In this age of debased political leadership, it is worth remembering this Memorial Day one of the Founding Fathers who gave his life on the field of battle: Doctor Joseph Warren, killed in action June 17, 1775 at Bunker Hill at the age of 34.
Warren was a doctor, a man of learning and distinction in that era (he graduated from Harvard), but he was more than that: along with John Hancock and Samuel Adams, he was one of the inspirational leaders of the Sons of Liberty, the patriot group that led the Massachusetts rebellion against British authority that grew after Bunker Hill into a national war for independence. Warren was there at the creation: he was on the field of battle at Lexington and Concord, and it was he who dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes to raise the minutemen with the news that “the British are coming!” (possibly due to information from the wife of British General Gage – perhaps one of Warren’s intelligence sorces; some sources speculate that Warren may have had an affair with her, although this remains unproven). He was responsible for dispatching Benedict Arnold to take Fort Ticonderoga; Arnold did not do so alone, but the capture of the fort would prove indispensable later on to breaking the seige of Boston when its guns were towed there by Henry Knox in March 1776.
Warren had every reason to seek safety, being the widowed father of four, but instead sought the most dangerous location on the Bunker Hill field of battle and fought in the ranks until he ran out of ammunition, at which point he was shot in the head and his body hacked to pieces by redcoats with bayonets. His body was not discovered by his brothers until the following April, after the siege of Boston was raised, and identified by Revere by dental analysis.
Warren was hardly the only prominent American killed in our wars, but he was the first. A compelling and charismatic figure and still young, he might well have gone on to take his place alongside Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and the other giants of American history. Yet his sacrifice was no more and no less than any other we commemorate this day: each gave all they had to give.
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