John Warren’s Loss of His Brother Joseph Warren


June 13, 2024
by Salina B. Baker Also by this Author


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On Saturday, June 17, 1775, Abigail Adams and her seven-year-old son, John Quincy, stood on Penn’s Hill near her home in Braintree, Massachusetts. They watched sulfuric smoke cloud the sky and heard cannon thunder across Boston Harbor from British ships in the Mystic and Charles Rivers bombarding colonial forces who had built a redoubt on Breed’s Hill on the Charlestown peninsula overnight. The fighting continued throughout the day, and the village of Charlestown erupted in flames. From her view in Braintree fifteen miles south of Charlestown, she must have wondered who she knew and loved was dying in the battle that history calls the Battle of Bunker Hill. She soon found out.

Reports of the battle began to come in and filter to towns and villages throughout colonial America. Abigail wrote to her husband, John Adams, who was in Philadelphia serving as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress:

Dearest Friend
Sunday June 18 1775
The Day; perhaps the decisive Day is come on which the fate of America depends. My bursting Heart must find vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear Friend Dr. Warren is no more but fell gloriously fighting for his Country—saying better to die honourably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the Gallows. Great is our Loss. He has distinguished himself in every engagement, by his courage and fortitude, by animating the Soldiers and leading them on by his own example.[1]

On June 17, twenty-two-year-old Dr. John Warren also heard the sounds of battle from his home in Salem, twenty-three miles north of Charlestown. John’s oldest brother, Dr. Joseph Warren, was the man Abigail referred to as “our dear Friend” in her letter. John and Joseph, both Harvard graduates, were closely united by family, religion, the premature death of their father, Freemasonry, and by professional and patriotic sympathies.[2] Joseph fondly referred to his adoring younger brother as “Jack.” After his 1771 graduation, John served his medical apprenticeship under his brother in Boston and then moved Salem to begin a new medical practice.[3]

Twelve years John’s senior, Joseph was deeply involved in the ten-year colonial America political rebellion that began in the mid-1760s, fueled by the British Parliament. Britain’s attempt to control colonial autonomy through taxes and acts that strangled trade and interfered in colonial government had turned to force by stationing troops in Boston. Aside from maintaining a successful medical practice, Joseph Warren presided over the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and its Committee of Safety, a colonial body of government illegal under the 1774 Massachusetts Government Act, which limited colonial power and outlawed freely-called town meetings and elected positions.

In June 1775, the Provincial Congress and New England militia were holding the British army under siege in Boston following the outbreak of hostilities on April 19, 1775, when shots were fired between colonists and British regulars in Massachusetts. For several years, Joseph had been preparing himself by study and observation to take a conspicuous rank in military arrangements which he knew must ensue.[4] The Massachusetts Provincial Congress bestowed a major generalship upon him on June 14, 1775, the same day the Second Continental Congress formed the Continental Army and appointed George Washington the commander-in-chief.

John knew of his brother’s military interests and political activities which included his participation in the well-organized Sons of Liberty, an organization founded to advance the rights of the colonists. In 1774, the first of the Coercive Acts, the Boston Port Act, closed the port of Boston. The only imports allowed were provisions for the British Army and necessary goods such as fuel and wheat. The act mandated that the port remain shuttered until Bostonians made restitution to the East India Company for destroying their tea during the Boston Tea Party in December 1773.[5] Joseph worked on a Committee of Donations that asked the other colonies to support the “suffering population” and “to champion the nationalistic policy which he and Samuel Adams had urged” for years. Joseph “recruited his brother into the ranks of propagandists.”[6]

When the Boston Committee of Correspondence warned mechanics against working on barracks and other structures for the occupying British army, John wrote a letter to a committee of the mechanics of New York on behalf of the mechanics of Boston dated September 8, 1774:

Gentlemen,—General Gage being determined to cut off the communication of this town with the country, by fortifying the sole pass between them and the land, has applied to several tradesmen in this town, and found none base enough to engage in so villainous an enterprise, and it is now said he intends to apply to New York for workmen to complete his designs . . . We are, gentlemen, your friends and fellow countrymen. By order of the Committee, John Warren, Chairman[7]

On that decisive day of June 17, Dr. John Warren was “called from Salem,” both “by the sound of firing of cannon and, by the flames of Charlestown.” John’s journal entry demonstrates his distress over conflicting reports:

