Dr. Joseph Warren died a martyr’s death in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. According to British Gen. Thomas Gage , his death was “worth the death of 500 men.”
So passionate was Warren’s dedication to the cause of liberty that he told his mother in the weeks before the battle,
Where danger is, dear mother, there must your son be. Now is no time for any of American’s children to shrink from any hazard. I will set her free or die.
Or maybe he had a death wish.
When the British taunted that the patriots wouldn’t fight, he declared, “I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!”
Joseph Warren was born June 11, 1741, in Roxbury, Mass., a prosperous farmer’s son. After graduating from Harvard he practiced medicine and surgery in Boston.
Marrying an heiress helped him acquire a stellar list of clients, including John Adams and his family. He once saved 7-year-old John Quincy Adams’ finger from amputation.
Warren also had Loyalist patients: the children of Thomas Hutchinson, British Gen. Thomas Gage and his wife Margaret. Some believe Joseph Warren had an affair with Margaret Gage after his own wife died. She may have tipped him off about the British plans to raid Concord and arrest Hancock and Adams.
Son of Liberty
Joseph Warren was gregarious, charming and a powerful speaker who enlisted in the patriot cause.
He played a leading role in the fight for independence, joining Sam Adams and John Hancock in the Sons of Liberty. In 1775, he won election as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. In addition to practicing medicine in Boston, he gave speeches, wrote newspaper essays and authored the Suffolk Resolves, a bold declaration of resistance to British authority.
As a good friend of Paul Revere, he enlisted Revere and William Dawes to take their famous midnight ride.
On the day of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Joseph Warren sneaked out of Boston and led militia in harassing the British returning to the city. A musket ball struck his wig, nearly killing him. That’s when he told his mother he wouldn’t shrink from danger.
Warren returned to Boston, where he organized soldiers for the siege of Boston and negotiated with Gage.
On June 13, colonial leaders learned the British planned to send troops to take the unoccupied hills surrounding the besieged city. That night, 1,200 colonial troops stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, on which they built an earthworks overnight.
Warren showed up the next day and asked Gen. Israel Putnam where the heaviest fighting would be. Commissioned a major general in the Massachusetts militia, he insisted on fighting as a private because he had no military experience.
During the battle on June 17 he fought behind the earthworks until the patriots exhausted their ammunition. He stayed there to give the militia time to escape while the British made their final assault. A British officer recognized him and shot him in the head. Joseph Warren died instantly.
The British stripped his body and stabbed it beyond recognition, then threw him into a shallow grave with another patriot killed in the battle. Paul Revere later identified his body.
The next day his friend James Warren (no relation) wrote a letter to his wife, Mercy Otis Warren, about the battle and Joseph Warren’s death. The British, he wrote,
…are reinforced but have not Advanced, so things remain at present as they were we have killed many men & have killed & wounded about [six] hundred by the best accounts I can get. Among the first of which to our inexpressible Grief is my Friend Doctor Warren who was killd. it is supposed in the Lines on the Hill at Charlestown in a Manner more Glorious to himself than the fate of Wolf on the plains of Abraham. Many other officers are wounded and some killd. it is Impossible to describe the Confusion in this place, Women & Children flying into the Country, armed Men Going to the field, and wounded Men returning from there fill the Streets.
Had Warren lived, said Loyalist Peter Oliver in 1782, George Washington would have been ‘an obscurity.’
Of Joseph Warren, military historian Ethan Rafuse wrote, “No man, with the possible exception of Samuel Adams, did so much to bring about the rise of a movement powerful enough to lead the people of Massachusetts to revolution.”
This story about Joseph Warren was updated in 2022.