What did the American Revolution’s first martyr and the American Revolution’s most infamous traitor have in common that was so important?
Dr. Joseph Warren was an influential and ubiquitous Boston physician, Son of Liberty, masonic grand master, and in the absence of John Hancock, pro tempore president (Joseph would be voted president on May 2, 1775) of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and member of its sub-committees when he and Benedict Arnold met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in late April 1775.
Joseph, who sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous midnight ride to warn the countryside that General Thomas Gage’s British regulars were on the move to seize patriot arms in Concord and possibly to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams hiding in Lexington, was holding the American rebellion and the provincial army together.
Benedict Arnold was from an influential Connecticut family. His great-grandfather was an early governor of Rhode Island. The family prospered until some poor business deals caused financial problems. Arnold’s father turned to the local taverns for solace. Prior to the Revolution, Benedict was an apothecary and a successful seagoing merchant captain. Some of his business dealings drifted into smuggling . . . in contempt of the customs laws of the Crown.
Both Joseph and Benedict were born in 1741. They were handsome, charismatic, energetic, ambitious, and both had an indifference to personal safety. Future actions by Benedict with respect to Joseph’s children suggest that the two seemed to have struck up an almost instant friendship, but no details of their personal interactions survive.
In April 1775, Captain Benedict Arnold marched his well-appointed militia unit from New Haven, Connecticut to Cambridge. Benedict approached Joseph and the Committee of Safety with a scheme to take the poorly defended British stronghold of Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain where there were “80 pieces of heavy cannon, 20 brass and 4 18-pounders and 10-12 mortars.” This is exactly what the Committee of Safety needed to hear. The provincial army had two experienced artillery officers, but it still did not have a sufficient number of cannons.
Joseph championed the project and shepherded it through the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Benedict was appointed a Massachusetts militia colonel, issued 100 pounds, 200 lbs of gunpowder (a decision that would prove portentous 6 weeks later at Bunker Hill), 200 lbs of lead musket balls, and bayonets.
Joseph proceeded in relative secrecy so British General Thomas Gage might be kept in the dark. Unknown to Joseph and Benedict, the Connecticut governor, John Trumbull, was simultaneously pursuing the same scheme with Ethan Allen.
Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were equally eager to capture such a prize and the two groups met up with each other at Bennington. Arnold was surprised and angered because Ethan Allen did not care if Arnold had permission from the Committee of Safety and Arnold couldn’t talk Allen out of relinquishing command. Nevertheless, on May 10, 1775, they surprised the British garrison at Ticonderoga and took the fort.
Joseph was one of the first leaders to hear of the expedition’s success. He sent news of Benedict’s success to Governor Trumbull. Joseph glossed over the murky inter-colonial jurisdictional issues and sought to calm ruffle feathers when Benedict’s querulous personality began to reveal itself. Joseph wrote:
Gentlemen, We have the happiness of presenting our congratulations to you on the reduction of that important Fortress Ticonderoga… [We] should be extremely glad if all the battering cannon, especially brass cannon, which can be spared from that place…may be forwarded this way with all possible expedition, as we have here to contend with an army furnished with as fine a train of artillery as ever seen in America; and we are of extreme want of a sufficient number of cannon to fortify those important passes without which we can neither annoy General Gage, if it should become necessary, nor defend ourselves against him….
History has given laurels to Henry Knox for leading the epic hauling of Ticonderoga’s artillery across the New England winter landscape of 1775-76 and delivering it to General George Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts where it was used on Dorchester Heights to break the Siege of Boston. Ignored are Joseph Warren’s, Benedict Arnold’s, Ethan Allen’s, and Governor Trumbull’s conceptualization and early actions that initiated Knox’s campaign and well-deserved success.
With the new rank of major general, Joseph Warren was killed five weeks later at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Breed’s Hill) on June 17, 1775. His was a widower who left four destitute orphaned children behind. Benedict Arnold went on to become a major general in the Continental Army, led an expedition to Quebec City, commanded at Valcour Island, and fought at the Battle of Bemis Heights (the 2nd Battle of Saratoga) where on a borrowed horse named Warren, he stormed the enemy’s Breymann Redoubt and took a shot to the thigh which killed his mount.
By 1780, Benedict had become disgruntled with the Continental Army over back pay among other things. He donated $500 of his own money toward the care of Joseph’s children. It was a move that shamed the delegates of Congress, such as Samuel Adams, who had once been Joseph’s close compatriots and had refused measures to pay for the support of Joseph’s children.
In September of that same year, Benedict Arnold passed off the plans for West Point to British Major John Andre in exchange for an excess of 10,000 pounds and a general’s commission in the British army. The Americans discovered the plot. Benedict successfully escaped and turned. Andre was hanged as a spy.
Benedict Arnold became the vilest traitor of the American Revolution. Perhaps it was a mercy that Joseph Warren never knew.
Forman, Samuel A. Dr. Joseph Warren, The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty. 2012: Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Bunker Hill A City, A Siege, A Revolution. 2013: Penguin Books, New York, NY.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition Penguin Books New York, 2016. Print.
Dr. Joseph Warren is an important character in my award-winning historical fantasy novel Angels & Patriots Book One, Sons of Liberty, Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill Available on Amazon in paperback or KU or eBook.