Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution's Lost Hero

Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution's Lost Hero

by Christian Di Spigna


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A rich and illuminating biography of America’s forgotten Founding Father, the patriot physician and major general who fomented rebellion and died heroically at the battle of Bunker Hill on the brink of revolution

Little has been known of one of the most important figures in early American history, Dr. Joseph Warren, an architect of the colonial rebellion, and a man who might have led the country as Washington or Jefferson did had he not been martyred at Bunker Hill in 1775. Warren was involved in almost every major insurrectionary act in the Boston area for a decade, from the Stamp Act protests to the Boston Massacre to the Boston Tea Party, and his incendiary writings included the famous Suffolk Resolves, which helped unite the colonies against Britain and inspired the Declaration of Independence. Yet after his death, his life and legend faded, leaving his contemporaries to rise to fame in his place and obscuring his essential role in bringing America to independence.

Christian Di Spigna’s definitive new biography of Warren is a loving work of historical excavation, the product of two decades of research and scores of newly unearthed primary-source documents that have given us this forgotten Founding Father anew. Following Warren from his farming childhood and years at Harvard through his professional success and political radicalization to his role in sparking the rebellion, Di Spigna’s thoughtful, judicious retelling not only restores Warren to his rightful place in the pantheon of Revolutionary greats, it deepens our understanding of the nation’s dramatic beginnings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553419344
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 06/11/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 178,242
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

CHRISTIAN DI SPIGNA is a writer based in New York City and Williamsburg, Virginia. A regular speaker and volunteer at Colonial Williamsburg, Di Spigna is an expert on the history of the era and educates a wide array of audiences.

Read an Excerpt


No Turning Back

“The mistress we court is LIBERTY; and it is better to die than not to obtain her.” —Joseph Warren to Samuel Adams, June 15, 1775

The fateful day had come. On the morning of June 17, 1775, just days after his thirty-fourth birthday and appointment to the rank of major general, Dr. Joseph Warren, away from his family and closest political allies, lay motionless inside Hastings House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Suffering from one of the debilitating headaches that had plagued him for years, he listened as the steady fire of cannonade rumbled in Charlestown, a few miles away. It had not rained for weeks, and the sun was already scorching. Following one of the mildest New England winters on record, events in and around Boston had reached a boiling point. The stage was set for a grim conflict that would culminate in a scene of devastation. Weeks earlier the doctor had presciently written, “No business but that of war is either done or thought of in this colony.”

More than three hundred miles away in Philadelphia, a group of patriot delegates from Massachusetts, including the cousins Samuel and John Adams and the wealthy merchant John Hancock, were attending the Second Continental Congress, which had been in session since May 10. Unsanctioned by the king, this nascent extralegal governing body anxiously awaited news from Warren’s dispatchers about the explosive situation in the Bay Colony, where the Whig movement had been resisting Crown policies for over ten years. When Warren sent his trusted messengers, including his close friend and patriot associate Paul Revere, to the congress with information, it was shared and discussed by scores of men with opinions and beliefs as diverse as the colonies from which they hailed. But by the time a response reached the doctor, many days, often weeks, would elapse. Because time was of the essence, Warren had to take decisive action at his discretion. At the peak of his power, he was effectively alone in directing the events unfolding in the Bay Colony.

At this moment Warren was unquestionably the de facto patriot leader in the epicenter of the American rebellion. The United States did not exist in 1775. The colonists were still British subjects under Crown rule, more than a year away from the day John Hancock would boldly write his prominent signature atop the famous document penned by Thomas Jefferson. At that point, George Washington—an inactive colonel of the Virginia Regiment since 1758—had yet to achieve his everlasting glory. Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s seminal political pamphlet, had yet to be published. Weeks earlier, on May 5, the internationally famed statesman Benjamin Franklin had returned to the colonies after living in Britain for over a decade.

