks of ye Board of War in the year 1775 of wh[ich] Dr Jos Warren then newly made Majr Genl was a Member. That on ye day of ye action at Bunker hill, he was very desirous to go on ye Ground and take part in ye affair, that ye other Gentn did all they could to dissuade him, alledging that his Life was of too much consequence to be exposed on that occasion. Col. (afterward Genl) [Benjamin] Lincoln offered to go & execute any orders wh[ich] he would give, as did one or 2 other Gentn.Belknap wrote this down twelve years after the battle, so there had been enough time for memories to fade and little and legends to take their place. But eyewitnesses to these events were still alive, and Belknap was a good historian, gathering information for himself and for posterity rather trying to make an inspiring story.
At length to deceive them he pretended that he was going to Roxbury—but went directly to Charlestown & entered the Lines. Col [William] Prescott who had the command, begged him to retire, & upon his refusal offered to resign ye Command to him. He said he would not interfere with him, & yt [i.e., that] he came only as a Volunteer.
As he was binding up a wound w[hi]ch a Man had rec[eive]d in his arm the Enemy entered by storm. He Retreated a few rods with ye rest before they killed him.
Warren’s name doesn’t appear in the records of the Provincial Congress or its Committee of Safety for 17 June 1775, so we know he probably wasn’t in those meetings. So far as I know, there are no corresponding records for the “board of war,” or council of high-ranking officers under Gen. Artemas Ward in Cambridge. But Henderson’s account seems reliable.
Dr. Warren had also gone out on the lines during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Gen. William Heath recalled:
on the plain below the [Menotomy] meeting-house...Dr. Joseph Warren,—afterwards Major-General Warren,—who kept constantly near me, and then but a few feet distant, a musket-ball from the enemy came so near his head as to strike the pin out of the hair of his ear-lock.Warren’s bravery is admirable, but his desire for personal military glory led him to risk his life when he had important political responsibilities. As a result, on 18 June the province was missing one of its most capable leaders at a crucial time.
TOMORROW: Replacing Dr. Warren.