Adams Family Correspondence, volume 7



“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, 17 June 1775,” by John Trumbull, 1786 19 [page] [image]

John Adams first met Dr. Joseph Warren (1741–1775) in April 1764 when Warren inoculated him against smallpox. The two became friends as they worked together for independence, though Warren took a more radical stand than Adams. Warren made his mark with orations on the 1772 and 1775 anniversaries of the Boston Massacre and was responsible for dispatching Paul Revere and William Dawes on their nighttime rides of 18 April 1775. As a general in the Continental Army, Warren dodged enemy fire on 17 June 1775 to join American troops in the Battle of Bunker Hill. During the conflict he was killed by a musket ball to the head. British soldiers buried his body on the battlefield, but it was later exhumed and interred under King's Chapel (John Adams to Abigail Smith, 13 April 1764 , and note 2, vol. 1:28, 29; Sibley's Harvard Graduates , 14:513, 515–516, 519–520, 525–526).

John Trumbull (1756–1843), the son of Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, was a nineteen-year-old adjutant in the First Regiment of the Connecticut militia when he witnessed the battle from a post five miles away on the Roxbury Heights. A few miles to the southeast on Penn's Hill in Braintree, Abigail Adams and seven-year-old John Quincy Adams also watched the Charlestown engagement. The next day, Abigail wrote to her husband in Philadelphia to lament the death of Warren on “perhaps the decisive Day . . . on which the fate of America depends” (Abigail Adams to John Adams, 18 June 1775, and note 3, vol. 1:222, 223–224; Sibley's Harvard Graduates , 18:331, 334; Theodore Sizer, ed., The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist, 1756–1843, N.Y., 1970, p. 17–19).

The young officer on Roxbury duty would pursue a postwar career as an artist, apprenticed to Benjamin West. Trumbull completed his Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill in early 1786 in London. Upon seeing it, Abigail wrote that “my Blood Shiverd,” while Abigail 2d told her brother that “it is enough to make ones hair to stand on End” (Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Smith Shaw, 4 March 1786; Abigail Adams 2d to John Quincy Adams, 22 Jan. 1786, both below).

English artisans refused to engrave Death of General Warren because it glorified an American victory, so Trumbull, with the help of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, produced an engraving on the Continent. Probably because the work's theme offended English sensibilities, the engraving was a commercial failure. Two copies of xthe print now hang in the Adams family “Old House” at the Adams National Historical Park, gifts from the artist to John Quincy in 1826 (Theodore Sizer, The Works of Colonel John Trumbull: Artist of the American Revolution, rev. edn., New Haven, Conn., 1967, fig. 145; Jefferson, Papers , 10:250).

Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery Trumbull Collection