June 17, 1775.—This day,—a day ever to be remembered by the United American Colonies,—at four o’clock in the afternoon, I was alarmed with the incessant report of cannon, which appeared to be at, or near Boston. Towards sunsetting, a very great fire was discovered nearly in a direction from Salem to Boston. At the beginning of the evening, news arrived that a smart engagement had happened in the afternoon, on Bunker Hill, in Charlestown, between the King’s regular troops and the Provincials. Soon after, we received intelligence that our troops were repulsed with great loss, and the enemy had taken possession of the ground, which we had broke the night before. I was very anxious, as I was informed that great numbers had fallen on both sides, and that my brother was in all probability in the engagement. I however went home with the determination to take a few hours’ sleep, and then go immediately to Cambridge, with my arms.
Accordingly, in the morning about two o’clock, I prepared myself, and went off on horseback, and when I arrived at Medford, received the melancholy and distressing tidings that my brother was missing. Upon this dreadful intelligence I went immediately to Cambridge, and inquired of almost every person I saw whether they could give me any information of him. Some told me he was undoubtedly alive and well, others, that he was wounded; and others, that he fell on the field.
This perplexed me almost to distraction. I went on inquiring, with a solicitude which was such a mixture of hope and fear, as none but one who has felt it can form any conception of. In this manner I passed several days, every day’s information diminishing the probability of his safety.[8]

We can imagine John trying to find his brother amid the confusion and news “that the English had obtained possession of the ground, was all that could be known.” Further, “while endeavoring on this occasion, to pass a sentinel, in his overwhelming anxiety to ascertain his brother’s fate, Dr. [John] Warren received a thrust from a bayonet, the scar of which he bore through life.”[9]

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775,” by John Trumbull, detail, 1786. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

At the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Joseph Warren was a thirty-four-year-old widower with four children ages ten through two. This added to John’s distress as his son, Dr. Edward Warren, wrote:

It was several days before my father could ascertain the fact of his brother’s death. He as ever accustomed to feel more for others than for himself. The affliction of his mother, the condition of his brother’s children, now completely orphaned and destitute, the loss of so many of his countrymen, not only produced the severest grief, but excited the utmost indignation.[10]

In an undated entry in John’s journal he wrote of his indignation toward the British ministry. The entry is long and worth our extended attention to understand John’s anxiety, susceptibility and belief in the Patriot cause:

O ye blood-thirsty wretches, who planned this dreadful scene, which you are now forcing your blood-hounds to execute, did you but feel the pangs of heartfelt pungent grief for the cruel wounds you inflicted upon the tenderest part of the public, as well as individuals, you would have execrated those diabolical measures, which by your counsels have been adopted, and precipitated us into all the horrors of civil war.
Unfeeling wretches! Reflect a moment, if you have still one feature of humanity which is unobliterated from your minds, and view the helpless orphan bereft of its fond and only parent, stript of every comfort of life, driven into an inhospitable wild, and exposed to all the misery which is the result of your brutal violence, and forbear to weep if you can; but I defy you to show yourselves so refined in your darling acts of cruelty, as to be capable of supporting the shocking reflection.[11]

John then accused them of “pretensions to honor, justice, and humanity” and being “British cowards.” He went on to say what was in the minds of so many other revolutionaries:

Cover your heads with shame, ye guilty wretches. Go home and tell your blood-thirsty master your pitiful tale, and tell him that the laurel which once decorated the soldier has withered on his brow upon the American shore. Tell him that the British honor and fame have received a mortal stab from the brave conduct of the Americans; tell him that even your congress have but served to inspire the sufferers with fresh courage and determined revolution, and let him know that since that accursed day when first the hostile troops of Great Britain put their foot on the American shore, your conduct has been such as has operated in a continued series of disgraceful incidents, weak counsels, and operations replete with ignorance and folly. Tell him this, ye contemptible cowards; hide yourselves like menial slaves in your master’s kitchens, nor dare approach the happy asylum of once extinct liberty, for if ye dare, ye die.[12]

John wrote at the end of his rant, “Ye die.” He had a choice. Take up a musket or take up his scalpel. Which would serve the cause more? But those who knew him understood that the cause would be served best by his excellent medical qualifications. He was appointed senior surgeon of the military hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After Gen. George Washington arrived in July 1775 to take command of the army, the Continental Congress established an “Army Hospital” to coordinate the medical care required by the Continental Army. John advised John Hancock, Joseph’s close friend and president of the Continental Congress, about necessities and best practices for hospitals and medical care.

