The last line of the Declaration of Independence states that the signers “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.” By July of 1776, the signers knew that the fight to secure American liberty would require many to give all they had in pursuit of that cause. A year before the signers even made that pledge there was already one notable patriot leader who had given his life in the name of liberty. He helped ignite rebellion in Massachusetts and then led the colony into war. He voluntarily left the safety of the Massachusetts Congress to fight beside those he had inspired with his words. His name was Joseph Warren. This is the story of how he fought and died for American liberty at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Joseph Warren was American by birth and by temperament. He was born in June 1741 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, only a few miles from Boston, to one of the town’s selectmen. He grew up to attend the local Latin School before deciding to enroll in Harvard University in nearby Cambridge. He passed the entrance exam and entered the storied institution at the age of fourteen. Intending to become a doctor, he apprenticed under one of Boston’s most respected physicians. He soon established his own practice and quickly came to be regarded not only as Boston’s foremost doctor but also as one of its leaders. His status led him to become involved in protests against Britain’s harsh colonial policy. He joined with Sam Adams to form the Sons of Liberty in 1765, and over the next few years, he stood in the forefront of such critical events as the trial of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and the organization and implementation of the Boston Tea Party. He was a prolific writer for and advocate of American independence, serving on the Committees of Correspondence and Safety and working closely with leaders in other colonies to strengthen colonial ties. After the Boston Tea Party, he watched as the British cracked down harder on the colonies by passing the Coercive Acts, or the Intolerable Acts as the Americans called them. In response to these acts, Warren drafted the Suffolk Resolves in which he claimed that the only way for the colonists to protect their liberties was by the use of force. He began to prepare Massachusetts for the inevitable.
As the spring of 1775 began, Joseph Warren was convinced that it was only a matter of time before hostilities erupted between Britain and the colonies. On the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre he delivered a speech in which he told his audience that the future “happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn” rested on their decisions. Just a few weeks later on April 18, 1775 he learned that the British would move out that night to capture the military supplies stored in nearby Concord. He dispatched Paul Revere to warn the local “minutemen” and then rode out himself on the morning of the 19th to observe the fighting. Encountering several militia units, he rapidly organized them and directed them to fire on the British troops as they marched back to Boston. He himself even fired his musket several times and narrowly escaped death when a musket ball clipped a hairpin right by his ear. He was not concerned though and continued to lead the pursuit. Arriving in Cambridge that night, he knew that war had come and that it would require total commitment.
Joseph Warren was determined to make any sacrifice required for the cause he held so dear. Indeed, he had already sacrificed his prosperous medical practice and was heavily in debt as a result. Widowed, he even had to leave his children inside British-occupied Boston under the care of friends. He worried about them, but he devoted all of his attention to the political and military challenges facing the provincial army. He was a dynamo of energy. He urged Sam Adams and other delegates to the Continental Congress to adopt resolutions advising each of the thirteen colonies to draft new state constitutions and to petition foreign nations for assistance in the military struggle. Even as he urged these political measures, he was busy strengthening the colonial army in anticipation of the British assault expected to come any day. As president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, he ordered military raids on British installations like Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. He joined the rest of the Committee of Safety in ordering the army to construct defensive fortifications ranging from Cambridge to the Charlestown Peninsula, which overlooked Boston Harbor. One of the most defensible hills the soldiers were told to fortify was the one hundred and ten-foot-high Bunker Hill, an action that would undoubtedly provoke a response from the British army firmly entrenched in Boston. It was the middle of June, and the final showdown between Joseph Warren and his British adversaries was about to begin.
