The Death of Dr. Joseph Warren

Joseph Warren, circa 1765, by John Singleton Copley (95.1366), courtesy of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Dr. Joseph Warren III was one of the most influential leaders of the early part of the American Revolution, though he is largely forgotten today. A protégé of Samuel Adams, he spent many hours in places like Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern, discussing the Revolutionary turmoil with his close Whig associates, including John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. For a time, Dr. Warren was among the most famous men in American, famous even more so than George Washington. But his meteoric political rise to President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and his nomination to the rank of major general was short-lived.

On June 17, 1775, Dr. Warren came as a volunteer onto the field of battle near Bunker Hill. He took up station in the Yankee redoubt on Breed’s Hill, but had not long to wait. Shortly after his arrival, the British launched their assault. Though the staunch Yankee defenders rebuffed the British twice, on the third, the redcoats took the redoubt and broke the American lines. Warren and Col. William Prescott led the men from the redoubt in retreat, but just outside the redoubt, Warren, it is said, turned a handful of men and together they fired into the pursuing British. The British replied with a volley of their own, and the young Warren was felled. Shortly after the battle, Massachusetts posthumously commissioned him to the rank of major general. But due to his short service (he died at age 34), today he is largely forgotten, remembered only by the countless counties, towns and streets across the United States named Warren in his honor.

Joseph Warren, General Israel Putnam and American soldiers gathering before Battle of Bunker Hill, 1775, date unknown, by James E. Taylor, 1839–1901 (PC AME-1775), courtesy of New York Public Library.

The British won the battle, and days later, Warren’s body was buried by a detail commanded by British Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie, who smugly wrote later, “Doctr. Warren… I found among the slain, and stuffed the scoundrell with another Rebel into one hole, and there he & his seditious principles may remain”.1

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June, 1775, circa 1815–1831, by John Trumbull (1977.853), courtesy of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Dr. Warren’s final moments following the Battle of Bunker Hill have always inspired much debate amongst historians. One dubious claim gives that Warren, though mortally wounded, yelled to his men, “I am a dead man, fight on.” Many of the varied and “confused accounts” give that Warren was shot in the face, looking toward the enemy. But by the middle of the 1800’s, as historians began to question the veracity of all stories purporting significant acts of patriotism, dismissing them as zealous propaganda, some accounts began to claim that Warren was shot in the back of the head, as he retreated, dismissing the idea that he had made some final heroic stand against his British pursuers.2

Next Post on April 4th: Proof at last on the manner in which Dr. Warren died… (Revealing online for the first time ever, the photos of his skull, proving at last whether he was shot in the back of the head while retreating, or heroically facing his enemy! Stay tuned!)

  1. Laurie, Capt. Walter Sloane [presumably to Lord Dartmouth], June 23, 1775, in William Legge, 2nd Lord Dartmouth MSS, D(W)1778/II/1330, Staffordshire Record Office, Stafford, UK.
  2. See my forthcoming book, 1775, Appendix 29, notes 32 and 33.
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