Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick - Book Review

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

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.