Updated: Jun 17, 2021
By the end of the afternoon on June 17, 1775, smoke from the charred ruins of Charlestown hung heavy in the air and corpses of both provincial and British soldiers littered the slopes of Breed’s Hill. Doctor and Major General Joseph Warren, prominent Patriot leader and Boston physician, lay dead on the battlefield, shot through the head.
During the overnight hours of June 16-17, provincial soldiers had entrenched atop Breed’s Hill on the Charlestown peninsula, slightly shorter and closer to Boston than nearby Bunker Hill. As the Americans dug through the night under a waning moon, their metal entrenching tools clanged against the stony New England earth and interrupted the stillness of the summer night. At daybreak, disbelieving British eyes in Boston were met with the sight of American earthworks looming across the Charles River.
Overnight, the hill had transformed from a peaceful, verdant pasture into threatening fortifications. Gashing and heaving the ground with pickaxes and spades, the New England army constructed an earthen redoubt out of New England soil, from where to repulse the attacking British force. Within this redoubt some of the day’s most desperate struggles would unfold.
Aiming to dislodge the Americans from this strategic high ground, the British ferried across the Charles River and landed troops in Charlestown. As the sun climbed higher in the June sky and the heat started to build, the British organized into formation at the shore and prepared to take the hill.
With Samuel Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock serving in Philadelphia as members of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress, Dr. and Major General Joseph Warren had remained on the ground in Boston working to lead and organize the Patriot rebellion. Having secreted his four young children at a safe house in Worcester, Warren had then abandoned his home and medical practice in Boston and by early May was serving as the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress at Watertown and Chair of the Committee of Safety.
Sometime during the afternoon on June 17, despite the protestations of his colleagues in the Provincial Congress, Warren slipped out of Cambridge and headed toward Charlestown.
Upon hearing the British had landed, Warren’s friends had feared that he would be drawn to the imminent battle - just as he’d been drawn to participate in the bloody scenes of Menotomy during the Battles of Lexington. His colleagues’ fears were well-founded.
Warren arrived at Charlestown Neck, the thin ribbon of land between the Charles and Mystic Rivers connecting the Charlestown peninsula to Cambridge. British warships in the Charles raked the neck with cannon fire. Having successfully dodged the cannon balls that were skipping across the Neck, Warren arrived at the provincial redoubt dressed in a “light colored coat, with a white satin waistcoat laced with silver, and white breeches with silver loops.”
Meanwhile, the British had suffered heavy losses from their first two attempts to summit the hill and penetrate the redoubt. They had also set fire to Charlestown and heavy, choking plumes of smoke swirled in the air. Through all this, the provincials had kept up a withering fire and inflicted serious casualties, but they were rapidly running out of gunpowder.
Soon, the British could be held off no longer. Advancing inexorably up the hill for the third and final assault, the wave of redcoats finally crested and broke over the redoubt. British soldiers poured over the earthworks in a vengeful rage, slashing and firing furiously at the Americans. The Americans, after laying a devastating barrage of fire at the British for hours, had finally run out of gunpowder and used their muskets as clubs as they fought to exit the redoubt.
Warren remained in the redoubt throughout the third assault, even as it was overrun by British soldiers, and was among the very last provincials to leave. During the American retreat, perhaps after only making his way a few dozen yards, he was struck directly in the face by a ball which then exited the back of his head. Joseph Warren fell dead.
The British ultimately succeeded in taking Charlestown, but at the cost of over 1000 casualties. The provincials, though forced to retreat and surrender the hill, suffered about 450.
By the end of June 17, the hill would undergo yet another transformation. At morning’s first light that day, it was yet a gentle pasture. But as the two armies raged against each other, the hill metamorphized into a battlefield. Then, as the burning fury of the day gave way to the softening evening, the hill offered itself as a graveyard. The New England soil was once again opened with pickaxes and spades – but this time to receive the dead.
The British head of the burial detail, Captain Walter Sloane Laurie, wrote, “Doctor Warren, President of the Provincial Congress … I found among the Slain, and stuffed the Scoundrel with another Rebel, into one hole, and there he, and his seditious principles may remain.”
But Laurie’s plans would be foiled. Late in the spring of 1776, Warren’s remains were unearthed and moved to the Old Granary Burying Ground, where they would remain for the next fifty years.
For untold numbers of New England men, the battlefield would serve as their final resting place. Like Joseph Warren, these men fell on the field. But unlike Warren, they lie there yet. Deep beneath the gentle slope of the hill, New England men still sleep in the familiar embrace of the rocky New England soil.
On June 17, 1825, the hill changed for the fourth and final time. The ground, already sanctified by the blood of the fallen, was cut into again, this time to erect a memorial for the men who died in the battle fifty years before. Surviving veterans of the Battle of Bunker Hill visited the hill and watched as the Marquis de Lafayette participated in the ceremonies for the Bunker Hill Monument.
Although Joseph Warren is no longer resting on the hill in body, he remains inextricably entwined with it. Three days after the battle, Warren’s colleague, Elbridge Gerry, wrote a letter to the Massachusetts delegation at Philadelphia. “Our good, our beloved Friend Doctor Warren was on Bunker Hill when the Lines were forced and is no more, he was two Days before Chosen second Majr. General, Accepted on Friday and on Saturday dyed like a Hero.”