General Dr Joseph Warren: A Hero Who Could Have Been President?

By Seth Daniel

Gen. Dr. Joseph Warren is remembered for one simple fact on Bunker Hill Day, and that unfortunate fact is that it was the day he died – with the namesake of the famous Tavern in the Town having been killed as he summoned the retreating Americans to fire one last time on the British before escaping to safety.

It was a heroic call, but one that likely cost him his life – and historians who have now come across new and unique information about Warren and the Battle of Bunker Hill, believe that had Warren lived, he might have been one of the great early Americans. Warren was more famous than Gen. George Washington at the time, had been very popular in Boston and was the president of the state Provincial Congress.

Author Derek Beck in the most recently published book in his series on the American Revolution, ‘The War Before Independence: 1775-1776’ – which just came out last month, brings forth new information on the hero of Bunker Hill, a man who stood tall in early Colonial life. The book, which was preceded by the 2015 release of ‘Igniting the American Revolution: 1773-1775,’ came out just before the Town’s most favorite holiday and includes some very interesting revelations.

“I think he was truly heroic,” said Beck in a recent telephone interview. “We’ll never know of course, but had he survived the battle, we think that there’s pretty good reason to believe he could have been a great, early U.S. president. I think he could have been one. The ladies found him attractive by all accounts and people of the time found him to be a good leader. He was just 34 and had a lot of charisma and was very accomplished at a young age. He could have really done great things. He was a hero and the first major martyr of the Revolution.”

It’s a controversial idea to an extent, as some believe that he was giving a speech when he died and others have said he was simply running away.

However, Beck said there probably was a more legitimate heroic story to the reason Warren got killed. After being buried the day after the battle, his body was exhumed a few times for study, but none of those times was more valuable than when his relative had him exhumed in 1860, and the new medium of photography was used to document Warren’s body and his injuries.

Those photographs were lost to time, but Beck was able to find copies that existed in a museum at Harvard. Using the copies, Beck and other researchers now believe that Warren was killed at close range by an officer’s pistol as he rallied the Army to fire upon the British one last time.

As the British stormed the fort that had been built on Breed’s Hill and the redoubt, the Americans had to retreat – even after having caused major casualties to the British – as they didn’t have bayonets on their muskets to engage in close combat. As they ran down the back of the hill, Warren summoned their courage once more.

“As they run, Warren gets some of the Americans in retreat to fire one more time,” Beck said. “As he turns and gets ready to do so, a shot is fired into Warren. We think it’s a pistol shot and it went through his face and out of his skull. There was a lot of speculation about how he died. He definitely sees his killer and it was probably at close range. The weapons don’t have very good power or range back then. It had to be close…It’s probably an officer or an officer’s servant that killed General Warren at very, very close range.”

Beck said that looking at the photographs, they were able to see that the entrance wound was likely a 1/2 inch in diameter. A soldiers’ musket would have been 3/4 inch, and 1/2 inch was the size of an officer’s pistol ball. He said they know it came at close range because the entrance wound was small and the back of the skull showed a very large blast.

Very ironic (and a little morbid) for a man who started the day out with a migraine headache in Cambridge.

Warren had sent his intended wife to Worcester with his four children (he had been widowed two years earlier), and was resting with a headache while the colonists in Charlestown built an impromptu fort and rail fence overnight from June 16 to 17. The Town by that time was a ghost town and had been considered neutral territory – with the British in Boston and the colonists surrounding it.

Warren had been in on the planning meetings when the Interim Army, which came after the militias and preceded the Continental Army, decided to provoke a fight in Charlestown.

“Warren was the kind of cooler head that cautioned them about focusing on the goals of pulling off this provocation making sure the Americans are very deliberate in their actions,” he said.

Beck said that the British likely knew the Americans were up to something, but couldn’t see it in the dark from the water. He said there is also good reason to believe that intelligence reports getting back to the British also had alerted them to the plan to construct a fort on Bunker Hill. However, early reports prior to and during that night were ignored and the plan was considered almost laughable.

When the British see what has happened over night, the first begin to attack by water, but it was useless due to the pitch of the hill. So, eventually they decided to come by land.

That’s when Warren, headache and all, got a horse and rushed to the fighting.

“Dr. Joseph Warren got a horse and rode to the Charlestown Neck and got rid of the horse and somehow walks across the neck on foot – which is is notable because there was quite a lot of carnage and killing right there on the Neck,” said Beck. “There were a lot of Court Marshals after the battle because several officers were wary to order their men onto the neck because of the level of carnage and killing.”

Beck said Warren, who was awaiting the paperwork for an appointment as the major general of the Interim Army, first went to a field hospital set up on the back side of Charlestown. Then he reported to Israel Putnam, who was from Connecticut and was leading the fight at the time.

“When he showed up, Putnam said he would surrender his command to Warren,” said Beck. “There was a new line of thinking that when an army was fighting outside of its home state, it should fall under the leader of the state they were in. That was very forward thinking because Putnam has the higher rank. Warren, however, says he is just a volunteer. He basically said he was a doctor and didn’t know what he was doing and was there to learn.”

That same scenario played out with Col. Prescott as well, with Warren deferring despite having the higher pending rank.

Warren was said to have livened the spirits of the soldiers and was inspirational before his death during the retreat.

Beck said he was the one man in charge of the Army at the time, and his death prompted the transfer of power to Gen. George Washington – who like John Adams and John Hancock was in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress during Bunker Hill.

“I would say if anyone was in charge at the time, it was Warren,” said Beck. “Unfortunately, when he dies, he unofficially passes the baton of leading Boston forces to George Washington. For the British, Gen. Thomas Gage was fired due to the heavy losses taken by the British. The Battle of Bunker Hill featured two major leadership changes for the first time. It was also the first time the Americans took the offensive and instigated the battle. Lexington and Concord were a response. Bunker Hill was instigated and overt. The Americans started it and it is pivotal in that regard.”

And Dr. Joseph Warren was seemingly central in that early confidence builder – a man who was an inspiration to the early Americans during the Revolution and likely could have been a legendary leader of the country had he survived June 17, 1775.

About the Author – 

Author Derek Beck will make a visit to Charlestown this month, on June 22, to speak to the Charlestown Historical Society about his new revelations regarding the Battle of Bunker Hill and Dr. Joseph Warren – the central figure in his latest book ‘The War Before Independence: 1775-1776.’

The author talk will take place in the Bunker Hill Museum Education Room at 7 p.m.

Beck will present his findings from his two recent books. Beck brings readers from the Boston Tea Party to the halls of Parliament—where Ben Franklin was almost run out of England for pleading on behalf of the colonies—to the fateful Expedition to Concord that resulted in the shot heard round the world.

Beck draws on previously unpublished documents, letters, and diaries to highlight pivotal events in the years leading up to the American Revolution: 1773–1775. The War Before Independence transports readers into the violent years of 1775 and 1776, with the infamous Battle of Bunker Hill — a turning point in the Revolution — and the snowy, wind-swept march to the frozen ground at the Battle of Quebec, ending with the exciting conclusion of the Boston Campaign. Meticulous research and new material drawn from letters, diaries, and investigative research throws open the doors not only to familiar figures and faces, but also little-known triumphs and tribulations of America’s greatest military leaders, including George Washington.

Beck said his books are very visual because they are meant to be a movie or mini-series.

“Joseph Warren is really one of the focus characters,” he said, noting that though he is from California, he grew to love Boston military history when studying at MIT after being in the Air Force. “It was originally started to be a movie script in 2008. There is something in the works and we’re thinking it could be a nice mini-series.”

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