General Joe Warren: A Rebel and Martyr Who Put It All on the Line

The legend of Gen. Joe Warren is unavoidable in Charlestown and Boston – his leadership and martyrdom in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 – but one new author who has written a new take on the general is stressing that everyone understand how long Warren was on the trail of rebellion and that he gave up more than just his life for the liberty we all know and enjoy.

Author Christian DiSpigna is a new figure on the historical writing circuit, recently publishing his first book, ‘Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero’ after more than 20 years of research and collecting historical materials.

Through all his research, he said he hopes that readers and enthusiasts for the Charlestown battle will understand the long battle Warren fought before June 17.

“He put it all on the line and you’d be hard pressed to find politicians and leaders who would do what he did today,” said DiSpigna in an interview with the Patriot Bridge prior to his talk at the Bunker Hill Museum on June 11. “It’s this broader idea for those times, being men of honor and he was one of them. He had his faults – he owned a slave and made some questionable decisions at the end – but when you put the whole picture together, he was an incredible individual who was at the center of the fight for independence for 10 years…He paid the ultimate price supporting the ideas of freedom and liberty, ideas he had been fighting to achieve for a decade.”

A prominent Boston physician who owned orchards in Roxbury, Dr. Joseph Warren was a key force in America’s revolutionary movement. He is responsible for setting Paul Revere on his famous ride, served in the Sons of Liberty with such leaders as John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause when—although commissioned a Major General—he volunteered to fight alongside soldiers in the Battle of Bunker Hill. 

But DiSpigna said he dug deeper into Warren’s life before that fateful day to find out just what was going on with the good doctor in the years before the first shots of the Revolution.

“I’m hoping people realize how pivotal a figure he was in early American history with few exceptions,” he said. “There are few I can think of who are as important. There are really no Patriots who are doing what he did as consistently from 1765 to 1775. Undeniably he was one of the most radical Patriots with Samuel Adams. He never quit. He was talking about Independence long before 1765. Where was Jefferson? Warren is a professional and a gentleman – a doctor and a Harvard graduate. He has connections on both sides of the divide. His casting his lot with Patriot Whigs was social and professional suicide and he did it anyway.”

One of the difficulties in establishing Warren’s proper place in American history, and in researching the details of his life in Boston is the scarcity of materials. DiSpigna said his early death – prior to the Declaration of Independence – played a role in that, as well as the Colonial rebel penchant to burn records so the British couldn’t get their hands on them. Likewise, there are few descendants in the Warren family, and he died without a male heir – a huge hardship to a family legacy in those times.

“If General Warren isn’t killed that afternoon on Breeds Hill, he becomes the first American hero,” said DiSpigna. “The Catch 22 is his involvement in that battle is the culmination of 10 years of his involvement in insurrection…He is a major figure in the movement and then he suddenly dies and isn’t involved any more in the Revolution. He died before all the action and died as a traitor to King George III. There is no America yet. He dies as a traitor to the Crown. When all the other men rise to fame and prominence, he’s overshadowed and forgotten. His family is left destitute…He left four orphans and without recompense.”

DiSpigna said part of the basis of his book was the fact he had found several new original documents and source materials. A lot of those documents confirmed that Warren was active in the rebel cause long before it was a movement in Boston.

One of them was a private letter that contained a piece of the Medical Journal of Dr. Warren. As it happened, that Journal contained an entry showing that Warren treated Christopher Monk – who was the sixth victim of the Boston Massacre and ultimately died of his injuries.

“He’s doing gratis treatments for Christopher Monk after the Massacre,” he said. “Monk died eventually, but he was the 6th and final victim of the Boston Massacre.”

DiSpigna has also uncovered new materials that give a peak into the private life of General Warren – including a long dispute over why he married his wife, with DiSpigna believing it wasn’t just for money as some believe, but that he truly loved his wife.

DiSpigna has found a source document from a newspaper in June 17, 1875 where a descendant of Warren’s was wearing a mourning ring at the Battle of Bunker Hill exercises. That ring had been made by Warren to mourn the death of his wife, and it was made with very expensive materials. It isn’t something, he said, that a person only out for money would have done.

DiSpigna said he also refutes the idea that there are no more direct descendants left form the General’s family. In fact, he said he found numerous descendants and they have been helpful in his research.

Above all else, though, is laying down the fact that participating alongside the regular militiamen in the Battle of Bunker Hill was standard procedure for the doctor who had been fighting the revolution against Britain for 10 years before others like George Washington and John Adams joined the cause.

“He was in the battle and was one of the last to leave the rear guard redoubt,” he said. “The battle is lost, but he stays to make sure everyone retreats and gets out. There’s only one route to Cambridge and he’s the last to leave the redoubt. This isn’t subjective. It’s written and confirmed. Imagine the bravery that took. He’s shot through the face. He was right in the center of the action as he had been for 10 years in Boston.”

DiSpigna graduated with a degree in history from Columbia University where he began his research on Warren 20 years ago. To immerse himself in 18th century history, DiSpigna moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, volunteered for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and worked closely with many period scholars.

He added that he is in the beginning stages of forming a Dr. Joseph Warren Historical Society and is forming a Board of Trustees at the moment.

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