Battle of Bunker Hill

Dr. John Warren's Medical Trunk

Trunk, 1770-1815. Loaned by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts, GL2004.2055. Photograph by David Bohl.

This leather and wood trunk decorated with brass studs is thought to have belonged to Dr. John Warren (1753-1815) of Massachusetts. Its side handles and manageable size (11-7/8” x 13-1/2” x 24-1/2") made it both portable and practical. Through the service of its dynamic owner, this trunk may have seen military action during the American Revolutionary War.

Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Dr. John Warren was the younger brother of Dr. Joseph Warren, whose death at the Battle of Bunker Hill made him a martyr to the Patriot cause. John Warren studied medicine at Harvard, graduating in 1771. He became a surgeon with a militia regiment commanded by Colonel Timothy Pickering in 1772 and in that capacity, responded to the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.

In 1775, Warren was practicing medicine in Salem, Massachusetts. He traveled with his regiment to the various battles in which he was involved. Like many Massachusetts militia members who were called out for the Lexington Alarm, Warren remained in the Boston area into the month of May. Warren likely brought his own medical supplies with him when he traveled. He owned two amputation kits. Based on the dimensions of these amputation kits, both items could have been carried inside this trunk.

By June 1775, Warren had returned home to Salem and received news of the start of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He hurried down to Cambridge in the early hours of the following morning to treat wounded soldiers. At the same time, Warren fretted about his brother Joseph who had fought during the battle. At one point, Warren left the medical area in Cambridge and went to Bunker Hill to find his brother, asking any and all soldiers he encountered about Joseph’s whereabouts. One of these was a British sentry, and Warren received a bayonet wound to his side in response to his inquiry. Unfortunately, Joseph “fell on the field,” as John later wrote in his diary.

His fervor for the Patriot cause and his brother’s death motivated Warren. According to Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, “He enjoyed helping repulse the raid at Lechmere Point, and, case in hand [emphasis mine], took his post on Cobble Hill at night hoping for another Bunker Hill.” The “case” mentioned in this quote was likely a medical case, possibly this trunk. Cobble Hill was a colonist-fortified hill in Charlestown with an excellent view of Boston Harbor. Warren may have carried his medical supplies in this trunk during the early days of the Revolutionary War when the action was focused in Massachusetts.

It's also possible that Warren brought this trunk with him when the action moved away from Massachusetts. The nascent Continental Army struggled to provide uniforms, firearms, and other supplies to its soldiers. Warren’s medical tools and supplies would have been highly valued and were likely brought with him when he left for New York in May 1776, after the British evacuated from Boston.

Warren later served as Surgeon General of the army hospitals in Long Island, New York and Bethlehem, New Jersey in 1776. In the latter location, he – and possibly this trunk – saw action at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Warren also participated in the Rhode Island campaign in 1778, perhaps due to his 1777 marriage to Abigail Collins, the daughter of Rhode Island Governor John Collins.

Dr. John Warren was a knowledgeable and dedicated surgeon, who put his medical skills to use in service of the American cause. This trunk, both substantial enough to hold needed medical supplies and portable enough to carry into battle, is an apt symbol of his service.

The Warren Family of Doctors, Freemasonry, and Bunker Hill

Warren_Statue_engraving_web On Wednesday, June 17, 1857, the Bunker Hill Memorial Association unveiled a statue of Joseph Warren (1741-1775), who died at the Battle of Bunker Hill exactly 82 years earlier. To commemorate the occasion, the Bunker Hill Memorial Association printed Celebrations by the Bunker Hill Monument Association, of the Anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, in 1850 and 1857 (below, right). Our copy of these proceedings is particularly special because it was a presentation copy given to Dr. J. Mason Warren (1811-1867), who was Joseph Warren's grand-nephew, and served on the Bunker Hill Memorial Association's board of directors.

Joseph Warren is often remembered for his pivotal role in two aspects of the American Revolution: as the man who sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their midnight ride on the night before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and as a General who died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. By profession, however, Joseph Warren was a doctor, and this played no small role in his life, or in the lives of many others in the Warren family.

In fact, Dr. Joseph Warren stands at the head of a long line of the Warren family of doctors. His brother John Warren (1753-1815) was the principal founder of Harvard Medical School, and, in turn, John Warren's son - John Collins Warren (1778-1856) - was a leading figure in establishing Massachusetts General Hospital and was the first to perform surgery using ether (see this painting and this daguerreotype). The Warren that we are concerned with here today - J. Mason Warren - was a leading surgeon and, while at Massachusetts General Hospital, performed pioneering work in plastic surgery. J. Mason Warren performed the first rhinoplasty procedure in America in 1837. But this line of doctors didn't end there - J. Mason Warren's son, J. Collins Warren (1842-1927) also went on to become a doctor.

