Al Maze's Stories Behind the Stones

Joseph Warren
Copperplate engraving of Joseph Warren at Bunker's Hill is from "An Impartial History of the War in America" published in 1781 (author's collection).

Dr. and Major General Joseph Warren

Although he served valiantly in the war for independence with the rank of Major General, Joseph Warren was a pioneering doctor and remained so until his death at the Battle of Bunker's Hill on the 17th of June 1775. He is best known in American history for his activity as a writer and as an organizer prior to the Revolutionary War.

Born in Roxbury MA (at the time a separate town from Boston) on June 11th, 1741, Warren graduated from Harvard in 1759 and began teaching at Roxbury Grammar School. However, his interest in medicine would soon lead him to study to become a physician and he quickly became the most prominent doctor in Boston. He championed the need for a two-year training period for doctors followed by a test of their skills.

Warren's concern for the rights of those living in the Colonies led him to protest against the chipping away of their freedoms by the British government. Along with Samuel Adams and others in Boston, Warren began organizing opposition to new rules and taxes imposed from afar. The Boston Tea Party in December of 1773 was the tipping point. When three shiploads of tea were dumped into the harbor, King George III ordered that Boston be punished.  The British closed down the Port of Boston. Trade ground to a halt and the town suffered immensely; this aided in building opposition, from the other colonies as well, to British rule.

The separate colonies were seeing that the time had come to stand together or to fall one at a time.  In September of 1774 the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Boston was represented by Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Robert Treat Paine. Warren was asked to draw up a document stating the opinions of the people of Massachusetts. He wrote what would be called The Suffolk Resolves. Warren's good friend and ally, Paul Revere, carried this to Philadelphia, by horseback. These 19 "resolves" declared although the colonists of Massachusetts are loyal to their king, when he takes away their rights he loses that loyalty. Also, that the people will take up arms to defend themselves. Warren went on to state that anyone arrested on the king's orders would find one of the king's appointees arrested. Along with these proclamations, Warren declared that all illegal laws and taxes should be ignored by patriotic Americans.

Never before had Americans stated their independence so forcibly. Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania had introduced a resolution previous to the arrival of The Suffolk Resolves that would have set up an American parliament. This was an attempt by the loyalists (those loyal to King George III) to make America a dominion of England. Warren's bold exclamations caused the delegates to discard  Galloway's resolution of appeasement. So taken was Patrick Henry of Virginia of The Suffolk Resolves that he said: "The distinctions between New Englanders and Virginians are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American." The Congress voted to approve The Suffolk Resolves and a copy was sent to England. Dr. Joseph Warren had set America on its long and difficult road to independence and positioned Massachusetts as the leader of that movement.

As chairman of the Boston Committee of Safety, Warren had organized men loyal to the cause of freedom from British rule to keep watch on British army activity in Boston. As a result of of this watch, Warren learned of General Gage's plans to march British troops into the countryside. Gage wanted to seize weapons and ammunition stored by the Provincials and to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Hancock and Adams would have been sent to England to stand trial and one can easily imagine the outcome of that trial. Foreseeing British troop movement in advance, Warren had enlisted Paul Revere and William Dawes (also buried at Forest Hills Cemetery) to be ready to ride into the country to warn and turn out the Minutemen. Their mission would, also, be to alert Hancock and Adams who where in Lexington. The Committee of Safety had planned well with the surrounding towns. As soon as Revere and Dawes spread the alarm other riders fanned out and word was carried to Connecticut, New Hampshire and, eventually all the other colonies.

After the skirmish on Lexington Green and the confrontation at the bridge in Concord, British troops were forced to flee back towards Boston. Leading the Provincials in this driving back of British troops was General William Heath (also buried at Forest Hills Cemeter) who was joined by Dr. Joseph Warren who would soon be appointed a Major General in the Massachusetts Militia. At this time and until after the Battle of Bunker's Hill the war was, basically, being fought by that militia.

Within a few weeks, militias from the other colonies joined Massachusetts troops in surrounding the British in Boston. Estimates are that upwards of 20,000 colonists were in the area of Boston, armed and ready to fight for their liberties.

Almost two months after Lexington and Concord plans for the fortifying of Breed's Hill (now called Bunker's Hill) were completed and American forces were in position across the Charles River from Boston. Dr. Warren (appointed Major General on the 14th of June) rushed to join them on the hill before the landing of British troops in Charlestown.  Upon arrival, he was offered the command by Colonel Prescott. Warren refused the command and stated that he would fight alongside the men as a solider.

Two assaults by the British were repulsed that hot June day with devastating losses suffered by their army. The third assault would succeed because the Americans had run out of ammunition. Warren was reluctant to give up and was one of the last out of the redoubt at the top of the hill. He was spotted by a British officer – a friend who called out to Warren, not intending any harm. Dr. Warren stopped, briefly, and it was in that moment that a bullet struck Warren in the head and killed him, instantly. Abigail Adams would write to her husband, John, of the terrible news of the loss of their friend, Dr. Warren. The day was June 17th 1775 exactly nine months from the acceptance of The Suffolk Resolves by the First Continental Congress.

Another nine months would pass while the newly formed Continental Army led by George Washington forced the British to abandon Boston. After their retreat, friends of Warren's go to the site of the battle where he fell in order to locate his body and the bodies of others who fell there. Paul Revere led the search for his beloved friend and would identify Warren's remains. Not buried with any care or marker by the British, the identification was verified by the two false teeth that were wired into Warren's mouth by Paul Revere in the previous year. This act would stand as the first recorded dental, forensic identification of a body.

Warren was brought to Boston with full honors and buried in the Minot family tomb in the Old Granary Burial Ground on April 18th, 1776; the first anniversary of Lexington and Concord. He would be moved, later, to the tombs under Saint Paul's Cathedral and then in 1856, here, to Forest Hills Cemetery.

As his wife, Elizabeth, had died over two years before his death, Warren's four children received an outpouring of help. Among them was General Benedict Arnold who pledged $500.00 himself, and got Congress to award them a major general's half-pay until the youngest should come of age.

Warren's younger brother, John, had studied medicine with him and would go on to found the Harvard Medical School and become the first president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

John's son, John Collins Warren, was a co-founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital and, among many other accomplishment,. in 1846 he performed the first public operation in which ether was used.

But we speak of Joseph Warren, here, the founder of this medical dynasty. Joseph Warren's death so early in the war for America's independence has caused his legacy to be overlooked, if even known by many. After the Revolutionary War towns, counties, streets, and organizations were named for this True Patriot. One can only imagine what contributions Warren would have added to our new nation in medicine and in government.