Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dr Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill - Heroic or Foolish?

   The title of this entry is perhaps too provocative, but it's intentional. I had a conversation the other day about Dr Joseph Warren with a friend and reiterated my long standing belief  that Warren has gotten a free pass from historians for his actions on June 17th, 1775 at Bunker Hill. Although Samuel Adams' name has not diminished down the ages, few Americans today, outside of New England, have any idea of just who Warren was and his importance in the struggle against the British that culminated in revolution and eventually independence. But I suppose dying a hero's death does warrant some less scrutiny for actions that some might consider just plain risky and foolish.
   On June 17th, 1775 Warren was the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and Chairman of the Committee of Safety. There was no more senior official in Massachusetts and perhaps no one knew as much about the state of affairs from the Patriots side as he did. He had struggled for years along side Samuel Adams and was as important and as prominent a Patriot as there was. Warren had turned 34 only six days earlier and all contemporary accounts describe him as a young, attractive man and politician who was enormously respected. That he was a man of high courage there is no doubt. After giving the order to Paul Revere to alert Samuel Adams and John Hancock  and the other couriers to alert the countryside that "the regulars were out", he received news of the clash at Lexington. He immediately rode out of Boston in search of the action, even at one time running into the rear of General Percy's relief column and being asked by two British officers if he knew where the troops were. Eventually Dr Warren found himself attached to BGen William Heath and stuck by his side as he attempted to control the actions of the militias during the British retreat back to Boston. At one point in Cambridge while standing next to Heath, a "musket ball came so near his head as to strike the pin out of the hair of his earlock." (An earlock is a curl of hair hanging in front of the ear.)

Dr Joseph Warren - 1765

   Three days prior to Bunker Hill, the Provincial Congress voted to offer him a commission as a major general, making him the second major general of Massachusetts Forces. The Congress had originally determined to give him a commission as a "physician-general" but Warren preferred a "more active and hazardous employment'" so he received a "regular commission." Unlike many others in the Patriot ranks, Warren had absolutely no military training or experience, either in the militia or in actual service or combat. To say that he was unqualified for the commission is putting it mildly.
   On the morning of June 17th, Warren had thrown himself on his bed, suffering from a nervous headache. After the alarm was given that the British were out, Warren rose from the bed, said his headache was gone and headed for the action. Warren reached the Charlestown neck sometime between two and three in the afternoon when the British artillery bombardment was at its peak and made his way up the northwest side of Bunker Hill.

   He then obtained a musket from a wounded soldier. Gen Israel Putnam caught sight of Warren and came over to ask for orders. The doctor refused saying he had come as a volunteer. After asking where he could be of most use, Putnam directed him to the redoubt on Breed's Hill where Colonel Samuel Prescott was in command. Prescott asked Warren if he had any orders to give and Warren replied that he had none and that "the command was yours." He further stated that "he had come as a volunteer, with my musket, to serve under you, and shall be happy to learn from a soldier of your experience." Warren also told the troops in the redoubt that 2,000 reinforcements were on the way.
   And just what what did Dr Warren expect to learn, armed with a musket in a redoubt as a volunteer, that would in any way give him the experience or knowledge to lead troops into battle, plan strategy, master logistics or tactics or any of the other practices of command and war that a Major General is expected to know before he even gets a commission. Not to mention the confusion surrounding command roles that his very presence on the battlefield caused. His death would remove one of the most prominent and important political leaders of the rebellion and his capture certainly could lead to an intelligence bonanza for the British, not to mention the blow to Patriot morale.
   Brave - certainly. Foolhardy - most certainly.
   On the third British advance to to take the redoubt, Warren was last seen by Prescott, through the swirling and choking dust, since he was one of the last to leave the redoubt. There was hand to hand fighting between the militia and the British regulars. There are conflicting accounts of just what happened next, but Warren was struck in the back of his head, on the right side, by a bullet. Reflexively clasping his hand to the wound, he dropped down dead. Eventually his body was recognized by the British and he was buried on the field. The British found six letters on his person and promptly had all six individuals, residents of Boston, arrested.
  And so Warren passed into legend. While recognizing his bravery, an honest historian must recognize that Warren's presence on the battlefield was foolhardy, reckless, and militarily unsound. He not only had no combat experience, he had no military experience. And one doesn't master the art of war with ignorant enthusiasm.
   Warren's wife had died two years earlier, leaving their four children motherless. At the time of his death, the children were living with his fiancee, Mercy Scollay, and were left penniless as well as fatherless. Scollay took care of the children but it wasn't until Benedict Arnold stepped in and obtained a pension from the Continental Congress that their support was assured.
"The Death of General  Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill" was painted by John Trumbell in 1785-1786. Trumbull was the son of the Governor of Connecticut and served in the Continental Army. At the time of the battle, Trumbull was stationed in Roxbury just across the neck and could hear the sounds of the battle. He knew and met many of the participants in it. Although the uniforms, dress  and other details of the painting can be taken as accurate, the scene itself is not and must be considered iconic.


  1. An interesting perspective, and soundly argued. Hard to imagine that level of pure patriotism in today's reality, but I suppose back then, everything in Boston was in chaos, nothing was certain after Lexington and Concord. He put the safety of the public above his family and his own's. He was as key a figure in the build up to the Revolution in Boston as anyone other than - perhaps - Sam Adams. Does anyone tbhink he wouldn't have risen to the prominence of a John Adams after the War if he had survived it?

  2. Only if he left Massachusetts and played politics at the "Continental" level, but not as a military officer. His military shortcomings would have quickly become noticeable, especially after Washington took command at Cambridge. He seems to have been a very likable politician, something John Adams wasn't.