Warren, meanwhile, was one of the most prominent physicians in Massachusetts, a refined and educated gentleman revolutionary blessed with a charismatic personality, good looks, and a keen political acumen. Described as “elegant in his personal appearance . . . ​and devoted as much to classical studies as professional learning,” he was an admired and trusted patriot insider making influential political decisions. And given his deep Yankee lineage, which dated back to the mid-seventeenth century, the doctor had numerous social and familial relationships connecting him to politically diverse groups throughout a Bay Colony that had ruptured into bitterly opposed factions. Paradoxically, for a time, he seemed almost destined to take a leading role on the side of government loyal to the king, given his intimate ties to the most powerful Tory families in Massachusetts—in fact, his medical practice had flourished because of Tory patronage. But he had chosen the path of most resistance, becoming a tireless patriot fighting in what he referred to as the “present struggle for the liberties of America.”

As tensions mounted between the king’s troops and the Bay Colony populace, strong resentments fueled incidents that directly involved the omnipresent doctor. In fact, Warren’s central role in the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill led one of His Majesty’s commanders stationed in the colonies to refer to him as “the famous Dr. Warren, the greatest incendiary in all America.” Although he could display the restraint and tact of a consummate statesman in volatile political situations, Warren was also prone to outbursts of rage, spewing venom from his lips, his quill, and his fists. At times, his extreme Whig ideology called for death over submission to the Crown.

With Warren spearheading the patriot resistance and thousands of angry British soldiers spread throughout Boston, Warren’s home on Hanover Street was no longer safe for him. Concerned for the safety of his family, he secretly arranged to relocate them to Worcester, a town more than thirty miles away, where they would stay under the care and protection of his friend Dr. Elijah Dix. He insisted that their identities remain anonymous, lest any vengeful mercenary should discover their whereabouts. For close to a decade, Warren’s actions had frustrated the British both behind the scenes and in the public eye. But in that first half of 1775, he would help ravage the Crown, draining its purse and crippling the king’s forces. By dispatching midnight riders into the countryside on the evening of April 18, 1775, he effectively set off the revolutionary war’s first pitched battles, at Lexington and Concord.

Considerably younger than most of his compatriots, and with even more to risk, Warren had refused to leave the environs of Boston, possessing what many called “uncommon firmness in situations of danger.” Despite having to care for his family and his medical patients and despite being on the verge of financial ruin, he remained on the front lines, surrounded by danger, and under constant threat of arrest and execution. But once Britain imposed sanctions aimed at punishing the colonists for the Boston Tea Party, Warren began to shift his efforts from resistance to open and armed rebellion. Now ready to attain independence at any cost, Warren wrote to Samuel Adams, “The mistress we court is LIBERTY; and it is better to die than not to obtain her.”

As chairman of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety—a provisional body of government in charge of military matters—Warren attended a council of war in the Hastings House in Cambridge on June 16, 1775. There as the patriots of New England prepared for an open battle, he helped devise strategies. While he served as the main leader of the radical Whig faction in Boston, the blurred Rubicon between the two sides was finally crossed.

Before Bunker Hill, Warren’s compatriots knew that he intended to fight in the explosive engagement. Despite all their efforts to dissuade him, he remained determined to participate: “The ardor of dear Doctor Warren could not be restrained by the entreaty of his brethren of the Congress.” Upon discovering his nomination to the rank of general in the fledgling Provincial Army, one colleague would later confess, “I was sorry when I heard of this appointment; because I thought, a man so much better qualified to act in other capacities than most are, ought not to be exposed in this way, unless in case of necessity. But his zeal hurried him on.” News of Warren’s fervor stretched beyond his political and military circles to his friends, neighbors, patients, and enemies. And although he was a valuable Whig leader, doctor, and statesman, Warren had decided to cast his fate with that of his countrymen on the most dangerous part of the battlefield—the redoubt on Breed’s Hill.

The realization of a separate, even independent America, free from what Whigs viewed as oppressive British imperialist policies, would have been much compromised if the king’s troops had plowed to victory that afternoon of June 17. Warren understood that he needed to rally the provincials if the Whig cause of liberty were to endure. So when he received word that British “regulars were landing,” though thoroughly exhausted and not having slept for days, he rushed from bed armed with a book of prayers, intelligence reports, and pistols concealed on his waist. The guns were no extravagance: Warren was by now rumored to be a wanted man. The king’s troops stationed in the Bay Colony had lambasted him with death threats, even attempting to assault him physically, for he “was well known to their officers, and he could not walk in the streets without being exposed to their insults or sneers.”

