Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution
Nathaniel PhilbrickBunker Hill
First Edition: April 30, 2013
ISBN 978-0-670-02544-2

Non-fiction, historical books aren’t supposed to be this good.  They aren’t supposed to be fluid and entertaining.  They are supposed to be full of footnotes and impeccable, dry explication abounding with names and dates and events.

Yet Nathaniel Philbrick manages to be entertaining, even while adhering to an impressive level of impeccable documentation.  I mean, my goodness – almost a quarter of the book is given to notes, bibliography, credits and an exhaustive index.  Yet, in order to facilitate the flow of the narrative, those massive references are not footnoted in the main text, but documented at the end in a page-by-page running catalog of application (for example, on page 335:  “Chapter Nine – The Redoubt: Notes to Pages 188 – 192”, then on the next page, “Notes to Pages 192 – 194” and so on).  This allows the true epistemologically nerdy historian to revel in documentation, while allowing the rest of us an uninterrupted journey through a fascinating and seminal time in US history.

The Boston of which author Philbrick writes is very different from the Boston we know today.  Back in the late 1700s, it was literally the innermost of a group of islands, connected to the mainland by a mere strip of land known as “the Neck”.  Founded in 1630 by Puritan colonists, eager to establish a self-governing home and answerable only to God and the king, Boston became the political and financial center of New England.   By the 1770s, the population stood at around 15,000, most of whom, according to Philbrick, “probably recognized, if not knew, each other.”

Bostonians proudly considered themselves as British subjects, and had fought side by side with the red-coated “regulars” in the French and Indian War.  That war, however, had been a strain on Britain’s resources (to the tune of $22.4 billion in modern day currency), and it was when, after decades of a “hand’s off” approach to the colonies, Great Britain decided it was time for her subjects to start repaying some of that debt (since the war had pretty much been waged on their behalf), that the trouble between England and her colonists truly began.

…the colonies had more than just a principle  behind their reluctance to be dictated to by the British ministry.  They had three thousand miles of ocean between them and the mother country, along with seemingly limitless prospects for growth on a continent that stretched another three thousand miles to the Pacific Ocean.  Rather than propose a means of raising revenue that they deemed fair, the colonials were more than happy to direct their considerable energies toward opposing whatever plan the British ministry put forward.  When the old Puritan sense of certainty was combined with New England’s proven ability to put up a fight, it was not surprising that Massachusetts confronted the taxation question with a pugnacity reminiscent of the backwoods battles of the previous century.

The Stamp Act, the Townsend Act, a refusal of Massachusetts merchants to import British goods, establishment of the hated Customs Board, seizures of Bostonian vessels and the deployment of several regiments of British troops to maintain order led to the March 5, 1770 Boston Massacre (where five citizens were killed when “an angry crowd of sailors, artisans, apprentices, and boys surrounded a small group of regulars, who in the confusion of the moment fired their muskets”), and, in 1773, the Tea Act culminated in the infamous Boston Tea Party on December 16 of that year.  Relations between the colonists and Great Britain would never recover.  In the next two years, Boston would become the epicenter of discord against British influence, from the conflicts at Lexington and Concord, to the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775, and the siege of Boston, where rallying cry changed from “liberty” to “independence”.

While we all might recognize the importance of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and we may have some general understanding of Boston’s role in our nation’s march towards independence, what Philbrick does so eloquently is allow us to see how very personal and amazing these few years in this singular place were, and how the balance of American history was affected by decisions and individuals that are rarely mentioned in history books, but on whom the very advent of our nation pivoted.  We all know of John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere, but how many of us can name the accomplishments (or failures) of Joseph Warren, the 33 year old physician who, had he not died at Bunker Hill, may have become an enduring hero of the revolution; or William Howe, the brilliant British tactician who nevertheless woefully underestimated his opponents on Bunker Hill; or Thomas Gage, the British general named by George III as governor of Massachusetts, and whose indecisiveness and unwillingness to move to action may have cost his king a country?