When the siege of Boston ended in March 1776 and the British evacuated, the city was in disarray. John Warren’s journal contains descriptions of the condition of the city and inhabitants. The Charlestown peninsula, which the British had been holding since the Battle of Bunker Hill, was also evacuated. This cleared the way for him to look for the remains of his brother Joseph on Breed’s Hill where the battle had taken place. On March 21, 1776, he wrote:

This day I visit Charlestown, and a most melancholy heap of ruins it is. Scarcely the vestiges of those beautiful buildings remain to distinguish them from the mean cottages. The hill, which was the theatre upon which the bloody tragedy of the 17th of June was acted, commands the most affecting view I ever saw in my life. The walls of magnificent buildings tottering to the earth below; above, a great number of rude hillocks, under which are deposited the remains, in clusters, of those deathless heroes, who fell in the field of battle. The scene was inexpressibly solemn, when I considered myself as walking over the bones of the many of my worthy fellow-countrymen, who jeoparded and sacrificed their lives in these high places. When I considered that, perhaps, whilst I was musing on the objects around me, I might be standing over the remains of a dear brother, whose blood had stained these hallowed walks, with what veneration did inspire me![13]

Sometime after, an Englishman who had witnessed the burial informed John and his brother, Eben, of the location of Joseph’s grave. Governor Christopher Gore, a Mason with the St. Andrews Lodge, said in an oration, “The rosemary and cassia adorned and discovered his hallowed grave.”[14] John and Eben did not discover the body of their brother until April 4, covered with about three feet of ground and much disfigured, “yet it was sufficiently known by two artificial teeth, which were set for him a short time before his glorious exit.”[15] The artificial teeth, made for Joseph by Paul Revere, were held in his mouth with a wire. The remains were disinterred and brought to the State House on State Street.

On Monday, April 8, 1776, an article was submitted to the Boston Gazette:

Notice is hereby given to all brethren of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Freemasons, that this day will be re-interred the remains of the late Most Worshipful Joseph Warren, Esq., Grand Master of Ancient Masonry for North America, who was slain in the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775. The procession will be from the State House in Boston at four o’clock, p.m., at which time the brethren are requested to attend with their clothing and jewels. By order of the Right Worshipful Joseph Webb, Esq., Deputy Grand Master.[16]

The call for Masons, and John Warren’s presence in Boston to take stock of medicines and hospital stores left behind by the British, indicate he had opportunity to attend the funeral, held at King’s Chapel. Because the Warrens did not have a family burial plot in Boston, Joseph’s remains were interred in Granary Burying Ground in the tomb of George Richards Minot, a family friend.

At the time of Joseph’s death, his four children were in Worcester under the roof of his friend Dr. Elijah Dix, and in the care of their nanny and Joseph’s alleged betrothed, Mercy Scollay. He had sent them there for their safety before hostilities erupted on April 19, 1775. John’s son Edward wrote of Mercy Scollay:

The children appear to have been objects of great interest, as it was natural they should be. There seems to have been some jealousy on the part of their friends, as to who should have charge of them. The Miss Scollay, who is here spoken of, was the daughter of John Scollay, and the intimate and dear friend of General Warren. She is said to have been betrothed to him, at the time of his death. She was a woman of great energy and depth of character, and her zeal in behalf of these children, if nothing else, would seem to have given claim to the charge of them.[17]

Mercy Scollay and John Warren did not see eye to eye on who should have custody of the children. She contended that shortly before his death Joseph had asked her to care for them if something should happen to him. Mercy was put out with John Warren. On August 17, 1775, from Watertown where she brought Joseph’s two daughters with her and went looking for John Hancock, she wrote to Mrs. Elisha Dix:

My first enquiry was for Mr Hancock whom I was lucky eno’ to find—I told him that I had learnt since I came down what was doing with the few effects my poor friend was possesst of out of Boston—that John W—n had sold every feather bed to General Washinton and for ought I know every thing else—that his picture so valuable to those who esteemd the original was somewhere near Roxbury the looking glasses that was brought out of town with it were (through carelessness) broke to pieces and I supposed all that was in their hands would share the same fate—Mr H—k appeared much affected at my relation, said his brother had no right to doo those things without proper authority and would certainly be calld to account for those proceedings[18]

In the same letter she wrote that she had seen John and Samuel Adams and John Hancock and that “nothing can be done respecting the children till a Judge is appointed and I cannot hold them one moment after the relations claim their right—I have likewise seen their uncle John.” She also wrote that his mother, Mary, wanted them removed from Worcester. What John Hancock immediately did for Mercy, if anything, is unknown.

