The American Revolution’s Forgotten Martyr

The American Revolution’s Forgotten Martyr

Patrick Lynch - June 1, 2017

Doctor Joseph Warren was one of America’s greatest heroes yet few people know his name; especially when compared to the likes of Washington, Jefferson, and Revere. He played a major role in American Patriot organizations in the city of Boston in the early days of American resistance to British rule. He fought in the early engagements of the American Revolution but tragically died long before he could complete his mission.

Early Life

Warren was born in Roxbury on June 11, 1741, enrolled in Harvard University aged 14 and graduated in 1759. After a brief spell as a teacher, he showed a serious interest in medicine and was the youngest doctor in Boston in 1763. Warren’s patients included the likes of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

He was regarded as one of the finest physicians in the city, and his reputation afforded him access to important Loyalists such as Thomas Gage, a British General. Indeed, there is evidence that Warren spied on the British throughout his spell as a doctor. Rumor has it that he had an affair with Gage’s wife, Margaret, and gained information from her regarding the movement of British troops to Concord in April 1775.

While working in Boston, Warren joined the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew and became the Master of the Lodge in 1769; Paul Revere was the secretary at the time. In the same year, he became the Grand Master of the new Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Warren also gained an interest in politics and became a member of the Sons of Liberty with the likes of Samuel Adams and Hancock. By now, he was probably a fervent supporter of the movement to drive out the British. His desire would only have been increased by working on the committee that created a report on the Boston Massacre.

The American Revolution’s Forgotten Martyr
The Boston Massacre by William L. Champney. Bostonathenaeum

Warren Rouses the Masses

Boston’s conflict with the British escalated from 1773 onwards, and Warren was at the forefront of the resistance. After being appointed to the Boston Committee of Correspondence, he delivered public speeches to invigorate the crowd and draw yet more people to the cause. Warren was a magnificent orator by all accounts, and one of his most famous speeches occurred on March 6, 1775, inside the Old South Meeting House.

Instead of arriving to deliver a routine speech, Warren added a touch of the dramatic by taking to the podium dressed in a white Roman toga; it was meant as a display of democracy. Hundreds of British soldiers and officers were in attendance, and they tried to intimidate the doctor. Apparently, one of the soldiers held up bullets in his palm as a death threat, but a calm and collected Warren delighted the crowd with an energetic address.

The American Revolution’s Forgotten Martyr
Statue of Paul Revere. Boston Globe

The Midnight Rides

Warren helped draft the Suffolk Resolves to advocate resistance to the so-called Intolerable Acts of the British Parliament, and by the middle of April 1775, the only members of the Committee of Correspondence that remained in the city were Benjamin Church and Warren. On April 18, British forces in Boston assembled for a raid on Concord. It was a well-known fact that Gage aimed to destroy the weaponry of the enemy in the town and capture Adams and Hancock. A lot of Patriots also knew the general planned to ride through Lexington.

It was Warren that sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on the famous Midnight Rides. There are a lot of myths surrounding this event, but we know that Warren sent two messengers to send a warning to the revolutionaries. At around 9 pm, he sent William Dawes and told him to ride by land through a checkpoint that was guarded by the British. At 10 pm, he sent Revere and told him to make his way to the countryside by the Charles River.

A Close Call

Warren wisely left Boston the following morning and coordinated and led militia in the Battles of Lexington and Concord with William Heath. These battles are considered to be the American Revolutionary War’s first military engagements, and they resulted in a strategic American victory. Although the British managed to destroy cannon and supplies in Concord, they were driven back towards Boston.

As the British were returning from Concord, a further skirmish broke out, and in the melee, Warren narrowly escaped death as a musket ball came so close to his head that it brushed his wig. After his mother had begged him not to fight, Warren told her that he had to face danger to set America’s children free. He refused to shirk his responsibilities and began recruiting and organizing soldiers for what turned out to be an almost 11 month Siege of Boston; although he would not live to see its conclusion.

The Siege of Boston began on April 19, 1775, as the British took refuge in the city. The Revolutionary Army needed cannons to try and breach enemy defenses, and in late April, Benedict Arnold told Warren that he could get some. Warren authorized the mission to take Fort Ticonderoga, and Arnold achieved his goal by capturing it on May 10 with minimal casualties.

Death of a Patriot

The Provincial Congress bestowed the title of major general upon Warren on June 14. Three days later at the Battle of Bunker Hill, he asked General Israel Putnam where the heaviest fighting would be and was told it would take place at Breed’s Hill. Warren volunteered to join the conflict at that location as a private. This action was against the wishes of high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Army. Putnam and Colonel William Prescott asked Warren to become their commanding officer, but he refused on the grounds that both men were more experienced in the art of war.

Warren was brave until the very end as he fought at Breed’s Hill until he ran out of ammunition. However, he waited until the British made their third assault on the hill to give other militia members time to flee. He was recognized by a British officer in the heat of battle and died via a musket ball to the head. The British bayoneted Warren’s corpse until it was unrecognizable, stripped the body of clothing and dumped it in a shallow ditch.

The American Revolution’s Forgotten Martyr
Benedict Arnold. Biography

It was an ignominious end to the life of a noble and brave man yet the British were not yet finished. A couple of days after the battle, a Lieutenant by the name of James Drew dug up Warren’s body, spat in his face, jumped on its stomach and cut off the head. This was according to a letter to John Adams written by Benjamin Hichborn. About ten months later, Warren’s brothers and Paul Revere exhumed the body and laid it to rest in Granary’s Burial Ground. It was moved to St. Paul’s Church in 1825 before it was moved for the last time; to the Warren family vault at Forest Hills Cemetery in 1855.

The American Revolution’s Forgotten Martyr
Death of Joseph Warren. Revolutionary War Journal


It is reputed that General Gage said Warren’s death was equal to the death of 500 revolutionaries. It galvanized the Patriot cause as Warren’s death was seen as an act of martyrdom. At one time, his name was spoken in the same breath as that of George Washington. Streets, towns, and counties were named after him while statues were dedicated to him. In 1782, a Loyalist named Peter Oliver said that if Warren had survived, the name of Washington would have been an obscurity.

While Oliver’s statement is certainly an exaggeration, there is no question that Warren would have been one of the men that shaped America had he lived. He had the intelligence and charisma to succeed as a leader, and his bravery in the war would have ensured the respect of soldiers and politicians alike. Rather than guessing what he could have become, it is better to look at what he actually did and give him the respect he deserves.