Book Review: Bunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Author:  Nathaniel Philbrick
TitleBunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution
Publication Info:  Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 30, 2013)
Other Books by Same Author: Mayflower

Another brilliant work of Massachusetts and American history by Philbrick.  Like Mayflower, which was about the first three generations of the Plymouth colony through King Phillip’s War, Bunker Hill is more than it’s title implies.  It covers the period of a little over two years from the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor to the evacuation of Boston by British troops.  While covering historical ground that I’m familiar with, Philbrick has a way of shedding light on people and events in ways I never thought of them before.  One key element of this book is how the Revolution grew not just from political and ideological differences of the Massachusetts’ colonists with the mother country, but with very personal relationships and slights.  The Battle at Breeds Hill is the centerpiece of this book, but it also provides good accounts of Lexington and Concord, the fortification of Dorchester Heights, and the political and military maneuvering before and after this events.  Not to mention the infighting among the Patriots and the Redcoats, as well.  I highly recommend this accessible account of the events and decisions that lead to the American Revolution.
Favorite Passages:

“For Gage, the patriots’ complaints about British tyranny seemed utterly absurd since British law was what allowed them to work so assiduously at preparing themselves for a revolution. Never before (and perhaps since) had the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much freedom as the patriots of Boston.”

“For most Americans, England was an abstraction: a mythical homeland that despite its geographic distance from America remained an almost obsessive part of their daily lives.”

“The irony is that by the time Gage received Dartmouth’s letter, the anger of the ministry, along with that of many Massachusetts patriots, had cooled. If Gage had done nothing that spring, the patriot leaders, already beset by growing discord within their own ranks, would have had even more trouble maintaining a united front. The ministry had played perfectly into the radicals’ hands when Gage finally chose to act on a letter based on information and instructions that were several months old.”

“For many months now, the regulars had endured the taunts and outright maliciousness of not just the Bostonians but also country people just like these. It was the country people who had refused to allow the barracks to be built that might have saved the lives of the soldiers’ comrades and loved ones who were now buried at the edge of Boston Common. For the regulars this was personal, not political. If any of these farmers dared to fire their muskets, a British volley was sure to follow.”

“It’s estimated that approximately half the total deaths that occurred that day (forty-nine for the provincials, sixty-eight for the British) happened in and around Menotomy.”

“Benjamin Russell was the thirteen-year-old student at Boston’s Queen Street School who had followed Percy’s brigade out of Boston. Once in Cambridge he and his classmates had decided to spend the afternoon playing games on the town’s common, only to discover on the evening of April 19 that they were now trapped outside Boston with no way to communicate with their parents. Instead of despairing, they volunteered to serve as errand boys for the officers of the emerging army. Russell would not hear from his parents for another three months.”
“Stark, Prescott, and Putnam were part of the same army, but as far as all three of them were concerned, they were each going to fight this particular battle on their own. With Prescott confined to the redoubt, Putnam preoccupied with building a fortification atop Bunker Hill, and Stark supervising at least the eastern portion of the rail fence, there was no one to synchronize the three of them into a single cohesive unit. Adding to the difficulty of getting these three commanders to work together were preexisting personal animosities. Stark didn’t like Putnam—a feeling that was probably mutual—and as had already been made clear by the interchange about the entrenching tools, Prescott and Putnam didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It also didn’t help that the three of them were from different colonies. At this point a continental army did not yet exist, and in the absence of a unifying “generalissimo,” a quite considerable intercolonial rivalry had developed. General Ward might be the head of the provincial army, but only the soldiers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire were officially a part of that army; Connecticut had not yet formally placed its soldiers under Ward’s control. What had been true in Cambridge a few hours before was true now on the hills overlooking Charlestown: no one seemed to be in charge. But that wasn’t necessarily all bad. There might be, in essence, three different commanders on the American lines, but as far as General Howe was concerned they amounted to a single, very difficult-to-read enemy. In just the last hour he had watched as the provincial fortifications organically evolved in ways of which not even he was entirely aware. Howe wasn’t up against a leader with a plan to implement; he was watching three different leaders try to correct the mistakes of the other two. The workings of this strange amalgam of desperation and internal one-upmanship were baffling and a bit bizarre, but as Howe was about to discover, the end result was surprisingly formidable.”
“As Washington perhaps sensed, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been a watershed. What he didn’t realize was that the battle had convinced the British that they must abandon Boston as soon as possible. Now that the rebellion had turned into a war, the British knew they must mount a full-scale invasion if they had any hope of making the colonists see the error of their ways. Unfortunately, from the British perspective, Boston—hemmed in by highlands and geographically isolated from the colonies to the south—was not the place to launch a knockout punch against the enemy. Rather than become mired in an unproductive stalemate in Boston, the British army had to resume the fighting in a more strategically feasible location—either in New York or even farther to the south in the Carolinas. That was what Gage suggested in his correspondence that summer, and that was what the British ministry decided to do within days of learning of the battle on July 25. But, of course, Washington had no way of knowing what Gage and the ministers in London intended.”
“As had been proven on April 19, the militia, which could be assembled in the proverbial blink of an eye, was the perfect vehicle with which to begin a revolution. But as Joseph Warren had come to realize, an army of militiamen was not built for the long haul. Each company was loyal to its specific town; given time, an army made up of dozens of competing loyalties would tear itself apart—either that, or turn on the civil government that had created it and form a military dictatorship. An army that was to remain loyal to the Continental Congress could not be based on local affiliation.”

Recommended booksAs If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution by Richard Archer, 1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses by Robert Harvey, Ye Cohorn Caravan by Wm. L. Bowne, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young, and Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Rating: ****


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