Nathaniel Philbrick: An interview by Bob Morris


Nathaniel Philbrick is a leading authority on the history of Nantucket Island. His In the Heart of the Sea won the 2000 National Book Award. Sea of Glory (2003), is about the epic U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842. Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage, and War was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn was a finalist for the 2010 Montana Book Prize. Why Read Moby-Dick? was published in 2011. 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 an 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 as well as an introduction to the Penguin edition of Moby-Dick. A champion sailboat racer, Philbrick has also written extensively about sailing, including The Passionate Sailor (1987) and Second Wind: A Sunfish Sailor’s Odyssey (1999). He was editor in chief of the classic Yaahting: A Parody (1984).

His most recent book is Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, published in 2013 by Viking/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

He was a founding direction of the Egan Maritime Institute is a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. 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 Nantucket.

Here is my interview of him.

* * *

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Bunker Hill?

Philbrick: When I was finishing Mayflower, which ends with the terrible English-Native conflict King Philip’s War (1675-76), I began to realize that what went on in that war had a big impact on what occurred a hundred years later during the Revolution. Two books would intervene (The Last Stand and Why Read Moby-Dick?), but I eventually reached the point where I could write what is in one sense Mayflower II—the story of New England’s progress from the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 to the Evacuation of the British from Boston in March 1776.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Philbrick: We tend to believe that the whole point of the Revolution was American independence. In truth, it wasn’t that way at all. In the Beginning, even ardent patriots like Samuel Adams weren’t talking about independence; they were talking about whether or not Parliament had the right to dictate to the colonies how they were going to be taxed. The patriots weren’t trying to create something new; they were attempting to keep things the way they had always been, before Great Britain decided it was time that her colonies contribute in some way to the costs associated with their defense. Even after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the provincial soldiers still pledged their loyalty to King George; they claimed that Parliament, not the King, was the enemy. All that would change, of course, in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, but it was amazing to me to realize how long the patriots clung to the illusion that what they were doing was in the best interests of the king and the Empire.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Philbrick: I knew from the beginning I wanted to start with the Boston Tea Party and end with the Evacuation of the British; I also knew that instead of a focal point, the Battle of Bunker Hill was going to serve as a turning point in the book, transitioning from a story dominated by the figure of Dr. Joseph Warren to one in which George Washington took center stage. In that sense, the overall arc of the book ended up pretty much as planned; what always surprises me during the writing process is how certain events cry out for more space while others end up either being minimized or cut out altogether. For example, I hadn’t anticipated spending two chapters on the Battle of Bunker Hill; I’d also thought the Siege of Boston might require an additional chapter.

Morris: In my opinion, you are one of very few historians who possess the talents and skills to create a sense of “you are there” for the reader, be it in Plymouth in the 1620s or in Boston in the 1770s. How do you accomplish that?

Philbrick: I began my writing career as a journalist, and I guess as a historian I try to create a journalistic sense of life as lived in the past. It’s all in the details: quirks of personality and dress that make a historical personage an identifiable human being. For example, I found this wonderful letter in which a British officer who was terribly wounded during the third charge at Bunker Hill describes the vegetable garden he had planted on Boston Common. I ended up quoting from that letter in my description of the final, horrifying stage of the battle—it gave a sense of the man in the midst of the terror of hand-to-hand combat.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: Are there any unique challenges when bringing events to life that occurred more than 200-300 years ago as opposed to what happened during the recent bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon? Please explain.

Philbrick: The greatest challenge is that of evidence. I obviously can’t go back in time and interview the participants in the American Revolution. Unless there is a letter or a newspaper article or some other document to rely on, I may find that I don’t know how a critical part of the story unfolded simply because there isn’t the evidence. A journalist working on a story that happened a few months ago has the luxury of being able to talk to the participants, to probe and explore and dig for the truth. I’m left to combing the archives.

Morris: You begin and end Bunker Hill with a focus on John Quincy Adams, first with his mother observing what she characterized as a “decisive day” on June 17, 1775, and then 68 years later when he looked toward Charlestown, feeling both appreciation and “an invigorating sense of righteous anger.”

Please explain why you chose to begin and end the book in this manner.

Philbrick: I knew I wanted to start the book with John Quincy Adams’s account of watching the battle as a seven year old boy—it was a way to communicate the trauma of the battle as well as the pivotal role played by Joseph Warren, since Warren had been the Adams’s family doctor and JQA tells how the death of Warren added to his sense of fear and loss, making the battle something that JQA, quite literally, never got over. By returning to JQA in the epilogue, I hoped to find a way to talk about the legacy of the Revolution. By 1843, JQA was an old man who had quite recently become an active opponent of slavery in the U.S. House of Representatives; for him the work of the Revolution wasn’t over, it was ongoing. I found that perspective quite refreshing since I think many of us are guilty of assuming the Founding Fathers achieved everything they set out to do, when that is not the case at all. They began a process that all of us must continue or America will lose its way, and John Quincy Adams, through his traumatic memories of the Battle of Bunker Hill and his sense of righteous anger over the continued existence of slavery in America, provided a way to link the battle to both America’s past and her future.

Morris: Here are several of the key persons in Bunker Hill. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain the special significance of each, listed in alpha order. First, Dr. Benjamin Church

Philbrick: Church was the great grandson of the Benjamin Church who gained renown as an Indian fighter during King Philip’s War. Dr. Benjamin Church was a leading patriot who ran into financial problems and became a spy for the British. He was eventually unmasked in the fall of 1775, causing a great deal of anguish and soul-searching among his former colleagues.

