He was the most prominent physician in Boston, a major general in the militia, the secret lover of the royal governor's wife, the orator who wore a toga to deliver a speech commemorating the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, the man who dispatched Paul Revere on his famous ride, the man who ordered Benedict Arnold to attack Fort Ticonderoga, and the man whose death on Breed's Hill in the Battle of Bunker Hill made him a national martyr for the Patriot cause.
And all that happened in the first six months of 1775 alone. Had he lived, Dr. Joseph Warren would have made a fantastic Founding Father.
Born on June 11, 1741, in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Warren was a man in a hurry. His father was a prominent physician, who died when his son was 14. Warren graduated from Harvard at 18, studying medicine. After a year of teaching at the Latin School, he married an heiress, and began his medical practice. His patients included such Patriots as John and Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, as well as many loyalists including Royal Governor and General Thomas Gage, and his wife Margaret, who became his mistress. As relations between the Americans and the Crown deteriorated, he served as a spy on his Loyalist patients. His affair with the governor's wife likely tipped him to her husband's plan to march to Lexington and Concord from British occupied Boston.
On the 18th of April 1775, it was Doctor Warren who dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes to warn that the British were coming. But even after the shot heard round the world in Lexington, Doctor Warren wrote Governor Gage on April 20, 1775, requesting an audience with him in the hope of seeking a peaceful resolution.
“I have many, things which I wish to say to Your Excellency, and most sincerely wish I had broken through the formalities which I thought due to your rank, and freely have told you all I knew or thought of public affairs; and I must ever confess, whatever may be the event, that you generously gave me such opening, as I now think I ought to have embraced: but the true cause of my not doing it was the knowledge I had of the vileness and treachery of many persons around you, who, I supposed, had gained your entire confidence,” he wrote.
Sounds nice, but he was a traitor to the Crown and while the two were civil, they were on opposite sides. The gap was too wide.
Besides, the day before had led a unit of the militia at Lexington and Concord. His troops acquitted him well and a musket ball hit his wig, which shows the level of danger he faced on that day. Two months later, on June 14, 1775, the Provincial Congress appointed him a two-star general.
Warren volunteered for the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, on Breed's Hill in Charlestown. He fought as a private rather than a general, yielding to Israel Putnam, William Prescott and John Stark. However, his men and the British knew who he was. And Private Warren was not silent about his contempt for the British, telling one and all, "These fellows say we won't fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!"
He fought bravely, helping repel the British in their first two assaults on Breed's Hill. He was out of ammunition when British Lieutenant Lord Rawdon saw and recognized him, and fired -- killing Warren instantly with a shot to the head. Rawdon's captain, Walter Laurie, took credit for the shot, saying "I stuffed the scoundrel with another rebel into one hole, and there he and his seditious principles may remain."
However, while the British won the battle, they lost 19 officers. And Governor Gage said that because of the influence of Doctor Warren and said his death was the equal to the deaths of 500 men. He died fighting for a cause he believed in. Let us live free in his honor.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.