George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are names typically associated with America’s founding, but others deserving mention are cloaked in obscurity. One such man is Dr. Joseph Warren, a Massachusetts native and patriot who played an instrumental role in the drive for America’s independence.
Warren was a respected physician in the 1760s. The son of a farmer, he was educated at Harvard University and was an underground leader of the Sons of Liberty, a separatist movement seeking freedom from Great Britain a decade before July 4, 1776.
The affable and widely respected Dr. Warren authored a series of articles beginning in 1767 for the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym “A True Patriot.” Warren later penned the Suffolk Resolves, a document passed unanimously by the First Continental Congress. The declaration urged Colonists to cease paying taxes and trading with Great Britain in protest of punitive laws following the Boston Tea Party.
The Suffolk Resolves was seen as the precursor to the Declaration of Independence, but sadly the signature of this patriot whose tireless efforts helped make that freedom a reality is missing from the founding document.
Warren entered Harvard as a freshman in 1755. At that time, students were ranked by their parents’ finances, and Warren was listed 34 or 35 out of 43 incoming students. Bright and outgoing, Warren befriended a number of sons from prominent families, and those connections proved invaluable later when he became a physician.
In October of his freshman year, his father broke his neck and died. As the oldest of three boys, Warren wanted to quit Harvard and help provide for his family, but his mother made him promise to stay in school and continue his studies.
At the time, Harvard had no medical school, and aspiring doctors had to learn their trade by apprenticing with doctors who had been trained in Europe. Warren chose wisely and was tutored by Dr. James Lloyd, a wealthy physician who taught him everything from obstetrics and smallpox inoculations to bedside manners and how to be a gentleman.
Warren’s medical practice began at the same time that a smallpox epidemic was spreading. After 10 of the first 12 people in the area who contracted smallpox died, Warren and other physicians began using a new medical practice called inoculation. Warren personally administered over 100 smallpox inoculations, and when none of his patients died, his respect and reputation with the local citizenry flourished.
A Doctor and Spy
Dr. Warren’s position as a physician to the loyalists in New England while active with the Sons of Liberty gave him unique access to both sides of the political divide. Warren was close to Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and he was the personal physician of Thomas Flucker, the Royal Secretary and the third highest position in the Colonies. These circumstances made it ideal for Warren to run a spy ring reporting on British troop movements to his fellow separatists.
Christian Di Spigna, a Colonial expert on the events leading up to the American Revolution and the author of “Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero,” believes it was Flucker’s daughter, Lucy, who helped feed vital information to Warren’s spy ring. Lucy eventually later married Henry Knox, a senior general of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War and the artillery chief during most of George Washington’s military campaigns.
The spy ring also received word about the British putting a bounty on Samuel Adams and John Hancock, prompting Warren to direct Paul Revere and William Dawes to warn the two hiding out in Lexington. It was the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord that prompted Warren to leave his medical practice in the care of his assistant and spend the next six weeks prepping the militia for the expected battles with the British.
The Provincial Congress elected Warren as second in command of the Massachusetts forces for his efforts in training the militia.
The Battle of Bunker Hill (Breed’s Hill)
Upon learning that British forces had landed at Charlestown on June 17, 1775, Warren hurried to Breed’s Hill and the America
“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill” by John Trumbull, 1786. Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (Public Domain)
n fortifications. Despite his rank, Warren insisted on fighting as a regular volunteer in the thick of the fight. The first two attempts by the British to take Breed’s Hill were unsuccessful, but when the militia ran out of ammunition and were forced to fight solely with bayonets, the third British assault succeeded and a bloodbath ensued.
While rallying his men, Warren was shot in the face with a musket ball, dying instantly. Humiliated at Lexington and Concord, the British had intense bloodlust. Warren was stripped of his clothing, his body mutilated, and his family Bible taken from him before he was placed in a three-foot-deep mass grave.
Nine months later, after the Continental Army regained Boston, Paul Revere led the search for Warren’s body where he’d been laid by the British. Revere was a part-time dentist and had crafted a denture for Warren the year before. Revere was able to identify the doctor’s remains by that denture. The doctor was posthumously hailed a hero, and his body was brought to Boston with full honors.
Thousands mourned the loss of the doctor and patriot killed on the battlefield who had done so much for American liberty. Warren became an instant hero, and John Trumbull immortalized him in his painting “The Death of General Warren.” Several states in New England and farther south named towns in his honor, and five ships in the Continental Navy and U.S. Navy bore his name.
Fort Warren in Boston is named for him, and in June 1875, Boston hosted a centennial celebration honoring Warren and all those killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill, with 350,000 people attending.
Ironically, most of the Founding Fathers died peacefully in their beds years after America won its independence, but the inspiring achievements of the 34-year-old patriot who worked tirelessly for the cause of freedom the decade before have been largely eclipsed by his own martyrdom.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.