Bunker Hill: A book review by Bob Morris

Bunker HillBunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House (2013)

“In the end, the city of Boston is the true hero of this story.”

The historical details are by now well-known but many people do not as yet appreciate the full significance of what is generally referred to as “the Battle of Bunker Hill” on June 17, 1775. Actually, most of it was waged on and around nearby Breed’s Hill, during the Siege of Boston about a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed. However, Bunker Hill was the original military objective of both colonial and British troops. What we have in Nathaniel Philbrick’s brillient book is a vivid, compelling account of events that — more than the so-called “Boston Tea Party” — probably set the thirteen colonies on an irrevocable course.

Leaders of the colonial forces besieging Boston learned that British troops would be sent out from the city to occupy the unoccupied hills surrounding it. In response, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, dug in on Breed’s Hill, and built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.

When the British learned of these initiatives the next day, they mounted an attack. After two unsuccessful assaults with significant casualties on the colonial lines, the British finally captured the key positions. Under the leadership of a much-loved and widely-respected physician, Joseph Warren, who died during the battle, the colonials had run out of ammunition and retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, suffering their most significant losses there.

Although technically it was a victory for the British, they suffered heavier losses: more than 800 wounded and 226 killed, including many officers. The battle can be viewed as a Pyrrhic victory in that the British lost more than they gained. The siege continued. More to the point, the relatively inexperienced and ill-prepared colonial forces (mostly local citizens pressed into action) had fought well in direct combat with British professionals. Also, the colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in a disciplined manner and suffered fewer casualties. Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were not only willing but able to stand up to regular army troops in a pitched battle. Philbrick is a master raconteur whose skills create for his reader a sense of “you are there and this is what happened.”

These are among the subjects that Philbrick discusses that were of greatest interest and value to me:

o The sharp contrasts between the military capabilities of the colonial volunteers and British regulars

o The political demographics in Boston (i.e. patriots, royalists/loyalists, and neutrals/undecideds)

o Joseph Warren’s historical significance (e.g. relationship with the John Adams family and leadership in battle at Bunker Hill during which he died

o General William Howe’s “ambivalence” with regard to engaging in combat with the provincials who had become revolutionaries

o Attempts to negotiate and perhaps resolve colonial grievances

o Why there was, at least initially, extensive reluctance among provincials to engage in battle

o What happened to reduce (if not eliminate) that reluctance

o Interaction of ideologies and personalities that provoked citizens (physicians, farmers, merchants, artisans, fishermen, educators, clergymen, and sailors) to take up arms against what had been their “country”

o Boston as a microcosm (with 15,000 inhabitants of a land-connected island of only 1.2 square miles) of pre-Revolutionary “America”

o Paul Revere and William Dawes as precursors of social media

o How and why in the end, “the city of Boston is the true hero of this story”

o The battle at Bunker Hill viewed as a “tipping point” to a declaration of independence and then a war to obtain it for what then became a new nation

Whenever possible and appropriate, I read two books in combination that cover similar subjects, as was the case this time. That explains why I also read and now recommend Joseph Ellis’ Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, his latest book to which Bunker Hill serves as an excellent introduction. To those who share my keen interest in U.S. history, I highly recommend Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

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Nathaniel Philbrick is a leading authority on the history of Nantucket Island. His In the Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award. His later book Sea of Glory, is about the epic U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842. His other books include Away off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 (which Russell Baker called “indispensable”) and Abram’s Eyes: The Native American Legend of Nantucket Island (“a classic of historical truthtelling,” according to Stuart Frank, director of the Kendall Whaling Museum). He has written an introduction to a new edition of Joseph Hart’s Miriam Coffin, or The Whale Fisherman, a Nantucket novel (first published in 1834) that Melville relied upon for information about the island when writing Moby Dick.

A champion sailboat racer, Philbrick has also written extensively about sailing, including The Passionate Sailor (1987) and the forthcoming Second Wind: A Sunfish Sailor’s Odyssey. He was editor in chief of the classic Yaahting: A Parody (1984). The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn was published in 2011.  Bunker Hill is his latest bestseller, published by Viking/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House (2013).

In his role as director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies, Philbrick, who is also a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association, gives frequent talks about Nantucket and sailing. He has appeared on “NBC Today Weekend”, A&E’s “Biography” series, and National Public Radio and has served as a consultant for the movie Moby Dick, shown on the USA Network. He received a bachelor of Arts from Brown University and a Master of Arts in American Literature from Duke. He lives on Natucket with his wife and two children.

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