But it’s not just the great men who Philbrick brings to life, it’s the bit players and the every mans who make Bunker Hill so compelling.  There are stories of great bravery, such as that of the unnamed rebel sharpshooter who stood on a platform that raised him 3 feet above the fierce fighting at Bunker Hill, and, having been given the directive to take out as many officers as possible, would sight a target, fire, hand over his spent musket, get handed a loaded weapon and fire again, taking out (according to an eye witness) “no less than 20 officers” before being shot down.  Or Salem Poor, a free African American who took down Major John Pitcairn, the British commander at Lexington and Concord and the leader of 300 British Marines at Bunker Hill, earning a later reward for his bravery of being officially admitted into the Continental Army.  Or this story of Colonel William Prescott, patriot commander overseeing the building of the “redoubt” (a hastily raised, defensive fort used in battle) on Breed’s Hill, adjacent to Bunker Hill, when opposing ships in the harbor began firing cannonballs at the men working at building the defenses:

He leaped onto the parapet of the redoubt, and as cannonballs continued to sizzle through the air, he urged the men on.  He had a three-cornered hat on his head, and “strutting backward and forward” with a long evening coat (known as a banyan) swirling about him like a colorful cape, he pulled the hat off his head and, waving it in the air, shouted at the British warships below them, “Hit ME if you can.”  It was a most inspiring display of courage…”

(Never mind that the establishment of a redoubt on Breed’s Hill, within range of the cannonballs, was itself a tactical error that Prescott refused to abandon even after it became evident that it needlessly exposed the soldiers under his command and did little to reinforce the defenses of the patriot’s targeted stand at Bunker Hill.)

Yet this book is not all about tactics and fighting.  There are stories that put the politics and shouting – and shooting – into a more human perspective.  How General Gage’s American born wife would fight her own battles for societal significance, throwing elaborate parties to show off her finery even as soldiers were tensely stationed around the city.  How patriot commissions would be awarded not on battle acumen and experience, but by how many men a fellow could recruit to the military, so entire regiments would be full of family, friends and neighbors – as well as the loyalties and hard headed pettiness that comes with such relationships.  How the slowness of communications, especially between King George in London and his commanders in Boston, played a huge part in the outcome of events.  How red coated soldiers would loot houses and farms they came across, even against express orders not to do so – but also how that was understandable, as those men were often starving, given to sleeping on the ground, and were barely paid a living wage (even chimney sweeps in London were better paid than the rank and file British soldier).  About how the resilient citizens of Boston would stand on their roof tops with a clear view of the battles unfolding just a few miles away, or be witness to the majesty of the king’s royal discipline:

Mary Hartwell lived in the town of Lincoln, just to the west of Lexington.  Her husband Samuel was a sergeant in the local militia, but this did not prevent her from appreciating what she saw that morning when she looked out her window.  “The army of the king was coming up in fine order,” she later told her grandchildren, “their red coats were brilliant, and their bayonets glistening in the sunlight made fine appearance; but I knew what all that meant, and I feared that I should never see your grandfather again.”

Bunker Hill is a masterful retelling of a time in American history already rich with drama and patriotic pride; under Nathaniel Philbrick’s pen the drama becomes fresh again.  While he does not flinch from the mistakes made, the brutality evidenced (on both sides), the pettiness and peevishness displayed (on both sides) or the even the underhanded manipulation of a newly emerging political system by those we call heroes, he does it in such a way that we begin to understand – truly understand – the factors and feelings and incredible bravery it took on the part of both the general and the civilian, the statesman and the commoner, and the soldier (on either side) to wave their hat in the face of adversity and taunt those elements aiming to break them.  The patriots may have technically lost the Battle of Bunker Hill, but out of the moral victory was born a new nation.

This is a wonderful book to read if you love history – and it’s a wonderful book to read, even if you don’t!  In fact, especially if you don’t.  And, if you’re anything like me, once you’ve read it, you’ll have a greater appreciation for not only the Boston of 1773, but also the Boston we know today.  And you don’t even have to wade through the footnotes to get there – unless you want to.  I hope you at least flip through them – they’re pretty marvelous to behold, too.  It’s all good. Very, very good.

