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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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

“The connection of my father and General Joseph Warren, M.D.”

In 1875, Bostonians were very excited about the Centennial of the start of the Revolutionary War. Naturally, that included the editorial staff of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

People at that magazine asked Dr. John Jeffries (1796-1876), whose father of the same name had grown up in Boston and lived through that war (albeit while supporting the Crown), what stories he’d heard. Those tales were of course secondhand since this man wasn’t born until more than a decade after the war. (He was in fact his father’s third son named John.)

In its 17 June 1875 issue, the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published the elderly doctor’s reply:
In compliance with your request that I should state what I know of the connection of my father and General Joseph Warren, M.D., with the battle of Bunker Hill, I have penned the following reminiscences derived from statements of my father, who, like Drs. Warren, [Isaac] Rand, and others of that time, had been a pupil of Dr. James Lloyd. . . .

Dr. Warren had sent to my father a message to meet him secretly at midnight at the end of the wharf of the Charlestown ferry. He accordingly met him shortly before the battle of Bunker Hill. Dr. Warren came over in a small boat, with muffled oars. His object was to induce my father to unite with the Continental army as a surgeon. This he urged upon him, offering him great inducements to accept.

The reply was, “I thought, Warren, that you knew me better. I would not take office under anybody. My motto is ‘Aut Cæsar aut nullus [Either Caesar or no one].’”

Warren then said, ”Don’t be so quick, Jeffries, I have a general’s commission in my pocket. We want you to be at the head of the medical service.” The offer, however, was declined.
Yesterday I quoted the much briefer version of the same story that had appeared half a century earlier in Samuel Swett’s history of Bunker Hill. That telling was an adjunct to the story of how Dr. Jeffries had helped to identify Dr. Warren’s body, a topic that the 1875 letter didn’t mention at all.

There are other small differences between the two versions of the story. Did Warren visit Boston to gather information or to recruit Dr. Jeffries? Did he come by “canoe” or in a rowboat with “muffled oars”? Was he expecting to become a major general soon or did he already have “a general’s commission in my pocket”? (Indeed, other sources indicate that Warren never received the official commission that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress voted to give him on 14 June.)

However, those discrepancies seem like the typical signs of a story getting a little more dramatic as it’s retold over the decades.

I think what strains credibility about this tale, in either version, is Dr. Jeffries’s basic claim.

TOMORROW: Crossing the line.

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