On May 10, 1776, she wrote to Mrs. Elisha Dix about a misunderstanding she had with John—that apparently assumptions between Mercy and Joseph as to who would have the children surprised John, or John was not willing to admit the assumptions:

I had a visit yesterday from John W—n and I receiv’d, and treated him with all that tenderness which I shall ever feel for the Brother of my Friend—I tho’t he seemd reservd and expected he would say something on former subjects, which he at last did by telling me he understood I had said I tho’t myself very ungenerously treated by him, and the rest of the Family that I had a prior claim to the children and some of my family had reported there was a connexion between this Brother and me which he was ignorant of, and was much surpriz’d that his brother should never mention such a design to him—I was a little nettled at his manner of speaking and told him twas an affair of too much delicacy for me to converse upon but had his Brother continued here, he might have been better inform’d perhaps by this time . . . but we parted good friends, I promised to see the children frequently, and begd I might be imployd in any thing, wherein I might be servicable to the dear little creatures—Thus ended a conversation in which I sufferd many pangs.[19]

After John left the Continental Army field hospitals in 1777 and returned to Boston and married, he legally adopted Joseph’s children.[20] The subject of the children’s welfare and education arose in the coming years. In a letter written by Samuel Adams on December 20, 1779, to John Hancock and Elbridge Gerry, he conveyed that he had spoken to John Warren on the matter:

Gentlemen—Since my last letter to you, I have had an opportunity to converse with Dr. John Warren, brother of our deceased friend, concerning the situation of his children. He tells me that the eldest son was, as early as it could be done, put under the care and tuition of the Rev. Mr. Payson of Chelsea . . . The eldest daughter, a miss of about thirteen is with the doctor . . . The two younger children, a boy of about seven years, and a girl somewhat older, are in the family of John Scollay, Esq., under the particular care of his daughter at her most earnest request . . . Miss Scollay deserves the greatest praise for her attention to them.[21]

Reading the entirety of the letter, it is unclear whether Adams was praising Mercy Scollay or whether the praise had come from John. Nevertheless, it appears that John was willing to allow the children to be with her because not only had she loved their father, but she also loved them and provided stability.

John Warren became a distinguished Harvard professor of anatomy and surgery, performed one of the first abdominal operations in the country, and was a founder of the Boston and Massachusetts Medical Societies and Harvard School of Medicine. He was also involved in founding what became the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Through his son, Dr. John Collins Warren, and his blood line, the Warren name became a medical dynasty whose achievements included the first use of ether anesthesia.

John Warren fathered seventeen children. He died on April 4, 1815, at age sixty-one from heart disease; he suffered symptoms of his illness for thirty years. He outlived three of Joseph’s children, who died without issue—Betsey died in 1804, Joseph 1790, and Richard 1797. The youngest child, Mary, had one son who survived to adulthood. She died in 1826.

John was reunited with Joseph in death. In the mid-1800s, after previous reburials, the brothers’ remains were moved to the Warren family plot in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. They were reinterred under a Roxbury pudding stone on which a statue of Joseph Warren was erected on October 22, 2016, by the 6th Masonic District. The district hosted a ceremony in which their Grand Master dedicated a new memorial to “the namesake of our Distinguished Service Medal, M.W. [Most Worshipful] Joseph Warren” in conjunction with members of the Warren family. John and son John Collins Warren share a tombstone with brother and uncle respectively. If John bore the millstone of grief and idolatry for his brother around his neck for the rest of his life as he bore the scar inflicted by a British bayonet, he is quiescent now.


[1] “Adams Family Correspondence, volume 1”

[2] Edwin Bradford Homes, M.W. Grand Master and Sereno D. Nickerson, R.W. Recording Grand Secretary, Proceedings of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Boston: Press of Rockwell and Churchill, 1869), lxvi, 45. Both Joseph and John Warren served as Grand Masters for this lodge. Edward Warren, M.D., The Life of John Warren, M.D. (Boston: Noyes, Holmes, and Company, 1874), 261-262.

[3] John Cary, Joseph Warren Physician, Politician, Patriot (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), 31.

[4] Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, Biographical Sketches of Eminent Lawyers, Statesmen, and Men of Letters (Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1821), 116.

[5] “The Coercive Acts,”

[6] Cary, Joseph Warren Physician, Politician, Patriot, 139.

[7] Warren. The Life of John Warren, M.D., 31-32.

[8] Ibid., 44-45.

[9] Ibid., 46.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 72-73.

[14] Lodge of Saint Andrew, and the Massachusetts Grand Lodge (Boston: Printed by vote of the Lodge of St. Andrew, 1870), 203.

[15] Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1856), 522. Frothingham quoted the entry about Joseph’s artificial teeth from the New-England Chronicle, April 1776.

[16] “The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 8 April 1776,”

[17] Warren, The Life of John Warren, M.D., 87.

[18], 1.

[19] Ibid., 11.

[20] “Orphans of the Revolution: caring for the children of Dr. Joseph Warren,”

[21] Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren, 543.

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