Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2013, 416 pages, $32.95) successfully fills a gap between Philbrick's own fine book Mayflower and books like David McCoullough's 1776 Ron Chernow's fine biography of George Washington by describing in detail the events surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill and the siege of Boston during the period 1774 to 1776. Philbrick draws a direct line from the Mayflower Pilgrims he detailed in his earlier book through 150 years of increasing freedom, wealth, and independence to become the unruly and independent crowd know as the patriots and the Founding Fathers. He shows the colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as resentful of reasonable taxes assessed by Parliament to pay for administrative costs of maintaining their colony and details the increasing resentment leading to anger and violence ginned up by John Adams, Sam Adams, Joseph Warren and others. The parallels (and differences) between the efforts of the Patriots of Massachusetts and the today's latter day Tea Party are obvious, placing those of the eighteenth century in a better light.
As Britain seeks to control the colonists and pay for the expense of governing them, the colonists engage in a series of town meetings at Fanueil Hall and in all the New England colonies that define and refine the meaning of being an American as it emerged in their concept of shared decision making and consensus development. The book emphasizes how the culture of the town meeting affected both civil and military decision making in helping to forge the American character. They were seeking their own independence without recognizing the goal. The similarities to today's Tea Party are too obvious, as the colonist's leaders use the Stamp Act and the Port Act as “opportunities to to exploit” local anger at Britain rather than as problems amenable to a reasonable solution. As the colonists become increasingly aware of their sense of isolation from Britain along with differences that have developed between them and the mother country over the past century and a half,their anger increases and their determination to resist reaches new levels. The Boston Massacre becomes a symbol of the increasing tension and violence in the situation.
The events detailed in Bunker Hill concentrate on three seminal events which occurred after the occupation of Boston by the British in 1774, the British expedition to seek to eliminate supposed stores of gunpowder in Concord leading to the battles of Lexington and Concord, their Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill in 1775, and the Siege of Boston under the newly appointed commander of the Patriot army, George Washington in 1775. Philbrick relies on contemporary accounts, diaries of both British and American participants, and other extensive research in his riveting account. He details the importance of the lesser known Dr. Joseph Warren, who might have emerged as a political and leadership rival of Washington, had he not been killed at Bunker Hill. Warren's balanced view and mature understanding of both the Patriots and the British helped avoid war for a time and then helped engage in the early hostilities as they became inevitable.
As the redcoats approached Lexington, the militia assembled, Philbrick says, not to oppose the Stamp Act or other legislation, but to assure their freedom. “It was a sense of promise that made the militiaman's resolve to oppose these troops all the more powerful.” However, he continues, it must be remembered that the freedoms that inspired them were for people just like them, as loyalists, though born and nurtured in America, were not heeded. His descriptions of the massed British troops marching in their red coats and the Patriot minute men fighting guerrilla style from behind stone walls during the British retreat to Boston confirm the mythology we have all grown up with.
The descriptions are vivid. The text reads with a narrative style that's lively and suspense filled, even when the reader knows the outcomes. The history laden characters (Hancock, Warren, both John and Sam Adams, Gates, and, later, Washington) all take on human form. Post-holing history provides the kind of detail that brings it to life when the reader is ready. This book becomes more meaningful with a solid background in the biographies of George Washington and John Adams as well as the broader reading in more superficial overviews of the flow of the revolution and the development of America. After 150 years of living an independent British life, the colonists had developed a society relying more on competence than on birthright. After generations spent defeating the Indians and subduing the land, they had become independent in spirit, a spirit which was ready to spend the next eight years establishing full independence and begin to occupy and exploit the entire continent which they had become heirs to.
While the Battle of Bunker Hill, which actually centered by mistake on Breed's Hill and poor leadership, a short but crucial distance away, represented a British victory, it proved to be a Pyrrhic one, as they were never able afterwards to sally out of Boston successfully. British casualties were large and the psychological effect they suffered was even greater as they realized that they were fighting their own countrymen on foreign soil. The Battle of Bunker Hill convinced the British that they must eventually abandon Boston for New York or further south and invade the colonies should they hope to salvage them. Before George Washington arrived as the new commander of the colonists, the British had decided to leave.
The appointment of George Washington as commander in chief represented a changeover from a relatively local insurrection to the development of a national cause uniting the various colonies. Washington's well-documented disdain for the New Englanders is balanced in this account by the understanding that they were not easily persuaded to accept the command of a leader who looked so much like the people they were seeking to defeat. Washington's development as a leader, his ability to control his own strong, previously almost ungovernable, emotions, in order to marshal the talents of the New England leadership and soldiery were crucial to his later leadership at Valley Forge, Trenton, and onward. The siege of Boston and the building of breast works on Dorchester Heights inevitably drove the British from the city and led to the next steps in a war that might have been won sooner had sufficient gunpowder been available for them to defeat the British in New England.
