J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

“I am going upon the hill to-morrow”

Boston 1775’s last version (this week) of Dr. Joseph Warren going to his death in the Battle of Bunker Hill comes from deep in the realm of mythmaking. It was reportedly “taken down from the lips of [Elizabeth Palmer] by a friend, a few years before her death, which occurred in 1838.” Palmer’s descendants being of a literary and publishing bent (they married with Tylers, Peabodys, and Putnams), her account was printed first in a profile of her father-in-law in The New Englander in 1845, and then fully in Grandmother Tyler’s Book in 1925.

When it begins, Palmer and her family have moved into a house in Newton.

I used to go to Watertown every day, and on the 15th of June following, I met Gen. Warren for the last time. He had been our family physician, and I am sure that I liked him better than any body except my husband. He was a handsome man and wore a tie wig. He had a fine color and bright blue eyes.

He dined with us, and while at dinner said to me, “Come my little girl, drink a glass of wine with me for the last time, for I am going upon the hill to-morrow, and I shall never come off.

The next day I rose very early, and could hear the cannon from Bunker’s Hill and see the smoke of burning Charlestown. I hastened to Watertown to hear the news. Gen. Warren’s servant [i.e., slave] met me in front of our house and seizing my horse’s head, exclaimed, “Oh missee, missee! the devils hab killed my master.” The tears ran down his cheeks. I saw Dr. John Warren, the brother of the general. He was much affected, and gave me all the papers he could collect, which belonged to his brother.
So much drama! The handsome hero predicting his own death (and flirting with our memoirist while he was at it). That loyal slave, so useful for showing a person overcome with emotions while maintaining white stoicism. The mournful brother turning over papers to a passing housewife. But so much wrong.

Warren couldn’t know at dinnertime on 15 June that there would be a battle on a hill two days later. Had Palmer indeed left from Newton early in the morning on 17 June, she would have reached Watertown by midday; the battle didn’t start until the middle of the afternoon. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress records show that the Patriots didn’t know for sure that Warren was dead for at least two days. And Warren’s eyes, according to John Singleton Copley’s portrait, weren’t blue.

(The image above comes from Teach US History. It was published in the Columbian Magazine in 1846, soon after Elizabeth Palmer’s story appeared in The New Englander. It is, however, titled “General Warren taking leave of his wife and child on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill,” so this woman is not supposed to be Palmer. That said, Warren’s wife had been dead for about two years, and the legend that accompanied the engraving is even “bunker” than Palmer’s.)

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