On June 11, 1741, Patriot agitator and Revolutionary War hero Dr. Joseph Warren was born in Roxbury, Mass.
He was, to many, the embodiment of resistance to the British, and became an instant hero after being killed in action during the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he volunteered to fight as a private where the heaviest fighting was expected to be. This was despite the fact that he was commissioned as a major general by the Provincial Congress on June 14, 1775.
But there’s much more to Warren’s story than just one battle.
His father, Joseph Warren Sr., was a farmer who died after falling out of an apple tree when Warren Jr. was 14.
Joseph Jr. attended Roxbury Latin School as a youth and was admitted to Harvard College. He graduated in 1759 and taught at Roxbury for about a year before turning his attention to the study of medicine and becoming a physician. While practicing medicine in Boston, Warren got involved in politics and began associating with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other leaders of the Sons of Liberty.
After the passage of the Townsend Acts in 1767, Warren penned a series of articles in the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym “A True Patriot.”
In February 1770, customs officer Ebenezer Richardson shot and killed 11-year-old Christopher Seider during a protest in front of his house. Seider is widely considered the first American killed in the Revolution. Tensions after the killing led to the Boston Massacre a few weeks later.
Warren conducted the autopsy on Seider and was a member of the Boston committee that assembled a report on the massacre. He was soon elected chairman of the influential Committee of Safety in Boston.
As tensions between the British and colonists intensified, Warren was appointed to the Boston Committee of Correspondence and was influential in drafting several resolutions condemning British actions in the colonies.
In response to the Coercive Acts in 1774, the Boston Committee of Correspondence approved and published the “Solemn League and Covenant,” an agreement to boycott British goods. Warren chaired the committee that drafted the covenant and was likely the principal drafter. It was ultimately approved by the Boston Committee of Correspondence and published on June 5, 1774.
The covenant led to further action later that summer. Samuel Adams worked with Warren behind the scenes to organize a convention in Suffolk County to draft resolutions in response to the Coercive Acts. In an August 21 letter, Warren wrote to Adams saying, “I shall take care to follow your advice respecting the county meeting which, depending upon it, will have very important consequences. The spirits of our friends rise every day.”
During the subsequent meeting, Warren drafted the Suffolk Resolves calling for non-cooperation with British authorities and direct action to oppose what they condemned as illegitimate and unconstitutional acts by Parliament. The convention passed the resolutions on Sept. 9. A week later, on Sept. 17, the Continental Congress endorsed the resolves as a show of solidarity with the people of Boston. This led to the passage of the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress laying out colonial objections to the Coercive Acts. The document listed their grievances and outlined a list of colonial rights. It also set the stage for further colonial action resisting the British by expressing the colonists’ resolve “to enter into a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement or association.”
Six days later, the First Continental Congress adopted the Continental Association, putting the boycott resolution into effect by establishing a formal agreement between the 12 colonies represented in the Congress. (Georgia did not send delegates.)
Warren was later appointed president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. This was the highest position in the colony’s revolutionary government.
Warren was responsible for sending Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous midnight rides to warn that the British were planning to march on Concord and seize stores of gunpowder and munitions. He also coordinated and led militia in operations against the British as they returned to Boston. While assailing the British flanks from the rear, Warren was nearly killed when a musket ball struck his wig.
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Warren left his patients in the care of his partner and began readying the militia for further action. He was elected the second general in command of the Massachusetts forces by the Provincial Congress on June 14, 1775.
After the British forces landed in Charlestown a few days later, Warren refused to take a command position and joined the Patriot lines as a regular soldier. He reportedly declared, “These fellows say we won’t fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!”
Warren died during the third and final British assault on Bunker Hill when a British musket ball hit him right between the eyes. His body was stripped of clothing, bayoneted until unrecognizable, and then shoved into a shallow ditch.
General Gage is rumored to have said that Warren’s death “was equal to the death of 500 ordinary colonials.” It added additional spark to the revolutionary cause because it was viewed by so many as an act of selfless martyrdom.
Warren’s body was later exhumed and Paul Revere identified it from an artificial tooth he had made for him.
His death was immortalized in John Trumbull’s painting; “The Death of General Warren.”
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