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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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dr. Joseph Warren: “very desirous to go on ye Ground”

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.

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.
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.

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.


Jeff McKenna said...

I take issue with the final analysis that Dr. Warren's "desire for personal military glory led him to risk his life when he had important political responsibilities." Certainly, he had political responsibilities. And, certainly his decision was very risky. However, Frothingham opines and I agree that Dr. Warren's decision was correct and calculated. The newly appointed General Washington when coming from Philadelphia to take charge of the farmers, blacksmiths, tradesmen, etc. was met by a courier. He reported on the Battle of Bunker/Breeds Hill to the new general. The first question Washington asked was, did they run. I submit that had Joseph Warren remained with General Ward in the safety of a home as opposed to the battlefield, the husbands and fathers assigned to confront the mightest army of its age, would not have held their ground. Warren's presence was more than important, it was essential. The men hiding behind the earthen walls they had built the previous night gained enormous confidence knowing the chairman of the Committee of Safety, President of the Mass. Provincial Congress and the personal friend of Sam Adams was with them. His very presence made them know it was alright for them to be their. It was okay to confront the King's troops behind their "homemade" fort because Warren was there. Without Dr. Warren's presence on the battle field, I strongly believe the answer to General Washington's question would have been different. And, arguably, if the outcome of Bunker Hill was different (i.e., the men ran instead of standing their ground) the outcome of the Revolution may have been different.

J. L. Bell said...

It’s impossible to prove or disprove the counterfactual of what would have happened if Dr. Joseph Warren hadn’t been on the field. However, it would be good to see more evidence that his presence inspired the bulk of the provincial soldiers.

For example, in the early 1800s historians gathered many personal accounts from Bunker Hill veterans about who was in command. How many described hearing about Dr. Warren’s arrival or looking to him for inspiration? Henry Dearborn evidently didn’t even realize Warren was on the battlefield until after he saw the man’s body.

I therefore doubt that Dr. Warren’s presence was decisive to the entire battle, though he surely inspired the men in the redoubt. There’s no evidence he tried to make himself known to the provincial troops elsewhere, and he refused any position of leadership, where he would have been more visible. I think he truly did seek to be an ordinary volunteer in the ranks, not a symbol of support from the Provincial Congress.

In weighing Dr. Warren’s choice, we also have to factor in what his loss meant to his colleagues. They were united before the battle in saying the Provincial Congress needed his leadership. Letters after the battle treated his death as a great loss, the worst detail of a terrible day. It took a while before Americans began to see Bunker Hill as something to be proud of.