Morris: Next, General Thomas Gage:

Philbrick: Gage was given the impossible task of enforcing the Boston Port Act and the other so-called Intolerable Acts. He was married to a woman from New Jersey and had spent most of his professional life in America, and ironically, it was his respect for the patriots’ English liberties that allowed them to organize and implement a revolution.

Morris: Then, John Malcom

Philbrick: John Malcom was a Boston loyalist who served as Customs inspector. He also was irascible and combative and I spend much of Chapter One describing how Macolm was brutally tarred and feathered during the winter of 1774, just a month after the Boston Tea Party.

Morris: Finally, Dr. Joseph Warren

Philbrick: Warren was a leading Boston doctor, 33 and a widower with four children between the ages of two and eight. Samuel Adams was his mentor and as events reached a head in Boston, he became the de facto leader of the on-the-ground revolution in Massachusetts. He was the one who ordered Paul Revere to alert the countryside that British soldiers were headed to Concord; he served as President of the Provincial Congress during the sixty days after Lexington and Concord; and if he hadn’t been killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill, he might have become part of the pantheon of Founding Fathers.

Morris: Please explain the role of the Provincial Congress insofar as the events leading up to the Battle of Bunker Hill is concerned.

Philbrick: The Provincial Congress, which met in Watertown so as to be near the Provincial Army based in Cambridge, basically ran the patriot war effort. They tried to organize the army and win support for their cause both throughout the colonies and in Great Britain. It was a chaotic time and it wasn’t pretty, but with Joseph Warren as their president, the Provincial Congress succeeded in holding the colony together as tensions built during May and June of 1775.

Morris: Why was Boston the gravitational center of revolutionary fervor in June, 1775?

Philbrick: It’s interesting. Boston was basically turned inside out by the revolutionary forces it had helped to create. In the beginning it was at the vortex of the patriot movement, but with the arrival of General Gage and a British army of occupation Boston became a garrison town under siege, as what were known as the country towns throughout Massachusetts became the new centers of revolutionary furor, with thousands of militiamen ultimately flooding into Cambridge and Roxbury and surrounding Boston as thousands of Boston’s patriot residents fled the city and took refuge in towns throughout the colony. By the end of the siege, there were only about 3,000 civilians left in the city, which normally had a population of 15,000, while the British army centered in Boston expanded to almost 9,000 soldiers.

Morris: What role did Breed’s Hill play during the Battle of Bunker Hill?

Philbrick: It’s called the Battle of Bunker Hill, but most of the action occurred on Breed’s Hill, about half a mile to the south, where the patriots built an earthen fort known as a redoubt during the night of June 16-17, 1775. Breed’s Hill was right in the figurative face of the British army stationed in Boston and on the morning of June 17, Gage felt he had no choice but to order an attack.

Morris: What was the strategic significance of Dorchester Heights?

Philbrick: As its name implies, Dorchester Heights is a region of high ground to the southeast of Boston. By placing a cannon-equipped fort on this strategically place group of hills, Washington forced the British to evacuate from Boston.

Morris: Abigail Adams suggested that the meaning of the Revolution was that “character alone” mattered. Two questions: What specifically did she mean? Do you agree? Please explain.

Philbrick: Abigail meant that the Americans were fighting to create a society in which it wasn’t your inherited social standing that determined your worth, but your own innate abilities, i.e. “character alone.” And yes, I agree with Abigail. Although far from perfect, America is known today as a “land of opportunity,” a place where it doesn’t matter where you came from but what you do.

Morris: Of all the conversations that occurred – on both sides of the field of battle — prior to, during, and after the Battle of Bunker Hill, which would you be most eager to listen in on? Why?

Philbrick: I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall on the night of June 16, 1775, when William Prescott, Daniel Putnam, and Richard Gridley discussed whether they were going to build the redoubt on Bunker Hill (the original plan) or Breed’s Hill to the south, which is what they ended up doing.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent (if any) did it make any difference that three prominent Bostonians — Samuel Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock — were involved with the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on June 17, 1775? Please explain.

Philbrick: I think it made all the difference in the world. Since those three Patriot leaders were in Philadelphia, it was left to others to do the actual, very difficult work of making a revolution happen, and it was Dr. Joseph Warren who leapt into the breach.

Morris: You suggest that, “In the end, the city of Boston is the true hero of this story.” How so?

Philbrick: Although much of the narrative focuses on Joseph Warren and George Washington, the key player throughout the book is the city of Boston. All of my books, I guess, are about communities experiencing incredible trauma and stress, whether they are the crew of the whaleship Essex, 102 Pilgrims on the Mayflower, or a village of Lakota and Cheyenne about to be attacked by several hundred U.S. soldiers. I’m interested in what happens to people in these situations, what choices are made, and who emerges to lead the community.

Morris: You quote Abigail Adams observing, “Thus ends royal authority and all the people shall say Amen.” Please explain the significance of that remark.

Philbrick: Abigail makes this comment after the reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston on July 18, 1776, when all visible signs of the King—his arm’s on the courthouse, etc.—were destroyed in a bonfire. Boston was a community founded by Puritans in 1630, and I think it’s quite appropriate that she ends the book with, if you will, a kind of prayer.

*  *  *

Nat cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His homepage link

His Amazon page link

His Penguin Group link

Facebook link

Twitter link




Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.