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, January 09, 2010

“Stained…with the hero’s blood”

Yesterday I described how the Rev. William Montague of Dedham came to possess the musket ball that supposedly killed Dr. Joseph Warren—or at least was taken out of the doctor’s body after his death.

Alexander Hill Everett brought that relic to public attention during an oration in Charlestown on 17 June 1836. That was the Battle of Bunker Hill’s 61st anniversary, not usually a noted date, so Everett may have had to try extra hard to make a splash. He stated:

The bullet by which he [Warren] was killed had been previously taken from it [the body] by Mr. [Arthur] Savage, an officer in the Custom House, and was carried by him to London, where he afterwards delivered it to the Rev. Mr. Montague of Dedham.

It was brought to me a day or two ago by a son of Mr. Montague with an affidavit authenticating the facts, and is the one, fellow-citizens! which I now hold in my hand.

The cartridge paper which still partly covers it is stained, as you see, with the hero’s blood.
According to chronicler James Spear Loring, in April 1843 the minister’s son, William H. Montague, sent the musket ball to Edward Warren, junior editor of the Boston Daily American, with a note stating that he was to hold it “till called for.” I suspect Edward was a grandson of Dr. John Warren, younger brother of the doctor killed at Bunker Hill.

That prompted a letter from Richard E. Newcomb, widower of Dr. Joseph Warren’s youngest child, Mary, asking for the bullet on behalf of his son as the dead man’s only direct descendant.

But it appears that the younger Montague, who in 1845 became one of the founders of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, enjoyed owning the relic himself. The ball was in his possession when he died, and the N.E.H.G.S. recorded in its proceedings for 1884:
The librarian would also report the gift, in March last, by William H. Montague, of Boston, the only survivor of the five founders of the Society, of a ball, taken by Arthur Savage, who was a personal acquaintance of Gen. Joseph Warren, who fell at the battle of Bunker Hill, from the body of that hero the morning after the battle.

The ball was presented by Mr. Savage to the father of the donor, the Rev. William Montague, while he was on a visit to England, in the year 1789 or 1790. A deposition to this effect by the Rev. Mr. Montague, taken March 5, 1833, accompanies the bullet.
Reportedly ball and deposition were displayed in a frame at the society. However, Samuel Adams Drake had to report in Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston:
The identity of this ball has been disputed by some of the martyr’s descendants, on the ground that it was said to have been taken from the body, while Warren received his death from a ball in the head. The controversy was maintained with considerable warmth on both sides, the general opinion favoring the authenticity of the fatal bullet.
Mucking about with dead bodies? Controversies over how people died? Single-bullet theories? Why, it can only be the return of CSI: Colonial Boston! (And this time we’ll get to the mystery of Maj. John Pitcairn’s body. Eventually.)

ADDENDUM: Note this observation on the musket ball in question.


Garden Keeper said...

But I've never read that Warren's body received only one wound, just that the fatal wound was to the head. Retrieving a bullet from a skull seems a bit grisly whereas a bullet wound in a body might be clear. Warren's body was clearly treated with contempt by the British soldiers burying him. Some other desecration after death - other bullet wounds - is possible.

J. L. Bell said...

Another possibility, based on this useful comment to yesterday’s post, is that it was one of Dr. Warren’s own musket balls, never fired.

Danelle said...

J.L. Bell wrote, "Another possibility ... is that it was one of Dr. Warren's own musket balls, never fired."

But, by all accounts, the Americans were out of ammunition (the reason they couldn't keep fighting, and were forced to retreat), so I don't think this is the case, either.

J. L. Bell said...

A good point that the Americans had to fall back from their redoubt because of a shortage of powder.

It’s conceivable that this ball came from a damaged cartridge that didn’t have enough powder to fire.

And it’s also conceivable that Savage, Gray, and the other Loyalists young Montague met in London were playing a joke on the rebels.