Wasting no time, Warren exited Hastings House near Harvard Yard. Procuring a horse along the way, he galloped toward Charlestown to fight as “the roar of cannons, mortars, and musquetry” raged around him. The fighting, which had commenced earlier that morning, continued as the king’s forces fired upon the provincials throughout the day. Although days earlier appointed the rank of major general by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, Warren, upon his arrival, declined repeated exhortations from Gen. Israel Putnam to take over his command.

Almost twenty-five years older than Warren, “Old Put” was a short man with a stout build and “a remarkable head of white bushy hair.” He had arrived in Boston in August 1774 and stayed with Warren, and the two men had become fast friends. They could not have been more different in demeanor or appearance. A legendary and battle-tested veteran, Putnam had fought heroically for Britain against the French during the Seven Years’ War. Without being “adept either at politics or religious canting,” the gruff veteran frontiersman seemed “totally unfit for everything but fighting.” Just a day earlier the old warrior had stirred the patriots’ martial zeal, promising they would “fill hell to-morrow, so full of the redcoats, that the devils will break their shins over them.” Like Warren’s political comrades, Putnam lamented seeing the doctor so eager and willing to place himself at the center of such a deadly situation. Veteran leaders on both sides knew that the next time their forces clashed, there would be no mercy. Warren had fought the British at Lexington and Concord and in two subsequent skirmishes, and for months he had “spent part of every day in military exercises,” but he did not possess the military expertise of the other patriot officers.

What Warren lacked in knowledge of battle tactics, he compensated for with sheer nerve and courage. When the king’s troops had scorned the provincials as cowards, an enraged Warren declared, “These fellows say we won’t fight: by heavens, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!” Believing he was more valuable leading his compatriots on the fields of action than hiding safely behind a desk and a military title, he was eager to get into the thick of action.

Death was no stranger to Warren. He had experienced it up close over the years—first as a boy, later as a doctor and husband, and more recently at Lexington and Concord. He knew well the horror associated with battle, aware that by sunset many bodies would litter the Charlestown peninsula. According to one account, he had decided to place himself “where wounds were to be made, rather than where they were to be healed.” He armed himself with his pistols, a musket, and a sword, refusing to leave anything to chance, knowing that a long-distance shooting match could quickly turn into a vicious hand-to-hand brawl. Then amid incessant British bombardments, he navigated his way up the grassy slope toward Breed’s Hill, where patriots had hastily constructed an earthen redoubt and lightly fortified lines earlier that morning.

The officer in charge of the redoubt was Col. William Prescott, who had seen action both in King George’s War and in the French and Indian War. He had all the look of a stern and calculating veteran. Like Warren, he had promised to fight to the death if necessary, declaring, “I will never be taken alive. The tories [Crown sympathizers] will never have the satisfaction of seeing me hanged.” Some fifteen years older than Warren, the seasoned warrior immediately attempted to subordinate his command, as Putnam had done, but again the doctor refused. Warren assured Prescott that he was there not to interfere or tout his “unofficial” military status but to fight as a volunteer soldier against his country’s enemies. But many provincials, especially Prescott, were ready to follow any order or command issued by General Warren—not only the highest-ranking military officer on that field but also the top political and civilian figure present. Surrounded by his compatriots, this was where Warren would make his stand.

To many colonists, armed rebellion remained an unspeakable option in 1775. Most delegates at the Second Continental Congress opposed such a drastic measure, preferring to petition George III in the hopes of reaching an amicable resolution. To take up arms against one’s country was high treason, punishable by death. That blistering June afternoon the sharp clap of artillery fire marked the death knell of American loyalty to Britain. The man who had spent most of his adult years saving lives now readied himself to kill as many of the king’s soldiers as he could—fellow British subjects, some of whom were his Masonic brethren, patients, business associates, and even friends.

