Joseph Warren: Forgotten Founding Father and the Martyr of Bunker Hill
Did you know our town was originally called Fauquier Court House? In 1777, a Princeton graduate, Hezekiah Balch, founded a school here which he named Warren Academy, in honor of General Joseph Warren, a forgotten patriot of the Revolutionary War. In 1810, the town of Fauquier Court House was incorporated as Warrenton, for the school (which sadly failed) and the man.
Warren had become a hero of the revolutionary era and was know throughout the colonies. Moving up through the ranks of the Sons of Liberty, he was initially elected chairman of the Committee of Safety, then elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Then, three days before his death in the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was appointed a major general. He was so beloved and revered throughout the colonies that he immediately became a martyr, and his death served as a rallying cry to patriots throughout the colonies. From that time on, his name was commemorated in many towns and counties, ours included.
Joseph Warren was also a popular Boston physician, and grand master of his freemason lodge. He rose quickly as a leader of the patriots. He had incredible personal magnetism and charisma. He was outgoing, friendly, intelligent, and had a great sense of humor. He was completely beloved, and revered, by almost everyone (even some of the British, such as General Gage, royal governor of Massachusetts, who had immense respect for him).
Warren was born to a prosperous apple farmer in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard and became a doctor, which earned him entry into the upper echelons of society, but he did not exclusively treat—and socialize with—the wealthy. He was a popular doctor among all of society: both patriots and loyalists, the wealthy, the middle class, the artisans, the poor, and the slaves. He believed very strongly in the egalitarian values upon which America would be founded; it was possible, by hard work, to break out of the rigid social classes that were in place in England and the colonies at the time, to move up in the world.
Warren believed passionately in the patriot cause, so much so that he was one of the most outspoken and influential leaders of the opposition to the Crown and Great Britain. He, along with patriot Samuel Adams, were two of the most radical patriots in Boston, which was one of the most radical towns in the colonies.
Warren’s most enduring document was the Suffolk Resolves, one of the first written documents that formally unified the colonies in the common purpose of opposition to the crown (pertaining to representation in government and taxation). This was the first document that took resistance to the next level and recommended the formation of community militias in preparation for armed defense of these rights in the event it became necessary. Aside from its political value, the document in itself was a masterpiece. Warren biographer John Cary wrote, “The entire document [Suffolk Resolves] compares favorably with the Declaration of Independence, and the preamble is as exciting as Jefferson’s great state paper.”
On the night of April 18, 1775, he was the only patriot leader remaining in Boston, all others having evacuated due to their imminent arrest. It was an extremely dangerous place for him to be, as the third-ranking patriot (behind only Samuel Adams and John Hancock) wanted by the Crown for deportation to England to be tried for treason. Such a trial would have undoubtedly resulted in a sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering—a dismal end by any standards.
As the chair of the Committee of Safety, he was one of the only people with the authority to call out the Massachusetts militia, and the only one remaining in Boston. Acting on information received from a well-connected spy, who to this day has never been identified (but has been rumored to be Margaret Gage, American-born wife of the British commander in Boston), he dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes to rouse the countryside to gather on Lexington Green. Here he played a pivotal role in the start of the Revolution. Clearly, had there been no militia on Lexington Green to meet the British Regulars, the Battle of Lexington and Concord may not have occurred, and subsequent history would have been very different.
Warren was also president of the Provincial Congress (the illegal patriot government), becoming the de-facto commander-in-chief in the chaos that descended after Lexington and Concord, during which time his talent for leadership and politics came glowing into light. But he wasn’t content to stay as a leader in the government writing policy, however inflammatory. He wanted to fight. He was known to say, “These fellows say we won’t fight. By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood.” Against the wishes of his peers, who realized his value in his leadership position and did not want him in the line of fire, he was appointed major general on June 14, 1775.
