Nathaniel Philbrick. Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. New York: Viking, 2013. xvii + 398 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-670-02544-2; $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-312532-7.
Reviewed by Greg Brooking (Georgia State University)
Published on H-War (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Award-winning author Nathaniel Philbrick, best known for In the Heart of the Sea (2000), Mayflower (2006), and The Last Stand (2010), returns to colonial America in his latest offering. Bunker Hill is the first volume in a proposed Revolutionary War trilogy (with Saratoga and Yorktown to follow). Bunker Hill provides a unique perspective on military history and is in many ways a multilayered popular biography, examining colonial Massachusetts and the era of the battle of Bunker Hill. Philbrick’s strength rests with a thorough comprehension of the printed primary and secondary literature as well as his nuanced understanding of the personalities involved in this critical period of history.
The drama of Bunker Hill and the early days of the American Revolution has seduced many writers, from novelists (Howard Fast) to popular authors (John Ferling and James L. Nelson) to historians (Richard M. Ketchum and Paul D. Lockhart). Thomas Fleming’s 1963 classic rendering, Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill, does great justice to the story by paying special attention to the similarities between the commanders of both armies and, like Philbrick, awards Dr. Joseph Warren pride of place throughout the work. In With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution (2011), Nelson portrays the events in Boston with a sarcastic, if not sardonic, literary flourish and proffers some controversial, though occasionally lightly substantiated, conclusions. Ketchum’s 1962 masterpiece, Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill, is likely the most readable account of the famed battle, though based on secondary sources thus minimizing its overall importance. In The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army and the Emergence of George Washington (2011), Lockhart does much to demythologize the battle (in spite of the title) and, more important, provides a more egalitarian bottoms-up approach than his predecessors.
As mentioned, Bunker Hill is a dual biography of both Massachusetts and some of the primary participants of the early revolutionary movement in that province. Accordingly, Philbrick aims to “provide an intimate account of how over the course of just eighteen months a revolution transformed a city and the towns that surrounded it, and how that transformation influenced what eventually became the United States of America” (p. xvi). Even though “Boston is the true hero of this story,” this tale would be woefully inadequate were it not also a “story of two charismatic and forceful leaders,” Dr. Joseph Warren and General George Washington (pp. xvi-xvii).
The author’s well-crafted and largely chronological narrative opens with an emotional vignette recounting the concussive memories of an adolescent John Quincy Adams, who watched the battle of Bunker Hill rage from afar and feared that British soldiers would soon march to Braintree and “butcher them in cold blood” (p. xiii). This work is divided into three tidy sections: “Liberty,” “Rebellion,” and “The Siege.”
The motif of Boston as “the city on a hill” coupled with Bostonians’ deeply held self-identification as an exceptional and autonomous people permeate the first section, if not the entire book. Philbrick briefly but adequately provides the local historical context of Massachusetts’s imperial crisis through the infamous Tea Party in chapter 1. He neatly juxtaposes Bostonians’ love of liberty with the presence of chattel slavery, which “was more than a rhetorical construct for the city’s white residents; it was an impossible-to-ignore reality in a community where African men, women, and children were regularly bought and sold” (p. 24). He then examines the impact of the Coercive Acts and how Bostonians responded to these intolerable measures. He wisely discusses the hypocritical nature of rebellion, lamenting “the patriots’ reckless disregard for the principles they were supposedly working to uphold” (p. 42). Chapter 3, perfectly titled “The Long Hot Summer,” illuminates the tenuous nature of revolution, especially during its birth pangs. The summer of 1774 witnessed tense ideological confrontations within the burgeoning rebellious movement as well as increasingly anxious times for those Loyalists still struggling to both make sense of recent ministerial machinations and find common ground with the likes of Sam Adams and Warren. Although Philbrick’s understanding of Loyalist demography and motivations is a bit outdated and simplistic—referring to them as stimulated primarily by mere “financial considerations”—his portrait of their plight is quite balanced (p. 60).
Philbrick considers the role of the famous Powder Alarm in expanding the scope of the American resistance in chapter 4 and determines that “the country people outside the city were the ones now leading the resistance movement” (p. 73). Chapter 5 delves into the backlash against the treasonous behavior, a response not merely from Loyalists but also from many sympathetic to the Patriot movement. Here Philbrick proffers a sensitive portrait of the internal struggle over this, in Warren’s words, “unnatural contest between a parent honored and a child beloved” (p. 98). Although both sides wished to avoid striking the first blow, the leaders of each group faced tremendous pressure to act.
Part 2 focuses on how these irrepressible pressures culminated in rebellion. Chapter 6 witnesses the evolution of Warren and a moment of hesitant action by General Thomas Gage. According to one observer, Warren “turned from ... lectures of caution and prudence [in the fall of 1774] ... to asserting and defending the most bold and undisguised principals of liberty” the following spring (p. 110). Ironically, neither these escalating tensions nor clear instructions from the ministry in London compelled Gage to move. Rather, Philbrick notes, it was a suggestion from a spy—Dr. Benjamin Church. In chapter 7, Philbrick provides a number of humanizing vignettes (much in the same way as historian Robert Gross) of militiamen engaged in those first encounters at Lexington and Concord, illuminating the very real differences between them and the British regulars.
