“I cannot forbear to drop a tear”

Joseph Warren, a medical doctor, was a prominent leader of the American resistance to the British in Boston. As president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress he dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous ride (April 18, 1775) to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams, as well as residents of Lexington and Concord, of an imminent raid by the British. With Boston under siege, American forces, learning that the British planned to occupy surrounding hills, hurriedly threw up fortifications atop Breed’s Hill near Bunker Hill on the Charlestown peninsula. The British stormed the redoubt on June 17, 1775, and won the day, but at an enormous cost—casualties of more than 50%. Although Dr. Warren had been commissioned as an officer in the state militia, he chose to participate in the battle as an ordinary soldier. He was killed in the British assault; his body was mutilated and thrown into a ditch. It was found some months later by his brothers and identified by Paul Revere by means of an artificial tooth he had implanted in Warren’s jaw.

Mercy Otis Warren, patriot, poet, and dramatist, corresponded with a circle of well placed women friends, one of whom was Abigail Adams. But she also numbered Abigail’s husband among her correspondents. In the following letter to John Adams, she expressed her great distress at the sufferings of the people of Boston during the siege, and of the people in the surrounding countryside as well. She is well informed and knows about, and regrets, the death of Dr. Joseph Warren. The doctor was not a relative of Mercy’s.

Watertown July 5, 1775Dear Sir,—
I shall not attempt to give you a description of the ten fold difficulties that surround us. You have doubtless had it from better hands. Yet I cannot forbear to drop a tear over the inhabitants of our capital, most of them sent naked from the city to seek a retreat in villages, and to cast themselves on the charity of the first hospitable hand that will receive them. Those who are left behind are exposed to the daily insults of a foe lost to that sense of honour, freedom and valour, once the characteristic of Britons, and even of the generosity and humanity which has long been the boast of all civilized nations. And while the plagues of famine, pestilence and tyranny reign within the walls, the sword is lifted without, and the artillery of war continually thundering in our ears.

The seacoasts are kept in constant apprehensions of being made miserable by the depredations of the once formidable navy of Britain, now degraded to a level with the corsairs of Barbary.

At the same time they are piratically plundering the Isles, and pilfering the borders to feed the swarms of veteran slaves shut up in the town. They will not suffer a poor fisherman to cast his hook in the ocean to bring a little relief to the hungry inhabitants without the pitiful bribe of a dollar each. . . .

The venal system of administration appears to the astonishment of every good man in the corruption, duplicity and meanness, which run through every department, and while the faithless Gage will be marked with infamy for breach of promise, by the impartial historian, will not the unhappy Bostonians be reproached with a want of spirit in putting out of their own power to resent repeated injuries by giving these arms into the hand, which would have been better placed in the heart of a tyrant.

And now they are forbidden even to look out from their own house tops when he sends out his ruffians to butcher their brethren, and wrap in flames the neighbouring towns. But I think this advertisement was as great a mark of timidity as the transaction was of a savage ferocity. . . .

But nothing that has taken place is more regretted than the death of your friend, the brave, the humane, the good Dr. Warren. And though he fell covered with laurels and the wing of fame is spread over his monument, we are almost led to enquire why the useful, the virtuous patriot is cut off ere he reaches the meridian of his days. …

The illustration depicting Dr. Warren’s death is a broadside based on John Trumbull’s painting (1786) which is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The letter can be found in the Warren-Adams Letters Vol. I (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1917), pages 71-72. The engraving of Mercy Otis Warren was taken from the portrait by John Singleton Copley (1763); it is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It appeared in Elizabeth Ellet’s book The Women of the American Revolution, Third Edition (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1849).


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