Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,

By Nathaniel Philbrick

(Viking, $32.95, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Nathaniel Philbrick was born in Boston and knows the city and its early history quite well. Now a resident of Nantucket, he is the New York Times bestselling author of the National Book Award winner “In the Heart of the Sea” and was a  Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Mayflower,” “Sea of Glory” and “The Last Stand.” Philbrick also wrote “Why Read Moby-Dick?” and “Away Off Shore.”

 What is this book about?

With the appalling terrorist bombing on Patriot’s Day fresh in our minds, we’ve all been thinking about Boston lately. For historian and author Nathaniel Philbrick, Boston and its environs is constantly something worth thinking about. An authority on the Colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history, Philbrick here rescues the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill from its hoary layers of historical embellishments and mythmaking and tells us what really happened that day in 1775, following the 1773 dumping of tea in Boston Harbor – the original Tea Party – and the clashes at Lexington and Concord. The Bunker Hill battle, Philbrick says, was the true harbinger of the Revolutionary War and all that came after. In that battle, major players emerged, including a doctor named Joseph Warren who led the Patriot militia, Paul Revere, the poet Mercy Scollay, George Washington and British generals Thomas Gage and William Howe.

In his preface to the book, Philbrick writes:

“…I have been exploring these places, trying to get a fix on the long-lost topography that is essential to understanding how Boston’s former residents interacted. Boston in the 1770s was a land-connected island with a population of about fifteen thousand, all of whom probably recognized, if not knew, each other. Being myself a resident of an island with a year-round population very close in size to provincial Boston’s, I have some familiarity with how petty feuds, family alliances, professional jealousies, and bonds of friendship can transform a local controversy into a supercharged outpouring of communal angst. The issues are real enough, but why we find ourselves on one side or the other of those issues is often unclear even to us. Things just happen in a way that has little to do with logic or rationality and everything to do with the mysterious and infinitely complex ways that human beings respond to one another.

“In the beginning there were three different colonial groups in Massachusetts. One group was aligned with those who eventually became revolutionaries. For lack of a better word, I will call these people “patriots.” Another group remained faithful to the crown, and they appear herein as “loyalists.” Those in the third and perhaps largest group were not sure where they stood. Part of what makes a revolution such a fascinating subject to study is the arrival of the moment when neutrality is no longer an option. Like it or not, a person has to choose.”

Why you’ll like it:

For many readers, the most important part of “history” is “story,” and Philbrick has the gift of bringing complex and misreported or misunderstood events into a narrative that holds our interest. He does this by telling it through the experiences of real people, which gives the book a vivid immediacy that blows off the cobwebs. If you cannot recall what you learned about Bunker Hill all those years ago in school, or if you don’t feel you ever were taught the complete story, this book is for you.

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “In popular culture, the Battle of Bunker Hill has lived on mostly as a trick question: Where was the Battle of Bunker Hill fought? (The military confrontation that fully ignited the American Revolution occurred mostly on Breed’s Hill.) National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick …rescues this pivotal epoch in our history with a revelatory narrative about the full context and unfolding of the bloodiest battle in the War for Independence. Seeing patriots and warriors so clearly that you can see the whites of their eyes.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Like most popular historians, Philbrick …writes about discrete events, not large developments. And he’s good at it, even if the larger context is rarely considered and critical analysis gives way to story and celebration. Here, his focus is on events that began with the humiliations of the British at Lexington and Concord and ended with the siege of Boston, the American victory at Bunker Hill in 1775, and the departure in 1776 of British forces from New England’s largest city. Philbrick correctly presents the battle at Bunker Hill as a critical moment in the opening stages of the War for Independence, and displays an empathy for the out-maneuvered British caught in the traps that the Patriots laid for them. He wisely makes as one of his central figures the Patriots’ charismatic leader, Joseph Warren, who was killed at Bunker Hill, and who has since been largely forgotten, despite having been the man responsible for “orchestrating the on-the-ground reality of a revolution.” Philbrick tells his tale in traditional fashion—briskly, colorfully, and with immediacy. The book would have benefited from a point of view more firmly grounded in a contemporary evaluation of the battle, but even as it is—no one has told this tale better.”

“National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Philbrick ….will be a candidate for another award with this ingenious, bottom-up look at Boston from the time of the December 1773 Tea Party to the iconic June 1775 battle. Independence Day rhetoric extols our forefathers’ battle for freedom against tyranny and unfair taxation, but the author points out that American colonists were the freest, most-prosperous and least-taxed subjects of the British Empire and perhaps the world. A century and a half of London’s salutary neglect had resulted in 13 nearly independent colonies. Trouble began in the 1760s when Parliament attempted to tax them to help pay for the ruinously expensive victory in the French and Indian War. Unexpected opposition handled with spectacular clumsiness by Britain guaranteed trouble. Among Massachusetts’ resistance leaders, most readers know John Hancock and Samuel Adams, but Philbrick concentrates on Joseph Warren, a charismatic young physician, unjustly neglected today since he died at Bunker Hill. His opposite number, British Gen. Thomas Gage, behaved with remarkable restraint. Despite warnings that it would take massive reinforcements to keep the peace, superiors in London goaded him into action, resulting in the disastrous April 1775 expedition to Lexington and Concord. They also sent a more pugnacious general, William Howe, who decided to expel colonial militias, now besieging Boston, by an uphill frontal attack on their entrenched lines, a foolish tactic. British forces succeeded but suffered massive casualties. It was the first and bloodiest engagement of the eight years of fighting that followed. A rewarding approach to a well-worn subject, rich in anecdotes, opinion, bloodshed and Byzantine political maneuvering,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

It’s now on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.