Don’t miss our exclusive excerpt from Bunker Hill below.



Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Bunker Hill Copyright © Nathaniel Philbrick, 2013


Preface: The Decisive Day

On a hot, almost windless afternoon in June, a seven-year-old boy stood beside his mother and looked out across the green islands of Boston Harbor. To the northwest, sheets of fire and smoke rose from the base of a distant hill. Even though the fighting was at least ten miles away, the concussion of the great guns burst like bubbles across his tear-streaked face.

At that moment, John Adams, the boy’s father, was more than three hundred miles to the south at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Years later, the elder Adams claimed that the American Revolution had started not with the Boston Massacre, or the Tea Party, or the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord and all the rest, but had been “effected before the war commenced . . . in the minds and hearts of the people.” For his son, however, the “decisive day” (a phrase used by the boy’s mother, Abigail) was June 17, 1775.

Seventy-one years after that day, in the jittery script of an old man, John Quincy Adams described the terrifying afternoon when he and his mother watched the battle from a hill beside their home in Braintree: “I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the Battle of Bunker’s hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own.” They feared, he recounted, that the British troops might at any moment march out of Boston and “butcher them in cold blood” or take them as hostages and drag them back into the besieged city. But what he remembered most about the battle was the hopeless sense of sorrow that he and his mother felt when they learned that their family physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, had been killed.

Warren had saved John Quincy Adam’s badly fractured forefinger from amputation, and the death of this “beloved physician” was a terrible blow to a boy whose father’s mounting responsibilities required that he spend months away from home. Even after John Quincy Adams had grown into adulthood and become a public figure, he refused to attend all anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Joseph Warren, just thirty-four at the time of his death, had been much more than a beloved doctor to a seven-year-old boy. Over the course of the two critical months between the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington Green and the Battle of Bunker Hill, he became the most influential patriot leader in the province of Massachusetts. As a member of the Committee of Safety, he had been the man who ordered Paul Revere to alert the countryside that British soldiers were headed to Concord; as president of the Provincial Congress, he had overseen the creation of an army even as he waged a propaganda campaign to convince both the American and British people that Massachusetts was fighting for its survival in a purely defensive war. While his more famous compatriots John Adams, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams were in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress, Warren was orchestrating the on-the-ground reality of a revolution.

Warren had only recently emerged from the shadow of his mentor Samuel Adams when he found himself at the head of the revolutionary movement in Massachusetts, but his presence (and absence) were immediately felt. When George Washington assumed command of the provincial army gathered outside Boston just two and a half weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was forced to contend with the confusion and despair that followed Warren’s death. Washington’s ability to gain the confidence of a suspicious, stubborn, and parochial assemblage of New England militiamen marked the advent of a very different kind of leadership. Warren had passionately, often impulsively, tried to control the accelerating cataclysm. Washington would need to master the situation deliberately and—above all—firmly. Thus, the Battle of Bunker Hill is the critical turning point in the story of how a rebellion born in the streets of Boston became a countrywide war for independence.

This is also the story of two British generals. The first, Thomas Gage, was saddled with the impossible task of implementing his government’s unnecessarily punitive response to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Gage had a scrupulous respect for the law and was therefore ill equipped to subdue a people who were perfectly willing to take that law into their own hands. When fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, militiamen from across the region descended upon the British stationed at Boston. Armed New Englanders soon cut off the land approaches to Boston. Ironically, the former center of American resistance found itself gripped by an American siege. By the time General William Howe replaced Gage as the British commander in chief, he had determined that New York, not Boston, was where he must resume the fight. It was left to Washington to hasten the departure of Howe and his army.

The evacuation of the British in March 1776 signaled the beginning of an eight-year war that produced a new nation. But it also marked the end of an era that had started back in 1630 with the founding of the Puritan settlement called Boston. This is the story of how a revolution changed that 146-year-old community—of what was lost and what was gained when 150 vessels filled with British soldiers and American loyalists sailed from Boston Harbor for the last time.

