|This Week in History
June 6 - 12, 1741
Celebrating the Birthday of Dr. Joseph Warren The Patriot Leader Killed at Bunker Hill
"Not all the havoc and devastation they have made has wounded me like the death of Warren," wrote Abigail Adams after the Battle of Bunker Hill. "We want him in the Senate; we want him in his profession; we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the senator, the physician, and the warrior." Warren, shot through the head at the age of 34 as he rallied the militia outside the American redoubt, was considered by Britain's Lord Rawdon "to be the greatest incendiary in all America."
This "incendiary," who kept a cool head under fire and possessed a good sense of humor, was born to a Massachusetts farming family in 1741 and graduated from Harvard in 1759. He taught school for a year and then decided to become a physician. His skill in medicine, added to his kindness and frankness, soon brought him to the top of his profession, but by 1768 he was devoting more and more time to the patriot cause. He made the acquaintance of John Adams when he inoculated him for smallpox, and he quickly joined the leadership group composed of Adams, Johns cousin Samuel Adams, James Otis and John Hancock.
Warren wrote many of the patriot broadsides that were produced in Boston, and frequently contributed articles for the press as well. One such blast at East India Company policies in the Boston Gazette of Feb. 29, 1768 caused Royal Gov. Sir Francis Bernard to attempt to prosecute the printers. Warren also wrote a patriot song called "A Song on Liberty" to the tune of "The British Grenadiers," which was an old English song, singing the praises of Britain's soldiery. Warren's song, which came to be known as "Free America," was no mere parody; it reminded Americans that they had a distinct republican identity which they were morally bound to maintain.
Two of the verses give a flavor of Warren's song, which was sung in all the colonies:
The seat of science, Athens,
And Earth's proud mistress, Rome
Where now are all their glories?
We scarce can find their tomb.
Then guard your rights, Americans,
Nor stoop to lawless sway,
Oppose, Oppose, Oppose it,
For North America.
Torn from a world of Tyrants,
Beneath this western sky
We form'd a new dominion,
A land of liberty;
The world shall own we're freemen here,
And such will ever be,
Huzza! Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!
For love and liberty.
When the British government, controlled by the rapacious and bankrupt East India Company, closed the Port of Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, Joseph Warren took on a multitude of tasks. One of the most important was the drafting of the Suffolk Resolves during the late summer of 1774. The resolves stated that the Coercive Acts passed by Britain were unconstitutional and therefore were not to be obeyed by Americans. The people of Massachusetts were urged to form a government of their own and to collect taxes and withhold them from the Royal authorities until such time that the repressive British legislation might be repealed. In addition, the citizenry was urged to gather arms and form their own local military groups. The Resolves also recommended heavy economic sanctions on Great Britain.
As a center of intelligence gathering, and of sharing news with the other colonies, Warren deployed one of his couriers, Paul Revere, to take the Resolves to Philadelphia, where the First Continental Congress was meeting. The arrival of the document had an electric effect on the delegates. When Peyton Randolph, the presiding officer, finished reading the Resolves, Carpenters' Hall exploded with cheering and shouting, and the delegates surrounded the Massachusetts delegation to congratulate them. The Resolves were passed by Congress with absolutely no change in Warren's wording.
As months passed, and the American boycott of all British goods began to have an effect on Britain's economy, the tension between the British occupying army and the citizens of Boston escalated. It was traditional in Boston to hold an anniversary meeting every March 5 to commemorate the Boston Massacre in 1770. Weeks before the 1775 memorial, British officers were overheard threatening the life of any patriot who attempted to give the memorial oration. Joseph Warren volunteered to deliver the address, but when the day came, it looked as though it might never happen.
British soldiers, fully armed, turned out in force for the memorial and scattered themselves in the church pews among the citizens of Boston. Samuel Adams, alarmed by the prospect of civilians being injured if violence broke out, invited the soldiers up to the front rows, where they also lounged on the raised area around the pulpit. When Warren arrived to give his speech, the building was so tightly surrounded by excited Americans and threatening soldiers that he could not enter.
The sailing men of Boston soon found a solution: They rigged a block and tackle and hoisted him in through a second-floor window and down into a sea of Redcoats. The soldiers talked, hissed, and booed through the first part of the speech, but then everyone stiffened as the British officer nearest to Warren lifted a handful of bullets and waved it in front of his face. Warren calmly took out his handkerchief, covered up the bullets, and kept on talking. The memorial ended without incident.
The following month, Samuel Adams and John Hancock were chosen as delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Joseph Warren was elected to take Hancock's place as president of the Provincial Congress. He was also chairman of the important nine-man Committee of Safety, which made decisions when the Congress could not be gathered in time to deal with an emergency.
Although most of the patriot leaders left Boston in order to have the freedom to meet openly to develop their plans, Warren stayed in the occupied city to receive intelligence reports and coordinate his couriers. At the beginning of April, he started receiving reports which said that the British were planning to march or sail out of Boston on the night of April 18 to destroy patriot military supplies and arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were staying at Lexington.
Therefore, on the night of April 18, 1775, Warren sent Paul Revere and William Dawes out to warn the countryside and the delegates to the Continental Congress. Not being able to resist the opportunity, Warren also secretly left Boston to join the Minute Men at Concord, and almost lost his life there. Even after the British had retreated back to Boston, militia units from all over New England continued to stream into Massachusetts, and formed a ring around the city. The British now found themselves blockaded, and Warren found himself with a new set of problems.
The Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety now had to provide a civil government and, at the same time, coordinate the actions of the loose-knit army that had camped around Boston. Many New England officers favored an immediate attack on the British, but Warren persuaded them that the lack of gunpowder would doom any such effort. In the meantime, he concentrated on obtaining support from the other colonies, and supplying the needs of the army.
But soon intelligence came in from "a reliable New Hampshire gentleman" that the British generals were planning an attack on either Charlestown, where Bunker and Breed's Hills were located, or on Dorchester Heights. Gen. Israel Putnam, who commanded the army, determined that Charlestown would be fortified and a reconnoitering party would be sent to Dorchester Heights. Consequently, on the night of June 16, New England troops silently occupied the heights above Charlestown and constructed a redoubt and breastworks. When dawn came, the British were astounded to see the rebels entrenched directly across from Boston.
The ensuing battle was of great moment for both sides: The Americans were able to turn back two charges of the British Grenadiers, and were only forced to retreat when their gunpowder ran out during the third charge. The British, although they won the ground, paid the high price of losing half their attacking force to death or wounds. As Gen. Sir Henry Clinton said afterwards, "A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us."
Joseph Warren had been named a Major-General four days before the battle, but since his commission was not yet official, he fought as a volunteer. Although Dr. Warren lost his life that day on Bunker Hill, he had already set another event into motion which would help determine the outcome of the war.
As Chairman of the Committee of Safety he had sent a letter to the Second Continental Congress, asking the delegates to adopt the New England army now blockading Boston as an American army. Congress was also requested to set up a civil government for the colonies. On June 16, the day before the Battle of Bunker Hill, John Hancock announced that he had "the order of Congress to inform George Washington, Esq., of the unanimous vote in choosing him to be General and Commander-in-Chief of the forces raised and to be raised in defence of American Liberty. The Congress hopes the gentleman will accept."