Chapter 8 reveals how the bloody skirmishes in the Boston countryside evolved into, according to Warren, “no business but that of war” (p. 174). For the colonists in Massachusetts, “spiritual, ornery, and clannish,” this business was a local affair and they “refused to serve under an officer they did not know or like” (p. 179). The British military redux is detailed in chapter 9 with the ceremonial arrival of Generals William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. Philbrick utilizes their appearance to perpetuate the hyperbolic assessment that British officers “came from the English upper class” whereas “in the new American army ... ‘the lowest can aspire as freely as the highest’” (p. 192). In any event, according to Philbrick, the impending battle atop Breed’s Hill “could very well determine the fate of the English-speaking world” as a “city of loyalists, patriots, soldiers, and refugees” restlessly waited and pondered (p. 207). Chapter 10 examines the ghastly battle, highlighting the trepidation of leaders on both sides, the “discipline and bravery of the British soldiers,” and the “conquer or die” attitude of the militiamen inside the fort (pp. 225, 226). It was just such an attitude that cost Warren his life that bloody day—a death that was, in General Howe’s estimation, “worth five hundred” Redcoats (p. 230). Samuel Adams added that Warren’s death was “greatly afflicting” (p. 235).
The final section addresses the siege of Boston and the birth pangs of the Continental army. Chapter 11 is devoted to Washington, the struggles of civilians living in a war zone, and the inherent difficulties in forming a unified army from loosely organized and geographically scattered militias. The battle culminated months of suffering inside Boston, especially among the poor and elderly, leaving Loyalist Jonathan Sewall to declare: “Death has so long talked among us that he is become muss less terrible to me than he once was” (p. 233). The days following the battle also witnessed the arrival of the aristocratic General Washington. Philbrick smartly observes that merely one year prior to the general’s arrival, “Boston’s patriots had spoken disparagingly of the aristocratic opulence of the loyalists of Tory Row” and now Washington, “whom everyone referred to as His Excellency.” Washington lived in that very neighborhood. Rather than finding an army of twenty thousand battle-hardened veterans in Boston, Washington was greeted by an interracial, overly republican, mob—in fact, “an exceeding dirty and nasty people” (p. 241). Although Washington successfully navigated these issues with some difficulty, Philbrick was left to “wonder what would have happened if at the outset Washington had had a New England general with the polish and empathy of Joseph Warren on his staff” (p. 261).
Chapter 12 brings British control of Boston to a conclusion following the Herculean efforts by General Henry Knox’s detachment to transport cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Washington’s camp, a feat one British officer equated “to that of the Genii belonging to Aladdin’s wonderful lamp” (p. 280). General Howe subsequently struck an evacuation agreement with Washington, which left many of the region’s Loyalists unprotected and alone, necessitating the first Loyalist diaspora. “By purging itself of loyalists,” Philbrick maintains, “Boston had ... reaffirmed its origins [and could once again think of itself as the] city on a hill” (p. 285).
As mentioned at the outset, Bunker Hill is, in many ways, a biography—of a town, of Warren, and of Washington (in that order). Warren was a jack-of-all-trades, filling a variety of vital positions within the burgeoning revolutionary movement. As Massachusetts’s “most influential leader,” Warren was an esteemed physician, writer and propagandist, mediator, mason, philanthropist, warrior, inspiration, agitator, paramour, and adrenaline addict. Perhaps Abigail Adams best encapsulated Warren’s vast and oft understated importance to the early revolutionary movement when she wrote that summer: “We want [i.e., need] him in the senate, we want him in his profession, we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the senator, the physician, and the warrior” (p. 236). Loyalist Peter Oliver offered an astonishing assessment, at least to our modern sensibilities, stating that if Warren had lived, Washington would have been reduced to a mere “obscurity”—but he did not (p. 248).
Philbrick is an engaging storyteller and lucid writer with keen insight into the subtleties, hypocrisies, and contingencies of history and this in on full display in Bunker Hill. He exhibits an impressive mastery of the secondary literature and is adept at inserting just the right quotation from the available primary sources, as his impressive bibliography will attest. Although those seeking a strictly traditional military history of this campaign and battle—replete with unit rosters, battle formations, and tactical discussions—may be disappointed (and should consult Lockhart’s work), those seeking a fuller understanding of warfare will find much of value in this volume. Perhaps the biggest criticism of this work, aside from the incessant cries from the “he left this out crowd,” is the way in which Philbrick laid out his endnotes. The notes for each chapter can only be described as a combination of traditional notes and an annotated bibliography (although he provides a separate bibliography). Ultimately, they were imminently frustrating and seemed designed to impede one’s personal quest for sources.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Greg Brooking. Review of Philbrick, Nathaniel, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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