Over the more than two centuries since the Revolution, Boston has undergone immense physical change. Most of the city’s once-defining hills have been erased from the landscape while the marshes and mudflats that surrounded Boston have been filled in to eliminate almost all traces of the original waterfront. But hints of the vanished town remain. Several meetinghouses and churches from the colonial era are still standing, along with a smattering of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses. Looking southeast from the balcony of the Old State House, you can see how the spine of what was once called King Street connects this historic seat of government, originally known as the Town House, to Long Wharf, an equally historic commercial center that still reaches out into the harbor.

For the last three years I have been exploring these places, trying to get a fix on the long-lost topography that is essential to understanding how Boston’s former residents interacted. Boston in the 1770s was a land-connected island with a population of about fifteen thousand, all of whom probably recognized, if not knew, each other. Being myself a resident of an island with a year-round population very close in size to provincial Boston’s, I have some familiarity with how petty feuds, family alliances, professional jealousies, and bonds of friendship can transform a local controversy into a supercharged outpouring of communal angst. The issues are real enough, but why we find ourselves on one side or the other of those issues is often unclear even to us. Things just happen in a way that has little to do with logic or rationality and everything to do with the mysterious and infinitely complex ways that human beings respond to one another.

In the beginning there were three different colonial groups in Massachusetts. One group was aligned with those who eventually became revolutionaries. For lack of a better word, I will call these people “patriots.” Another group remained faithful to the crown, and they appear herein as “loyalists.” Those in the third and perhaps largest group were not sure where they stood. Part of what makes a revolution such a fascinating subject to study is the arrival of the moment when neutrality is no longer an option. Like it or not, a person has to choose.

It was not a simple case of picking right from wrong. Hindsight has shown that, contrary to what the patriots insisted, Britain had not launched a preconceived effort to enslave her colonies. Compared with other outposts of empire, the American colonists were exceedingly well off. It’s been estimated that they were some of the most prosperous, least-taxed people in the Western world. And yet there was more to the patriots’ overheated claims about oppression than the eighteenth-century equivalent of a conspiracy theory. The hyperbole and hysteria that so mystified the loyalists had wellsprings that were both ancient and strikingly immediate. For patriots and loyalists alike, this was personal.

Because a revolution gave birth to our nation, Americans have a tendency to exalt the concept of a popular uprising. We want the whole world to be caught in a blaze of liberating upheaval (with appropriately democratic results) because that was what worked so well for us. If Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, the guidebook that has become a kind of bible among twenty-first-century revolutionaries in the Middle East and beyond, is any indication, the mechanics of overthrowing a regime are essentially the same today as they were in the eighteenth century. And yet, given our tendency to focus on the Founding Fathers who were at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia when all of this was unfolding in and around Boston, most of us know surprisingly little about how the patriots of Massachusetts pulled it off.

In the pages that follow, I hope to provide an intimate account of how over the course of just eighteen months a revolution transformed a city and the towns that surrounded it, and how that transformation influenced what eventually became the Unites States of America. This is the story of two charismatic and forceful leaders (one from Massachusetts, the other from Virginia), but it is also the story of two ministers (one a subtle, even Machiavellian, patriot, the other a punster and a loyalist); of a poet, patriot, and caregiver to four orphaned children; of a wealthy merchant who wanted to be everybody’s friend; of a conniving traitor whose girlfriend betrayed him; of a sea captain from Marblehead who became America’s first naval hero; of a bookseller with a permanently mangled hand who after a 300-mile trek through the wilderness helped to force the evacuation of the British; and of many others.

In the end, the city of Boston is the true hero of this story. Whether its inhabitants came to view the Revolution as an opportunity or as a catastrophe, they all found themselves in the midst of a survival tale when on December 16, 1773, three shiploads of tea were dumped in Boston Harbor.


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