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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Friday, January 08, 2010

“This ball I took from his body”

Longtime Boston 1775 readers will recall our keen scholarly interest in Dr. Joseph Warren’s body, head, skull, and teeth after the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In the same vein, we now report that on 5 Mar 1833, the Rev. William Montague of Dedham went to a magistrate and prepared the following affidavit:

I, William Montague, of Dedham, County of Norfolk, State of Massachusetts, clergyman, do certify, to whom it may concern, that in the year 1789 or 1790, I was in London, and became acquainted with Mr. [Arthur] Savage, formerly an officer of the customs for the port of Boston, and who left there when the Royalists and Royal troops evacuated that town in 1776.

When in London, Mr. Savage gave me a leaden ball, which is now in my possession, with the following account of it, viz.:—

“On the morning of the 18th of June, 1775. after the battle of Bunker or Breed’s Hill—I, with a number of other Royalists and British officers, among whom was Gen. [John] Burgoyne, went over from Boston to Charlestown, to view the battle field. Among the fallen we found the body of Dr. Joseph Warren, with whom I had been personally acquainted. When he fell he fell across a rail. This ball I took from his body, and as I shall never visit Boston again, I will give it to you to take to America, where it will be valuable as a relic of your Revolution. His sword and belt, with some other articles, were taken by some of the officers present; and, I believe, brought to England.[”]
Montague had been rector at Christ Church in Boston from 1786 to 1791, and then went out to Dedham to reopen the Episcopal church there.

Arthur Savage (1731-1801) served as Comptroller of Customs at Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, until 1771, when a mob attacked him for seizing a ship. He then moved to Boston and worked in that Customs office until the evacuation.

Montague died only a few months after preparing his affidavit, in 22 July. His son William then reported finding a 1792 letter to his father from Harrison Gray, the last royal Treasurer of Massachusetts, which said:
I hope you will take good care to preserve that relic which was given you at my house, for in future time it will be a matter of interest to you rebels.
And indeed it did become a matter of interest.

TOMORROW: Where is that musket ball now?

5 comments:

DAG said...

Poor Doctor Warren. A man so important to the events of the times and who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs.
What a great man he was, if only he had not gone to Bunker Hill. Surely his death was the first major blow to the Revolution.
I have read that his remains have been moved more than once. If I recall they now rest in forest hills.
Is that correct Mr. Bell ?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the last time Dr. Warren’s body was moved, it went to Forest Hills.

Brian Keaney said...

Several years ago I blogged (albeit briefly) about Rev. Montague. After he arrived in Dedham he quickly became far more interested in the money and land owned by the church than the members of said church. As I said there, "At the end he was even calling himself the "temporal rector," having apparently abandoned any concern for the next world so he could focus on this one."

samforman001 said...

I tracked down and examined this musket ball and fragment of a paper cartridge at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society a couple of years ago. It had never been fired. According to a newspaper controversy of the 1850s, it was purported by some to have been the bullet that killed Joseph Warren. Others labeled it a fraud or offered convoluted justifications that it had been removed from his person on the battlefield even if it were not the fatal instrument. The affidavits make for a compelling provenance but still leave room for error or fraud especially by the earliest owners of the musket ball. Interesting stuff from a forensic viewpoint, but the nineteenth century commentators lost sight of the personality and impact of this influential Patriot. Your posts enliven Boston’s Revolutionary heritage. Keep up the good work.

J. L. Bell said...

Ha! Thanks, samforman001! I wondered about how that musket ball could have been fired, flown through the air, and entered a body with some cartridge paper still intact. But surely, I figured, people of the mid-1800s have more experience with musket balls than I.

Lots of other questions as well: Was Savage accurate about that body being Warren’s? Was Warren hit by only one ball, before or after his death? And now, based on your observation, was that musket ball one of Warren’s own rather than one that hit him?