Warren_Statue_cover_web Freemasonry, naturally, played a large role in the celebrations surrounding the unveiling of the Warren statue on June 17, 1857. General Joseph Warren was a Mason himself, having been raised in the Lodge of St. Andrew and was Grand Master of the Massachusetts Provincial Grand Lodge from 1769 until his death in 1775. It was Massachusetts Freemasons who gave Joseph Warren a proper and honorable burial a year after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Warren had been buried on the battlefield and his remains were dug up a year later; he was identified by the dental work Paul Revere had done on him. Masons also played a large role in the ceremony surrounding the laying of the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Memorial. The proceedings of the 1857 unveiling of the statue of Warren enumerate the many dignitaries who processed to Breed's Hill. It was stated that "the Masonic display was large and brilliant; the grand lodges of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, twenty-four subordinate lodges, and members of two or three encampments taking part in the procession." You can read more about the Masonic ceremonies surrounding the 1857 dedication of the Warren statue here.

You can read a biography of J. Mason Warren, the grand-nephew of Dr. Joseph Warren here.

Images above are from:

Celebrations by the Bunker Hill Monument Association, of the Anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, in 1850 and 1857. [Boston: Bunker Hill Monument Association, 1858]
Gift of Wilbur Devens Raymond
Call number: RARE E241 .B9 1858

"Don't Fire Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes!": Remembering Bunker Hill

2008_021_6DP2 In 1876, the United States celebrated its centennial anniversary with great fanfare.  As part of the celebration, souvenirs of all types were available for purchase – including this glass platter that was recently donated to the National Heritage Museum.  At the center is a depiction of the Bunker Hill Monument, which is actually located on Breed’s Hill, in Charlestown, Massachusetts.  The cornerstone for the monument was laid in a Masonic ceremony on June 17, 1825, the 50th anniversary of the famous battle.  Taking part in the festivities was the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), who was making a tour through the United States at the time.  The monument was completed in 1843.

The famous battle, fought against the British on June 17, 1775, was one of the earliest of the Revolutionary War.  Although it was a British victory, the American forces killed or wounded almost half of the 2,200 British soldiers fighting that day.  The platter memorializes the names of four of the American military leaders: Israel Putnam, John Stark, William Prescott and Joseph Warren.  How many of these names do you know?  Here’s a short guide:

Israel Putnam (1718-1790) was born in Massachusetts, but spent his adult life in Connecticut where he was a farmer.  After military service during the French and Indian Wars, Putnam helped organize the Sons of Liberty in eastern Connecticut.  In 1775, he was appointed a brigadier general and eventually became second in rank to George Washington.  As field commander of the troops at Bunker Hill, Putnam reportedly gave one of the most famous orders in military history, “Don’t one of you fire until you see the white of their eyes” (although some accounts attribute this to William Prescott, also named on the platter).

John Stark (1728-1822) was a native of New Hampshire, where he made his living as a farmer and a miller.  Like Putnam, he also served in the French and Indian Wars.  After the fighting at Lexington and Concord, Stark traveled to Cambridge and was appointed colonel.  At Bunker Hill, he deployed his men between Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill to defend the army’s left flank.  He was able to encourage his inexperienced soldiers to cover weak spots in the American defense that day.

Like Putnam and Stark, William Prescott (1726-1795) was also a farmer, tending the land left to him by his father in Groton, Massachusetts.  Also like Putnam and Stark, Prescott gained military experience in the French and Indian Wars.  The night before the Battle of Bunker Hill, Prescott, a commissioned colonel, was ordered to command the expedition to fortify Bunker Hill.  With 1,200 men, he instead entrenched Breed’s Hill.  He was able to defend against British General Sir William Howe’s advances twice.  Although the British broke through on their third advance, Prescott achieved a symbolic victory, suffering only 441 dead and wounded compared to the over 1,000 casualties on the British side.

Perhaps the best-known name on the platter belongs to Joseph Warren (1741-1775).  Warren, a Boston physician, had been elected President Pro Tempore of the Provincial Congress on April 23, 1775.  Just three days before the Battle of Bunker Hill, on June 14, Warren was elected a major general of the provincial army.  Sadly, he died at the end of the battle when Howe’s forces finally broke through.  At the time, Warren was also Grand Master of Massachusetts Provincial Grand Lodge. After recovering Warren’s body from the battlefield, members of both active Massachusetts Grand Lodges honored him with a Masonic funeral service.

Bunker Hill Platter, 1876, collection of the National Heritage Museum, gift of Robert and Edith Zucker, 2008.021.6.  Photograph by David Bohl.