Remembering Joseph Warren

Saturday, June 17 marks the 242nd anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. One of the most well-known causalities of the battle was Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren was a physician and patriot, and just a few days before the Battle of Bunker Hill he was commissioned as a major general. During the battle, however, he declined a command position due to his lack of military experience and instead volunteered to serve as a private.

The Society's archival and museum holdings include just a few artifacts related to Warren, and I'm going to take a closer look at some of them in honor of the anniversary. One item is "The Death of Warren," (MS0169/089) which is part of the sheet music collection. This commemorative song was written in 1845 by Epes Sargent, who was a member of the Warren Phalanx, a Charlestown military company and fraternal order which seems to have commissioned the piece. The lyrics emphasize Warren’s patriotism and bravery by repeating the line “Oh! It is sweet for our country to die.” The cover illustration is a copy of John Trumbell’s painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, 17 June, 1775 which is in the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. But it is not likely that Warren's death occurred as it is depicted in Trumbell's painting. After he was shot, he was buried in a mass grave on the day of the battle, and it was not until ten months later that his brothers and Paul Revere were able to find and identify his remains through some dental work that Revere had done on his false teeth. Warren was then transferred to the Granary Burying Ground. He was re-interred at Forest Hills Cemetery in 1855, his final resting spot.

We hold only one document in our archival collection that bears Warren's signature - a commission of Jeremiah Hill, signed by him in 1775 (MS0119/355.13). The commission was granted to Hill by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in defense of the colony. The Provincial Congress was established in 1774 with John Hancock as President, but in his absence, Warren signed this commission as the President pro tempore. The commission dates to just one month before the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Only a few paintings of Warren exist, and while we don't have one in our collection, we do have his likeness in marble form. A bust of Warren, on loan from the City of Boston, is on display in our library (0003.1900). The bust was done by sculptor T. D. Mulrey in 1859. It was purchased directly from Mulrey by the City of Roxbury, Warren's birthplace, and then when Roxbury was annexed by in 1868 it became the property of Boston. It has been on loan to the Bostonian Society since 1900.

We can tell a fair amount about a person through the artifacts that they leave behind and we get a sense of their impact through the commemorative items done in their honor. But there is much more to the story of Joseph Warren than we can tell in these three pieces. He is an interesting and important historical figure, though his name is not as recognizable as some of his compatriots - perhaps because he died just as the Revolutionary War was starting. For more information on Warren, check out Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty by Samuel A. Forman.