Two hundred and forty-six years ago this week, in one of America’s most sacred battles, hundreds of American patriots fought and died for their yet-to-be-born country. America suffered many losses in the Battle of Bunker Hill, but one of the greatest was the life of Patriot leader, Doctor Joseph Warren.
On June 17, 1775, Marbleheader, founding father and future vice-president Elbridge Gerry, begged Warren not to join the fight. He argued that as President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and major general of the Massachusetts militia, Warren’s talents were needed for the cause of liberty far beyond a single battle, especially one destined to be a bloodbath given the overwhelming number of British troops and the colonists’ lack of ammunition. Warren, however, answered back that he refused to remain at home while others shed their blood for him.
The remarkable full story is now told in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of the regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts, a unique largely unknown group of Americans who changed the course of history.
Despite his elevated status and a debilitating migraine headache earlier that morning, the 34-year-old Warren answered the desperate call of colonial officers at the battle site for additional reinforcements. Their numbers had shrunk as some of the provincial soldiers fortifying the redoubts on Breed and Bunker Hill slunk away when they saw thousands of British troops preparing to attack. Warren’s arrival and his promise of more reinforcements had an immediate positive effect on the morale of the men and officers.
General Israel Putnam offered to give him command, but Warren refused, insisting that he was merely a volunteer who desired to be of use. So the President of the Provincial Congress, with his hair curled and pinned, dressed in a wedding coat with silver buttons, armed with musket and sword, joined the mere 150 remaining colonists defending the crucial redoubt against the onslaught from the British ships in the harbor.
The men met his arrival with loud cheers as he sauntered onto the battlefield, ignoring the hail of bullets and cannonballs. Colonel Prescott, like General Putnam, offered his command, but again Warren insisted that he came only to volunteer and show the British that the Yankees could fight.
And fight they did. Having overcome the opposition on the front of Breed’s Hill, the British continued their uphill charge toward the one remaining bastion of defense: the earthen redoubt on the crest. The Redcoats attacked the fortification ferociously. Toiling through the unbearable heat and nauseating smoke, the soldiers pushed through several lines of rail fences. Inside the redoubt, Colonel Prescott and Doctor Warren urged the provincials to fight on and remain steady in the face of the coming onslaught, withholding fire until ordered and taking good aim at their enemies’ hips.
Inspired by their leaders, the inexperienced men inside the fortification dropped one Redcoat after another. The provincials’ efficient fire brought down most of the forward group of the British, but more came behind them and still more after that. When their ammunition was almost depleted, some simply shook hands and left the redoubt. Warren urged them to stay and fight on, even as their numbers dwindled. When things were looking the grimmest, Prescott found some gunpowder left behind by one of the artillery crews. He doled it out among the men, warning them not to waste a kernel of it. For bullets, the men collected nails, small rocks, or musket balls that had landed in the redoubt.
The British reformed closer to the fortification, closing in on the packed dirt walls. They then launched themselves into the fortification, swarming over the redoubt. The provincials fought back with whatever they could find—bayonets and swords for those who had them, rocks, pickaxes, and fists for those who did not. Gore soon covered the walls and floor of the bastion.
Doctor Warren and Prescott both battled bravely for their lives as they retreated. Prescott parried with his sword against several bayonet-wielding regulars while Warren fought coolly by his side, defending himself against several others. He waved his sword in the air in a final attempt to rally his fellow Americans. Unfortunately for the major general, a British officer recognized him. The officer’s servant is suspected of the cowardly act of firing a pistol point-blank in Warren’s face.
When British General Howe, who amazingly survived the battle with only a slight injury to his foot, heard of Warren’s death, he could not believe that a man of such standing would be on the battlefield and willingly sacrifice himself in such a manner. He considered Warren’s life worth the lives of 500 hundred Americans.
The British lost approximately half of their total force on the field that day. The battle was a Pyrrhic victory for the British. The steep price that Doctor Warren and his fellow brothers in arms, especially the Marbleheaders, exacted from the British in blood would forever change how both the British viewed the Americans–and how the colonists viewed themselves. In their final act, they hallowed the site of Bunker Hill as the birthing ground of a nation. They had, as Warren promised, shown the British that the Yankees could and would fight.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books. His latest, The Indispensables, is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble and would make an excellent Father’s Day gift. His other bestsellers include Washington’s Immortals and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian
Key words: Bestselling book, The Indispensables, Revolutionary War, Marblehead, Bunker Hill, Joseph Warren