When he arrived at Bunker Hill, two experienced veterans, General Israel Putnam and Colonel Prescott, both immediately offered him the command, given that Warren (as of only three days prior) technically outranked them. Warren refused, saying, “I shall take no command here … I came as a volunteer, with my musket, to serve under you, and shall be happy to learn from a soldier of your experience.” It was a long fight, and Warren stayed till the very end, by which point the patriots had run out of ammunition and had resorted to throwing stones at the Regulars, covering others so they could retreat. He was one of the last to leave their position in the redoubt, was shot in the head and died immediately.
In some cases, the opinions of a person’s enemies are useful in getting a full picture of a person. British General Thomas Gage declared the loss of Warren as having more value to the British than the loss of 500 patriot soldiers. Thomas Hutchinson, onetime loyalist governor of Massachusetts, recalled, “If [Warren] had lived, he bid as fair as any man to advance himself to the summit of political as well as military affairs and to become the Cromwell of North America.” Loyalist Peter Oliver wrote in 1782 that if Warren had lived, George Washington would have been “an obscurity.” As it turned out, Warren proved as effective in unifying and rallying patriots in death as in life.
And, of course, speculation among historians as to what would have happened had Warren lived is rampant. Would he have, after fighting through the Revolution, moved into politics, congress, even higher? Many think so. Warren was engaged to Mercy Scollay, an avid patriot and a writer on par with Abigail Adams. Warren and Scollay were the colonial-era version of an up-and-coming power couple.
Warren’s name was commemorated in many things: towns, counties, streets, navy ships, schools, and parks throughout the colonies and the young United States. Paul Revere named his next-born son, Joseph Warren Revere, in his honor. And Hezekiah Balch named his school, and our town.
In Warrenton and Fauquier, our land of historically Confederate loyalty, of Virginia Colonel Robert E. Lee who chose to serve his state instead of his country, and of our locally-celebrated guerilla-style cavalry commander John S. Mosby, Warren’s legacy in Warrenton is the memory of the many sacrifices necessary in the founding of our nation, still together today, a reminder that our nation will endure.
“Not all the havoc and devastation they (the British) have made has wounded me like the death of Warren. We want him in the senate; we want him in his profession, we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the senator, the physician, and the warrior.”
Abigail Adams, July 5, 1775
Warren was, by profession, a doctor. He was a trusted friend and family physician to John and Abigail Adams and their large family. True to form, he treated everyone regardless of politics or ability to pay. In the day when most women, for propriety’s sake, preferred the assistance of female midwives during childbirth, due to his skill and calm, comforting bedside manner, he became a popular obstetrician.
At a time when inoculation against smallpox was still regarded with fear and suspicion by some, Warren, due to his excellent reputation and personality, was able to convince reluctant people to have themselves and their families inoculated, thereby slowing the spread of the disease in the epidemic of 1764.
Warren originally married Elizabeth Hooten, a well-to-do young woman with a large dowry, who bore him four children before her death in 1773. Shortly before his death he became engaged to Mercy Scollay, daughter of a prominent patriot. The above painting has only recently been identified by Samuel A. Forman as Scollay at age 22, and is the only image of her known today. Unfortunately, his obsession with politics came with a price: his family and his finances. Upon his death, he left his four children destitute. Interestingly, it was Benedict Arnold who came to the children’s aid, sending money for their support and lobbying in congress for Warren’s pension which was due his children, in which he was ultimately partially successful.
Warren’s link to Warren Academy, and thus Warrenton, is doubted by some, as there is no definitive proof of either. However, given the timing of the naming of Warren Academy (two years after his death) when things were being named for Warren throughout the colonies, the likelihood is strong. It has become an accepted fact and stated as such by the Old Jail Museum, the Town of Warrenton, and local historians.
Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren
Alexander H. Everett, Life of Joseph Warren
John Cary, Joseph Warren: Physician, Politician, Patriot
Samuel Foreman, Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty
Rhoda Truax, The Doctors Warren of Boston: First Family of Surgery