Just days after the colonial army was ordered to defend Bunker Hill, Joseph Warren left the political battlefield for an actual battlefield. On June 14, 1775, he was commissioned a major general in the provincial forces by order of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Three days later, on the morning of June 17th, he received word that American forces under the command of Colonel William Prescott had fortified the much smaller, and more exposed, Breed’s Hill instead. He also learned that British forces were mobilizing for an attack on the hill. He announced to his fellow committee members that he was going to join the solders atop the hill. One of his associates beseeched him not to go, even telling Warren he would be killed. He refused to be swayed and left for the front. He dressed in a light-blue coat and carried a book of poetry in his pocket. As he made his way forward, British ships in the harbor began to bombard the fortification. He pressed on and soon entered the redoubt the Americans had constructed. Seeing him, Colonel Prescott hurried over and told Warren to return to Cambridge. Warren politely refused, so Prescott offered to turn command over to Warren who was the senior officer present. Instead, Warren told Prescott he was merely a volunteer. The command belonged to Prescott. Both men quickly turned their attention to the drama occurring before them.
Warren beheld the sight of twenty-five hundred British soldiers arrayed in formation and ready to advance up the hill. At their head was General Sir William Howe. At 3 p.m. Howe gave the order, and British soldiers moved forward. Warren stood beside his fellow soldiers and listened as Prescott told his soldiers not to fire “until you see the whites of their eyes.” He took a stand, aimed his musket and fired on the enemy soldiers who stood out in their bright red coats. The other twelve hundred American soldiers fired a volley as well. The British staggered as many fell dead or wounded. They advanced a little further before more casualties forced them to withdraw. Warren looked around and saw that there were several Americans lying wounded. He briefly laid aside his musket to tend to them. Suddenly cries erupted that the British had reformed and were advancing again. Warren hurried back to his position and fired. Again the British suffered heavy casualties and were forced to pull back. Warren and his compatriots had driven two attacks back, but they had used up most of their ammunition in the process. Warren and Prescott both knew the Americans would be unable to stop a third attack.
Despite heavy losses, the British prepared for one final attack up Breed’s Hill. Warren saw that the General Howe had deployed his troops into a thin skirmish line instead of massing them together. Once again the Americans waited until the British were close enough for the Americans to see their belt buckles, and then they fired their last rounds of ammunition. Dozens of British soldiers fell, but the rest kept charging forward. They reached the redoubt and pored over into the American lines. The fighting turned savage as the British used their bayonets and the Americans threw stones or used their muskets as clubs. Colonel Prescott used his sword to block British bayonet thrusts until he realized there was no choice but to withdraw. As he gave the order, he looked around and caught a glimpse of Joseph Warren not far away. Warren had dropped his musket and had picked up a sword in order to cover the withdrawal. Once the last few soldiers had left, Warren turned to follow them. He saw a group of soldiers fleeing and tried to rally them. As he did so, the thirty-four year old Joseph Warren, father, physician, president of the Provincial Congress, and major general of provincial forces, fell dead from a bullet to his head.
Joseph Warren was one of the 150 Americans to die in the battle on Breed’s Hill, mistakenly called the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British won the day, but at great cost. Their casualty rate was nearly 50 percent, suffering 1,150 casualties, including 225 killed. On Breed’s Hill alone, the British lost about one-eighth of all their officers that would be killed in the eight years of the Revolutionary War. The Americans, with Joseph Warren at the forefront, proved that they could stay on the field with the world’s most powerful military.
The British found Warren’s body shortly after the battle and contemptuously buried him with the remark that “there he and his seditious principles may remain.” But his principles did not die there. Word of his death soon spread across the country. He was deeply mourned by all, but he inspired the cause. Those who knew him praised him for his willingness to act in accordance with his patriotic convictions. He would remain buried on Breed’s Hill until after the British left Boston in March 1776. In April he was buried in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground before being reinterred in 1855 in his birthplace of Roxbury, a hero welcomed home.
Joseph Warren’s life truly serves as a testament to the belief that the cause of liberty is worthy of the highest sacrifice. He had measured the cost and was willing to pay it. He dedicated every ounce of his being to fighting tyranny. That fight cost him his fortune and ultimately his life. His death, indeed his very life, inspired his countrymen to persevere in their struggle for freedom and security. Perhaps the signers of the Declaration of Independence even considered Joseph Warren when they pledged their “Lives,” “Fortunes” and “Sacred Honor.” It was a commitment he certainly lived out.