Threads of History

Joseph Warren, Patriot Martyr

“I will either set my country free or shed my last drop of blood to make her so.”

By John Krueger, Chair of the LCBP Heritage Area Program Advisory Committee

Listen to John narrate this post.


Joseph Warren, dressed in the traditional black of a physician, painted by John Singleton Copley in 1765. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Joseph Warren, a prominent architect of the colonial rebellion, combined the eloquence of Thomas Jefferson with the leadership abilities of George Washington. Warren’s heroic death at the misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill has obscured his role in making the American Revolution happen. What Thread of History forever binds him to the rich tapestry of the Champlain Valley?

Joseph Warren was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, two miles south of Boston, on June 11, 1741, the eldest of four sons of a respected farmer.  He enrolled in Harvard College at the age of fourteen and graduated in 1759. To learn the craft of doctoring, Joseph undertook a period of medical apprenticeship with an established physician. In the late spring of 1763, his apprenticeship completed, Dr. Joseph Warren opened his own practice in Boston.

The following spring Dr. Warren inoculated John Adams for smallpox, beginning a friendship that would last for the remainder of the doctor’s life.  At the age of twenty-three, he married Elizabeth Hooton, an eighteen-year-old heiress who brought to the September 1764 marriage a considerable fortune.

During the dozen years he practiced medicine, Dr. Warren saw approximately 1,500 patients, not discriminating and caring for everyone from John Hancock and Samuel Adams to unnamed slaves. The young doctor saved seven-year-old John Quincy Adams’ badly fractured finger from amputation. Many of his patients came for the smallpox inoculations that he was often willing to provide free of charge. Unlike many Boston physicians, he provided obstetrical care to pregnant women.[1]

Joseph Warren delivered two famous Massacre Day orations, “an annual event held in the Old South Meeting House that provided Bostonians with a stirring reminder of the evils of a standing army.” To commemorate the second anniversary, Warren delivered his speech wearing a toga; to commemorate the fifth anniversary, he spoke while the town was occupied by British troops.[2]

Boston in 1775 was a town of 15,000 souls packed onto a tadpole-shaped island just a square mile in area, with a sliver of land connecting it to the mainland to the south.  It had been occupied by British troops since the fall of 1768. Citizens and soldiers warily maneuvered around each other hoping to avoid serious violence.

In February, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress directed the Boston Committee of Correspondence to send an emissary to Canada to gather intelligence. John Brown, a Pittsfield attorney and zealous patriot, volunteered for the mission. Before Brown left Boston, Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams gave him a letter to the Canadians inviting them to send delegates to Congress.[3]

John Brown consulted with some prominent Montreal merchants and soon realized that there would not be any Canadian delegates attending the upcoming Continental Congress. The mission, however, was not a failure. “One thing I must mention, to be kept a profound secret,” Brown confided in a confidential dispatch to Warren and Adams at the end of March. “The fort at Ticonderoga must be seized as soon as possible should hostilities be committed by the King’s troops.”

It must have been obvious to anyone thinking of hostilities that poorly defended Fort Ticonderoga, if reinforced and strengthened, could provide British forces with a stronghold for driving into New York and New England. Thoughtful men also realized that Ticonderoga was well supplied with cannon. The American patriots had very few and had no way to make more. Joseph Warren would soon sponsor an effort to seize Ticonderoga’s cannon.[4]

On the afternoon of April 18, British troops in Boston mobilized. Joseph Warren learned there was an expedition likely to set out that night, and dispatched Paul Revere to alert the countryside that British soldiers were headed to Concord.  Dr. Warren slipped out of town early on the morning of April 19, and during the day he helped coordinate military efforts.  General William Heath, a Roxbury farmer who commanded the militia that afternoon, and Warren (who fought beside him as a volunteer) were in the thick of the fighting. Warren was nearly killed when “a musket ball from the enemy came so near his head as to strike the pin out of his earlock [sic].”

When his mother learned of his narrow escape, she begged him not to risk his life again.  “Wherever danger is, dear mother,” he replied, “there will your son be.  Now is no time for one of America’s children to shrink from the most hazardous duty; I will either set my country free or shed my last drop of blood to make her so.[5]

Warren, in his role as head of the Provincial Congress, next turned his attention to recruiting and organizing soldiers for the siege of Boston and negotiating with British General Thomas Gage.[6]

On Sunday, April 30, a new arrival from Connecticut, Captain Benedict Arnold, told the Massachusetts Committee of Safety exactly what Joseph Warren wanted to hear. At Fort Ticonderoga there was a large store of artillery guarded by a weak garrison.  Arnold insisted that the fort “could not hold out an hour against a vigorous onset.” Arnold was only five months older than Warren, and they seem to have struck up an instant friendship.

Within a few days Warren had ordered Arnold to mount an attack on Fort Ticonderoga.  Newly promoted Colonel Arnold was appointed to what the minutes discreetly termed “a secret service.”  Unbeknown to Warren and Arnold, another group from Connecticut was at the same moment enlisting Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys for the same purpose, making the Massachusetts effort redundant. Even though the Bay Colony patriots needed gunpowder more than anything else, Warren equipped Arnold with two hundred pounds of that valuable commodity for his mission. [7]

In mid-June, Boston’s revolutionary leaders learned that General Gage planned to send British regulars to seize the unoccupied hills surrounding the besieged town. Dr. Warren was commissioned as a major general of the Massachusetts forces by the Provincial Congress on June 14. On the night of Friday, June 16, about 1,200 provincial soldiers stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill and hastily erected earthworks.  After a meeting of the Committee of Safety on the Cambridge Common on the morning of June 17, Major General Warren learned that British forces had landed at Charlestown.