Now leading his patriot brothers, risking everything, a fully armed Joseph Warren stood at Breed’s Hill on the precipice of what descended into a bloody civil war and ultimately a global conflict that would last more than eight years. Not only would the clash inflict mass death, torture, disease, famine, rape, and civilian casualties, but the struggle also displaced tens of thousands of the king’s loyal subjects, and sowed the seeds of destruction for the Native-American populace, while shattering the hopes of so many African-American slaves, whose dreams of independence remained shackled in the nightmares of human bondage. By day’s end on June 17, the Bunker Hill engagement would see more savage fighting and human carnage than any other battle of the American Revolutionary War, presaging the horrors of the prisoner-of-war camps and ships where so many captured soldiers came to wish their end had indeed come on a battlefield. And as the sun set behind Boston’s Back Bay, with it forever sank the hopes of any peaceful reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain. The war had begun.


Childhood Hamlet

“High Waye Towards Roxburie”

Joseph Warren’s rise from the son of a humble Roxbury farmer into a powerful gentleman revolutionary has remained buried beneath centuries of historical neglect. Once referred to as the “Lost Town” by many early Bay Colony settlers, Boston—a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides—had, within several decades, overcome its initial tribulations and grown into the most important town in British North America. Cotton Mather, the infamous New England Puritan minister, had at the beginning of the 1700s, called Boston “the metropolis of the whole English America.”

Settled in 1630, Warren’s hometown of Roxbury lay two miles south of Boston and housed six hundred residents across ten thousand acres.

