When you think about the names that shaped the American Revolution that birthed the United States of America, who comes to mind? Immediately, you think of names like General George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
In addition to these remarkable men, there were many lesser-known patriots instrumental in the fight for independence. One such patriot, perhaps an “unsung hero,” was Joseph Warren (1741-1775) who played a pivotal role in the early days of the American Revolution.
A few months ago, I was watching The American Revolution, a 2014 History Channel miniseries. The first episode portrayed the events leading up to the first armed conflict of the American Revolution occurring at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. During this episode, the History Channel identified Joseph Warren as “America’s least remembered founding father”.
I paused for a moment thinking that name Warren is familiar. I quickly looked back at my family history records, and I was right. The maiden name of my 7th great-grandmother was Warren. Abigail (Warren) Spaulding (1682-1768) was the wife of my 7th great-grandfather Andrew Spaulding, Jr. and distant cousin of Joseph Warren.
So who was Joseph Warren and what was his impact on the formation of the United States of America?
Joseph Warren was born June 11, 1741 in Roxbury, one of Boston’s oldest communities incorporated nearly 400 years earlier, in 1630. He studied medicine at Harvard University graduating in 1759. Dr. Warren married Elizabeth Hooten (1748-1773) on September 6, 1764 and had four children.
While practicing medicine in Boston, Warren took an active interest in politics, associating with the likes of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other Sons of Liberty movement patriots. In 1774, as Samuel Adams was participating in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Joseph Warren shouldered Adam’s leadership role in Boston to raise up local militias. See my post on Sons of Liberty HERE.
The Doctor Patriot
On February 22, 1770, five years before the official start of the American Revolution at the Battle of Concord and Lexington, eleven-year-old Christopher Seider became the first causality of the fight for independence. Christopher joined a crowd outside the house of Ebenezer Richardson in the North End community of Boston. Richardson was attempting to disperse a patriot protest in front of a shop owned by British loyalist, Theophilus Lillie. The crowd threw stones that broke Richardson’s windows and struck his wife. Richardson then fired into the crowd wounding the young Christopher Seider who died later that evening.
Dr. Joseph Warren performed the autopsy on Christopher Seider discovering that his body was pierced with “eleven shot or plugs, about the bigness of large peas.” One hit the boy’s arm while another, likely the fatal shot, pierced his lungs.1 Samuel Adams referred to Christopher Seider as “the first martyr of American liberty.”2 Seider’s childhood death fueled public outrage which came to a head at the Boston Massacre eleven days later on March 5, 1770.
The Paul Revere Connection
Most Americans remember the story of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride to warn Massachusetts colonists that “the British are coming”. But many do not know the man who sent Revere on that mission – that man was Joseph Warren. Yes, Warren, after learning of a plan for British troops to capture the colonial arms cache in Concord, enlisted the aid of Paul Revere and William Dawes on April 18, 1775. Their mission was to depart Boston on horseback and sound the alarm that the British garrison was marching to Concord to capture and destroy munitions stored by the colonials. Militia units, to include the elite Minuteman, from across the region answered that early morning call, and marched to Concord.
Following the Battle at Lexington and Concord on the morning of April 19th, Warren led local militia into skirmishes with British forces as they returned to Boston. During one of these firefights, Warren was nearly killed as a musket ball passed through his wig. Warren reportedly said the following to his mother after she voiced her concerns for his life.
“Wherever danger is, dear mother,” he answered, “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”.4Joseph Warren (1775)
The Battle of Bunker Hill
Major General Joseph Warren was commissioned in the colony’s militia by the Provincial Congress on June 14, 1775 just three days prior to the Battle of Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill was the first full-scale clash and one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution. As the militia was forming prior to the battle, Major General Warren inquired to General Israel Putnam as to where the heaviest combat would be – the answer was Breed’s Hill. Rather than exercise his rank, Warren chose to join the fight as a private against the wishes General Putnam who requested that he serve as the militia commander. Warren respectfully declined Putnam’s request due to his lack of combat experience.
On the day of the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, Joseph Warren fought bravely in the redoubt of Breed’s Hill. Once out of ammunition, he continued to fight hand-to-hand. During the British force’s third and final assault on Breed’s Hill, Joseph Warren was struck in the the head with a mini-ball. He died instantly. Following the battle, Warren’s body was stripped of clothing by British troops, bayoneted until unrecognizable, and dumped into a shallow ditch.5
Five months later, in a letter to John Adams, Benjamin Hichborn described the mutilation that British Lieutenant James Drew, of the sloop HMS Scorpion, inflicted on Warren’s body two days after the Battle of Bunker Hill:
“In a day or two after, Drew went upon the Hill again opened the dirt that was thrown over Doctor Warren, spit in his face jumped on his stomach and at last cut off his head and committed every act of violence upon his body”.6Benjamin Hichborn (1775)
Joseph Warren’s body was exhumed ten months after his death by his brothers and Paul Revere, who identified Warren’s remains by the artificial tooth he had placed in his jaw.7 Revere was a silversmith craftsman who used his skillset (as an amateur dentist) to manufacture false teeth made from animal teeth that he wired into his patient’s mouths. Paul Revere’s identification of Joseph Warren’s body is purported to be one of the first examples of forensic dentistry in American history.
The Spaulding Connections
In addition to the connection of my 7th great-grandmother Abigail (Warren) Spaulding to the story of Joseph Warren, there is another family connection. Enter American Revolution veteran Joseph Spaulding.
Private Joseph Spaulding fought at the Battle of Concord where the “shot heard round the world” was fired. But it was at the Battle of Bunker hill occurring two months later on June 17, 1775 where Joseph Spaulding will be known as the soldier who fired the first shot at Bunker Hill.8 But, by doing so, he violated the order not to fire until the command was given. Read Joseph Spaulding’s story HERE.
Doctor, major general, and patriot hero Joseph Warren gave his last full measure of devotion at the onset of the American Revolution. Surely his heroism became a source of strength for those early patriots fighting for independence. In a mere decade of time, Joseph Warren married, fathered four children, practiced medicine, became a leader of the American Revolution, and died a hero’s death at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Tragically, Joseph Warren did not witness the pinnacle of what he died for when the United States of America was formed with the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Warren did, however, play an instrumental role as one of the “unsung heroes” of the American Revolution.
- Alpha History (2020). Death of Christopher Seider. Accessed from https://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/death-of-christopher-seider/ on September 23, 2022.
- Howell, S. (2016). What Caused the American Revolution? New York: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 22.
- File: “JosephWarrenByCopley.jpeg” by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) is in the public domain in the United States, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JosephWarrenByCopley.jpeg
- Blake, J. (1860). The American Revolution. New York: Derby & Jackson, 52.
- Founders Online. To John Adams from Benjamin Hichborn, 25 November 1775. Accessed from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0172 on September 25, 2022.
- Boston 1775. Dr. Joseph Warren’s Body: The Second Identification. Accessed from https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2007/10/dr-joseph-warrens-body-second.html on September 25, 2022.
- Levin, A. (2013). Chelmsford Bravery at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Accessed from https://www.wickedlocal.com/story/eagle-independent/2013/08/14/chelmsford-bravery-at-battle-bunker/39453947007/ on November 28, 2022.
- Featured Image File: “The_Death_of_General_Warren_at_the_Battle_of_Bunker’s_Hill.jpg” by John Trumbull (1756-1843) is in the public domain in the United States, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Death_of_General_Warren_at_the_Battle_of_Bunker%27s_Hill.jpg
One thought on “An Unsung Hero – The Story of Joseph Warren”
Thanks for making these lesser known pieces of history not only known, but digestible and relatable for the non-historian.