About noon, Warren rode over to the American fortifications. He arrived where the militia was forming and asked where the heaviest fighting would be. General Israel Putnam pointed to Breed’s Hill.  Warren volunteered to join the fighting as a private soldier against the wishes of General Putnam and Colonel William Prescott, both of whom requested that he serve as their commander. Warren declined the command in the belief that Putnam and Prescott were more experienced warriors, which was true.

Joseph Warren was a charismatic leader and inspired the militia to hold their position against superior numbers.  He was known to have repeatedly declared of the British: “These fellows say we won’t fight!  By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!” Warren fought in the redoubt until the defenders ran out of gunpowder and remained at his post to give his fellow citizen soldiers time to retreat when the British forces made their third and final assault. A British officer recognized him and shot him in the face with his pistol, the ball entering below the left eye and exiting through the back of his head.[8]

John Trumbull’s Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. When Abigail Adams first saw this painting in 1786, she claimed that “my blood shivered.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Major General Joseph Warren died instantly, six days after his thirty-fourth birthday. His body was stripped of clothing and bayoneted until unrecognizable.  British Captain Walter Laurie, the senior British officer at Concord’s North Bridge, later claimed that he “stuffed the scoundrel with another rebel into one hole, and there he and his seditious principles may remain.” Warren’s body was exhumed ten months after his death by his brothers and Paul Revere, who was able to identify the remains by two artificial teeth that he had wired into the doctor’s jaw. This act would stand as the first recorded dental forensic identification of a body.

Warren’s remains were transported to Boston will full honors and placed in the Old Granary Burying Ground on April 18, 1776, one year after he dispatched Paul Revere to alert the countryside.  In 1825 his remains were transferred to the Warren family crypt at St. Paul’s Church, and then moved a final time in 1855 to Forest Hill Cemetery in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. [9]

Joseph Warren became an instant hero, the first American martyr. His death was mourned as a calamity and was immortalized in John Trumbull’s painting: “The Death of General Warren.”  Elizabeth had died in 1773, leaving Joseph with four young children. His death two years later left the children orphaned.  Their welfare remained in dire straits until 1778, when General Benedict Arnold provided $500 for their education and petitioned the Continental Congress for a major general’s half-pay for the children’s welfare until the youngest reached majority.[10]

While his more famous compatriots Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and John Adams were in Philadelphia attending the Second Continental Congress in the spring of 1775, Joseph Warren remained in Boston orchestrating the reality of a revolution. His decision to send Benedict Arnold to the Champlain Valley was the mistake that might have cost his life. The Massachusetts gunpowder that proved to be unnecessary at Fort Ticonderoga might have altered the course of events at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

[1] Christian Di Spigna, Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero (New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 18-73. Many decades later John Quincy Adams fondly reminisced about “Warren a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physician to me.”  Di Spigna, Founding Martyr, 65; and Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution (New York, NY: Viking, 2013), xiii.

[2] Warren’s orations may be accessed at: and .  Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 38.

[3] William E. Lincoln, editor, The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston, 1838), 94, 98-100; Richard D. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970); Brown to Adams, February 13, 1775, Justin H. Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony (New York, NY: 1907), I, 91; Boston Committee to Brown, February 21, 1775, Harry A. Cushing, editor, The Writings of Samuel Adams (New York, NY: 1904-1908), III, 182; Garret L. Root, Colonel John Brown (Utica, NY: 1884); and Archibald M. Howe, Colonel John Brown (Boston, MA: 1908). Brown traveled first to Albany, where he waited two weeks for the spring thaw of Lake Champlain.

[4] Brown to Boston Committee, March 29, 1775, Peter Force, editor, American Archives (Washington, DC: 1837-1853), 4th Ser., II, 243; To the inhabitants of New York, March 23, 1775, Force, editor, American Archives, 4th Ser., II, 215-218; Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 172; Robert M. Hatch, Thrust for Canada: The American Attempt on Quebec in 1775-1776 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), 18-20.

[5] Warren wore his hair in fashionable “earlocks” secured by pins on each side of his head. David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), 248-253, 413; Di Spigna, Founding Martyr, 164-170; John Laurence Blake, The American Revolution (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), 52.

[6] Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, 22-28, 93-100.

[7] Warren to McDougall, April 30, 1775, Force, editor, American Archives, 4th Ser., II, 485. Arnold was ordered to raise a force of not more than 400 men, “march to the Fort at Ticonderoga and use your best endeavors to reduce the same,” garrison the fort and return to Cambridge with the cannon. Arnold’s commission was signed by Dr. Benjamin Church, a Boston physician and a spy in the pay of General Gage.  For some reason, however, Church seems not to have warned Gage about the impending attack on Fort Ticonderoga. Orders to Arnold, May 3, 1775, Force, editor, American Archives, 4th Ser., II, 485; Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 172-174; Samuel A. Forman, Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2012), 333-336; and Allen French, General Gage’s Informers (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1932), 147-201.

[8] Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 188-230.

[9] Walter Laurie quoted in Fischer, Paul Revere, 285. In a letter to John Adams, Benjamin Hichborn, Paul Revere’s cousin, described the additional damage that British Lieutenant James Drew of the sloop Scorpion inflicted on Warren’s body several days after the battle: “In a day or two after, Drew went upon the Hill again opened the dirt that was thrown over Doctr: Warren, spit in his Face jump’d on his Stomach and at last cut off his Head and committed every act of violence upon his Body.” “To John Adams from Benjamin Hichborn, 25 November 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, Fischer, Paul Revere, 299. This account is supported by a 2011 forensic analysis. Samuel A. Forman: Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill on YouTube. Philbrick, Bunker Hill, 110.

[10] Joseph J. Ellis, The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783 (New York, NY: Norton, 2021), 100-101.