Table of Contents

Maps x-xii

Introduction 1

1 No Turning Back 11

2 Childhood Hamlet 18

3 The Harvard Years 31

4 Speckled Monster 51

5 New Beginnings 67

6 Acts of Violence 74

7 Unsheath Thy Quill 90

8 From Red Fields to Crimson Cobblestones 105

9 A Time to Mourn 117

10 A Bitter Crew 130

11 Resolved 146

12 Joseph Warren's Ride 163

13 Hill of Lamentations 178

14 Founding Mourners 191

Epilogue 203

Warren's Legacy 209

Notes 225

Acknowledgments 295

Bibliography 300

Index 309

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Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution's Lost Hero 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Jason_A_Greer More than 1 year ago
Di Spigna's Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution's Lost Hero is a good biography of one of the early leaders in Massachusetts, who led and agitated for colonial independence from Great Britain in the 1770s. Warren is largely forgotten because of his death in the Patriot retreat from the Battle of Bunker Hill, and because he died young at the outset of the war, compatriots who lived through the conflict were able not only to build a public record but write and explain their actions for the next generation. Warren lived his entire life in and around Boston. The record has him not traveling more than a hundred miles from the center of Boston once in his life. So this book presents him as a man and striving leader of his community. He is concerned with affairs in and around Boston. There is little record of his understanding of how the colonial conflict connects to the wider British North American world. Educated and upwardly mobile from his farming family, he is a model of how a young man can be radicalized so quickly to take political and insurgent actions that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. Di Spigna's does a good job of describing colonial Massachusetts, especially the professional world that Warren lived and worked in, the world of Harvard College at the time, Warren's deep religious faith and concern for the poor. How Warren became convinced of a radical political change, through his own conservative view of the world, ending with the Suffolk Resolves and efforts to create underground opposition with the likes of Sam Adams and Paul Revere are told well. The events leading to the final action at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the familiar aftermath through the next few generations leave the reader to ponder the effects that Warren left to the world. I understand that there are other works about Warren. I think what this book offers is a good explanation of the world lived in, particularly from 1760 - 1755. This work is largely told through Warren's perspective, and the Crown government's action is not explored very much. This work adds real understanding to how Warren turned on the stable world he grew up in and was willing to overthrow it for the hope of a better life for him, his family and community.
Derek_W_Beck More than 1 year ago
I received an advanced copy for a book review. The full review is at A summary: The book’s introduction repeatedly declares this is Warren’s “untold story”... In fact, much is known. Di Spigna’s book is the now the fifth Warren bio. While there are a few eyebrow-raising claims in the short introduction, the book is overall well written. The book flows chronologically and runs through Warren’s life as you would expect: from boyhood, to Harvard student, to his rise as a successful Boston physician, and then to influential political and Revolutionary leader. A few episodes are glossed over, such as Warren’s possible struggle with money prior to the Revolution, and his suspected engagement to Mercy Scollay. The real issue is that it suffers from four major problem categories: 1) falsely bolstering of Warren’s importance (Di Spigna repeatedly conflates Warren’s roles with those of George Washington); 2) undeserved bias against the British (making them one-dimensional villains and cherry-picking evidence to do so); 3) lack of scholarly judiciousness (example below); 4) academic dishonesty (example below). Without repeating my entire review here, two key examples: Lack of scholarly judiciousness (p. 188 ff.): Di Spigna writes that after Warren was killed in battle, “a small group of seething redcoats circled the body of the ‘murdered worthy … Doctr. Warren’… His Majesty’s executioners repeatedly bayoneted his corpse in a violent butchering. Lt. James Drew of the Royal Navy, it was later claimed, returned to the redoubt, walked over to Warren’s body, and spat in his face before cutting ‘off his head and commit[ing] every act of violence upon his Body.’” Di Spigna adds that Warren’s body was continuously mutilated for some time thereafter. Here we see bias against the British tied with lack of scholarly judiciousness. The above description likely never happened (or if it did, Di Spigna has the burden of proof but fails to deliver). Di Spigna provides only one source for this sensationalized story: a rumor reported by Abigail Adams a month and half later. However, Di Spigna conveniently ignores a part of this source which is known to be false. That false part is that Warren's head, according to the rumor, was taken in triumph into Boston. Except, it wasn't, and Warren's body was identified by his teeth after the British evacuated Massachusetts. If half of a piece of evidence is known to be false, the entire piece of evidence becomes suspect and must be doubted without further supporting information. Instead, Di Spigna cherry-picked the rumor and claimed it as truth, and ignores evidence to the contrary. Academic dishonesty: Di Spigna’s introduction concludes (p. 8) that his is “the first completely nonfiction book writing about Dr. Joseph Warren in almost sixty years.” He repeats similar claims in various places. But it is false. He knows it too, and made an overt decision to dismiss Samuel A. Forman's “Dr. Joseph Warren” (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 2011). Note Di Spigna’s words: “first completely nonfiction book.” His argument is that Forman’s book, which has a fictional account (that Forman twice explicitly notes as hypothetical), is therefore not a biography. Yet Forman’s book remains the best researched to date. This is not the definitive book on Warren.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written and of information history tells far too little about considering his contribution to our history
RevLover More than 1 year ago
Attention Revolutionary War buffs: a new read has arrived! I couldn't put down Di Spigna's biography about one of the unsung heroes of the era, Dr. Joseph Warren. Not only does the book cover the discourse and discord leading up to the Revolution—culminating with Warren's demise at Bunker Hill— the detail and storytelling of the era draws the reader in and creates a backdrop of imagery I've been missing since the John Adams mini-series hit the scene. From his life as a student at Harvard, to his development as a prominent doctor treating Tory and Whig alike, to his stature as a leader in the Whig party while so many others fled to the countryside or avoided the limelight only to behold the spotlight after the dust settled-- the author delivers what I have come to see as Warren's personal effects, such as the loss of his father, alongside the historical uprisings of the day providing a yin and yang confluence of energy and topic throughout the book that often kept me on the edge of my seat. There are always going to be other works about similar topics, perhaps even the exact same topic, out there. For me, Di Spigna's attention to detail and skill in binding in facts about Warren with details about pre Rev Boston is unparalleled. Myself an academic, I find it egregious to expect someone to (overly) cite previous work as the develop a story in their own way. Di Spigna is truly adept at walking the fine line between academic work and historical nonfiction/storytelling—this is what makes his book a gold mine of a read. My review is "Excellent". Enjoy!