Joseph Warren, The Patriot Who Might Have Made Us Forget George Washington

Joseph Warren, say some today, would have been the first president of the United States had he not been killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Joseph Warren about 1765, by John Singleton Copley

Had Warren lived, said Loyalist Peter Oliver in 1782, George Washington would have been ‘an obscurity.’

British Gen. Thomas Gage said the death of Joseph Warren was ‘worth the death of 500 men.’

Counties in 14 states bear the name of Joseph Warren, as do four towns in New England (New Hampshire and Rhode Island each have a Warren named after Sir Peter). Five ships were named after him, four statues bearing his likeness are on display and a street in Detroit is named ‘Warren Avenue.’

So what was so special about Joseph Warren?

Joseph Warren

Unlike John Hancock, Joseph Warren didn’t have a wealthy uncle who took him under his wing when his father died. But Joseph Warren was ambitious, both for wealth and for glory.

He had taken to heart the words of his father: “I would rather a son of mine were dead than a coward.”

Joseph Warren was just 14 and about to enter Harvard in 1755 when his father was killed falling off a ladder while picking apples. His mother, Mary Stevens Warren, mortgaged the farm to send him to Harvard, though she probably could have used more of his help to run it.

After graduating from Harvard, he married a 17-year-old heiress, Elizabeth Hooten, in 1764. She died eight years later, leaving him with two young sons and two young daughters.

Joseph Warren became the youngest doctor in Boston and one of the best, with a stellar list of clients including Sam Adams, John Hancock, John Adams and his family. He saved 7-year-old John Quincy Adams’ finger from amputation.

Paul Revere

Warren also had Loyalist patients: the children of Thomas Hutchinson, British Gen. Thomas Gage and his wife Margaret. After his wife died, Joseph Warren is believed by some to have had an affair with Margaret Gage. She may have tipped him off about the British plans to raid Concord and arrest Hancock and Adams.

It was Joseph Warren who enlisted Paul Revere and William Dawes to spread the alarm on April 19, 1775.

Most Influential Patriot

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.”

The Old South Meeting House in 1898

Joseph Warren was gregarious, charming and a powerful speaker who enlisted in the patriot cause. He became Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew when Paul Revere was the secretary. He was also a member of the Sons of Liberty. He tried to save Christopher Seider, the young boy killed in 1770 by British soldiers.

To commemorate the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre, he delivered a speech at the Old South Meeting House while wearing a toga.

In the fall of 1774, Joseph Warren wrote the Suffolk Resolves, which supported a boycott of British goods and urged armed resistance to the British.

By the first months of 1775 he was the most influential patriot leader in Massachusetts. Hancock and the Adamses were in Philadelphia attending the Second Continental Congress, and Warren, just 33, was the president of the Provincial Congress – Massachusetts’ shadow government.

Bunker Hill

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumbull.

Joseph Warren was also a member of the Committee of Safety. He had made sure powder and arms were stored in towns throughout Massachusetts. He also tried to organize Massachusetts’ fighting forces into an ‘army of observation,’ and he propagandized so they’d be willing to fight.

On the day of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, he sneaked out of Boston and led militia in harassing the British returning to the city. He then returned to Boston, where he organized soldiers for the siege of Boston and negotiated with Gage.

Battle of Bunker Hill

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 and built an earthworks.

Warren had been commissioned a major general in the Massachusetts militia. However, he insisted on fighting as a private in the thick of the battle. He asked Gen. Israel Putnam where the heaviest fighting would be.

Joseph Warren conferring with Israel Putnam before the Battle of Bunker Hill.

During the battle 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 then recognized him and shot him in the head. He died instantly, six days after his 34th birthday.

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 day after the battle, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband:

I have just heard that our dear Friend Dr. Warren is no more but fell gloriously fighting for his Country-saying better to die honourably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the Gallows. Great is our Loss. He has distinguished himself in every engagement, by his courage and fortitude, by animating the Soldiers & leading them on by his own example.

More on that Battle

Interested in the Battle of Bunker Hill? You might want to read what it was like for Abigail Adams and her young son to watch it from 10 miles away.

Many others watched the battle from hills and rooftops, including this 10-year-old Loyalist who told her granddaughter what it was like.

Or you might want to read about the printer’s apprentice who spent 107 days in a British prison for cheering the patriot side while watching the battle.

The most detailed account of the battle came from someone who fought in it: a private named Peter Brown who enlisted after he heard the news of Lexington and Concord. The British, he wrote, got a ‘choaky mouthful.’

The news about the Battle of Bunker Hill threw the surrounding towns into a panic. Read the first-person account of a Salem doctor who thought the British had reached the next town.

Here is a more detailed description of the death of Joseph Warren.

Paul Revere was a man of many talents. He became the first odontologist when he identified the Warren’s body nine months after the battle ended.

This story was updated in 2021.

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