Nathaniel Philbrick's account of the events surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill provides an essential linchpin for understanding the development of the American Revolution in a context of a growing sense of the colonist's vision of themselves as a separate people. It is highly readable with a narrative style that draws the reader forward while never sacrificing accuracy. Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2013, 416 pages, $32.95) is fully annotated, deeply researched, taughtly written. A fine book. I received Bunker Hill from the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Sunday at bluegrass festivals often bleeds attendees as they head home for church, Sunday chores, and to prepare for the dreaded Monday morning. Gettysburg has two features on Sunday morning that many die hard fans build into their schedules. Dry Branch Fire Squad has appeared at all 66 iterations of this classic festival while The Seldom Scene has been to nearly that many. For this Sunday, Dailey & Vincent were chosen to close with a long set beginning at 4:25 PM. This generated the largest crowd I've ever seen on Sunday at any festival except Merlefest and thus introduced many people to our surprise band of the festival, Steel Wheels. More about them later. Let's get on with the show.
The day dawned still dripping and misty from last night. Sunday breakfast back stage was quiet as people began to assemble for Dry Branch Fire Squad's traditional Sunday gospel show.
Ron Thomason & Tom Boyd at Breakfast
Chris Lauer, backstage major domo, and Irene
Dry Branch Fire Squad
For over thirty-five years Ron Thomason has been serving up his unique combination of topical satiric humor, primitive gospel songs, and socially conscious bluegrass songs about life in the mines and the poor hollers of Appalachia. He's never missed a Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. At every appearance since his son left to serve in Iraq (he's since returned in fine shape), Ron has sung the Civil War song "He's Coming To Us Dead" with conviction, and often obvious pain. This morning's rendition seems particularly heartfelt. He talks with deep conviction about the importance of the military for protecting our rights, which we, as voters, may be willing to give away. Agree or not, Ron Thomason generates thinking about the basic assumptions many of us live under.
Brian Aldridge & Tom Boyd
If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment
Promoter Rich Winkleman often successfully mines the under-exploited bluegrass resources of West Virginia. Circa Blue, whose name is most aptly chosen, is one of these bands. Circa Blue's music is an enjoyable blend of bluegrass and bluegrass related songs and covers with a good deal of humor.
Marty Raybon & Full Circle
Marty Raybon brought his wonderful voice and a good young band along with reliable veteran bass man Randy Barnes. He sang plenty of bluegrass as well as well-loved songs from his days in country music with Shenendoah. Marty's a good emcee and has some amusing stories to tell as well as a bunch of great songs.
? - Help
The Seldom Scene has a long history as a much sought after bluegrass band. Initially begun in 1971 by a group of D.C. musicians who preferred not to tour widely, they created a new sound drawing on folk, pop, and rock influences to transmogrify into bluegrass. They were originally seen as revolutionary, but over time their repertoire has become standard. Their catalog of songs is wide and deep, and their fans know it and want to hear the great songs from the eighties and nineties. There's a rumor that the current edition of The Scene is headed for the studio again.
The Elusive Ronnie Simpkins
The Only Remaining Original Member
Betsy Voss - Die Hard Fan
Frank Baker - Photographer for Bluegrass Today
We were at Merlefest 2011 where we heard Steel Wheels from the Cabin Stage, a small subsidiary stage where bands are showcased between major acts on the main Watson Stage. They only had about fifteen minutes, and we didn't get an opportunity to get a feel for their full impact, although there was significant buzz about this superb band during the weekend. Their next to closing performance at Gettysburg, however, was simply jaw dropping. Steel Wheels music manages to combine a raw mountain sound with a highly sophisticated, melodic presentation always moving forward, grasping their audience at the heart, and shaking them hard enough so they know they've been in contact with a band bridging old-time, bluegrass, and some of the newest and most emotionally engaging song stylings we've heard. For the past two days we've been listening to their CD's, and they only get better. We're naming them not only our surprise band of the festival, but they stand out among all the new, to us, bands we've heard this year. Steel Wheels is hosting the Red Wing Roots Music Festival from July 12 - 13 in Mount Solon, VA. We're sorry we won't be able to be there, but it looks like a wonderful, varied lineup in a fine setting.
Dailey & Vincent
Dailey & Vincent continue to present a carefully designed show which has something for nearly everyone: deep Christian faith expressed in song, classic traditional bluegrass, gospel quartets, Statler Brothers songs from their epic Cracker Barrel CD, patriotic fervor, and broad comedy. It's all delivered with pace and style. I was curious if even Dailey & Vincent could hold a Sunday afternoon festival crowd into the late afternoon and was surprised and happy to see the largest Sunday crowd we've seen outside of Merlefest. Dailey & Vincent delivered their show with its usual class and polish, concluding with their very moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. As the weekend closed, many were sad to see it end.
The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival has run twice a year since 1979, sixty-six consecutive festivals. Promoter Rich Winkleman exercises a light supervisory hand on the event, and, for the most part, his trust for the fans is returned with good behavior. It's a happy, music-loving, loyal crowd. As often happens at festivals, we were dismayed by the amount of smoking in the audience area. In the evening, the secondary smoke near the back was nearly overwhelming. Emcees did little to discourage smoking and there is no posted No Smoking area in the beautifully shaped amphitheater. Sound was superlative. The lineup was nearly unparalleled for a festival of this size. We've re-upped for next year, and only wish our schedule would permit us to come twice a year. The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival is one of the greats.
Posted by Ted Lehmann at 5:09 PM