Bunker Hill Hero

Good morning. It’s Monday, June 18, 2018. On this date 243 years ago, Abigail Adams wrote an agonized letter to her husband. John Adams was in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress. Abigail was at their house in Braintree, Massachusetts. From there she could hear the artillery raging in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The letter opens with her signature salutation — “Dearest Friend” — and from there on is a veritable stream of consciousness conveying both Mrs. Adams grief that their mutual friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, had been killed in battle and a defiant faith that this death would not be in vain.

“The day — perhaps the decisive day is come on which the fate of America depends,” she wrote. “My bursting heart must find vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend Dr. Warren is no more, but fell gloriously fighting for his country — saying better to die honorably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the gallows. Great is our loss.”

The night before, a highly trained force of British regulars had driven Warren and militiamen from the field. The Battle of Bunker Hill was actually contested on an adjacent knoll, Breed’s Hill, a geographical misnomer that was only one of the mistakes made in the fog-of-battle on that bloody day.

That error, at least, wasn’t costly. Some were. For one thing, the British seem to have been motivated as much by pride as strategic exigency and their June 17, 1775, victory came at too high cost in British lives. Moreover, even though the colonials had lost the battle, they had served notice they might have the grit to win the war. There, in Boston, they showed the crown, the other colonies, and the rest of world that these upstart Americans would fight for their freedom.

“Our three generals expected rather to punish a mob than fight with troops that would look them in the face,” one British officer wrote.

To the British, this was a civil war. To the colonists, it was a war for independence. Either way, after Bunker Hill, both sides knew they were in a struggle. The top British commander would be recalled to England. The Americans would put a Virginian (and former British Army officer) named George Washington in charge of their forces.

Image result for Joseph Warren Jr

General Joseph Warren, Jr – physician, Revolutionary War General and American Patriot. A key figure in the Boston pre-war era,

One of Washington’s top generals would likely have been Adams’ family friend Joseph Warren Jr., had he not died at Bunker Hill in the last of the three British assaults.

Although I’ve written about him in this space before, Joseph Warren Jr. is largely forgotten today. In his time, however, Dr. Warren was the first celebrated martyr of the American Revolution.

Born in Roxbury in 1741, he attended Harvard College, taught at Boston Latin School, became a physician, and married into a wealthy New England family. Despite his standing and professional success — or maybe because of it — Dr. Warren was radicalized by the punitive laws directed at the colonies from London, most notably the notorious Townshend Acts.

He began penning columns in protest in the Boston Gazette under the byline “A True Patriot.”

Warren was one of the leaders in a circle of prominent Boston rebels that included brother-in-law James Otis, Samuel Adams, and fellow Mason Paul Revere. Warren chaired the Committee of Safety after the Boston Massacre and delivered the fiery keynote speech — while wearing a toga — to 5,000 Bostonians on the anniversary of that galvanizing episode.

The good doctor also led efforts to raise and arm local militias, and he was the man who instructed Paul Revere and William Dawes to warn John Adams and John Hancock that British troops were marching toward Lexington to arrest them two months before Bunker Hill.

After the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Warren spent his time directing the training of the local militias. Although lacking formal military training himself, he was put in charge of the Massachusetts forces three days before The Battle of Bunker Hill.

“Warren was young, charismatic, a risk-taker — a man made for revolution,” historian Nathaniel Philbrick told author Tony Horowitz. “Things were changing by the day and he embraced that.”

Yet Warren’s inexperience as a fighting man showed itself the day of the battle, as did his bravery. After learning the British had landed at Charlestown and that their commander, Gen. Thomas Gage, was committed to driving the rebels from Breed Hill, Warren rode there. He was offered command of the men, but declined, taking his place in the ranks as any other volunteer.

Three times that day the British marched in formation uphill across an open field. Twice, they were rebuffed by patriot musket fire. Legend holds that the defending colonials were told to refrain from firing “until you see the whites of their eyes.” Probably the rebels were told to hold their fire until they saw the redcoats’ half gaiters, but regardless of their precise instructions, the point is that Americans fighting their first set-piece battle showed cunning and courage. They waited until the attacking army was within 50 yards of their lines before opening up.

The slaughter was horrible. One British officer paraphrased a line from Shakespeare: “They make us here but food for gunpowder.” Some 1,054 redcoats were killed or wounded, half the British force; a disproportionate number of them were officers, as the Americans deliberately aimed at them.

But the rebels’ ammunition proved to be in short supply. Moreover, the British changed tactics before their third assault. Since the Battle of Culloden 30 years earlier, British officers had known that grapeshot could decimate an enemy in an exposed position, and this time they shelled the patriots’ position before marching.

Bloodied and out of ammo, the American militiamen used bayonets and even rocks before abandoning the field. While rallying his comrades, Joseph Warren was shot between the eyes, dying on the spot. Watching the battle through binoculars was John Trumbull, whose iconic painting “The Death of General Warren” would solidify the fallen physician’s hero status.

A widower who had just turned 34, Joseph Warren left behind four orphaned children, a fiancée who’d been one of his patients, and a mistress whom he’d recently gotten pregnant. As for Gen. Gage, he sailed for England, his sentiments about Boston expressed in writing: “I wish this Cursed place was burned!” he wrote.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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