After the June 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, the devastating clash that marked a turning point in America's complicated path to independence, Loyalist Jonathan Sewall described life in Boston, a city whose residents had fled as British soldiers arrived in droves to subdue the rebellious colonists. "Death has so long stalked among us that he is become much less terrible to me than he once was," Sewall wrote of the British casualties he encountered. "Funerals are now so frequent that for a month past you meet as many dead folks as live ones in Boston streets, and we pass them with much less emotion and attention than we used to pass dead sheep and oxen in days of yore."
Such was the aftermath of a brutal fight that had technically been won by the Crown; but with more than 1,000 killed or wounded on the British side compared to 115 killed and 305 wounded on the American side, it was a victory that British commander William Howe ruefully called "too dearly bought." In Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, the dramatic retelling of the battlefield action comes as the culmination of a clear-eyed account of the events leading up to it. Bunker Hill, the first major engagement of the American Revolution and its bloodiest transformed "a rebellion born in the streets of Boston" into "a countrywide war for independence."
Philbrick, National Book Award winner for In the Heart of the Sea, is known for challenging the mythic versions of celebrated episodes in American history, including the Mayflower voyage and Custer's Last Stand. His approach is especially suited to a battle whose very name is misleading. In the tense weeks following the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, both sides the British troops occupying Boston and the New England militiamen who were surrounding the city, holding it under siege weighed their next moves. Hearing that the British were planning to take Dorchester Heights and Bunker Hill, the Patriots set out to preempt them by fortifying Bunker Hill themselves. For reasons that remain unclear to this day, they instead constructed their redoubt on nearby Breed's Hill, which became the eventual site of the conflagration. Because of the geography of Breed's Hill, Philbrick explains, "instead of a defensive position, this was an unmistakable act of defiance," one that "invited a forceful response from the British army." Though the Patriots were outnumbered and dangerously low on gunpowder, they inflicted major casualties on the British before retreating.
Philbrick complicates the version of events you might have learned in elementary school with sympathetic portrayals of British commander Howe and his predecessor Thomas Gage, both of whom were deeply reluctant to wage war against their countrymen, and with warts-and-all portrayals of the Patriots, who could be thuggish and violent in their suppression of Loyalist sentiment. Furthermore, he centers much of his narrative around the largely forgotten Dr. Joseph Warren, an ambitious, charismatic Boston doctor and Patriot leader who, declaring a desire to be "where wounds were to be made, rather than where they were to be healed," recklessly joined in the fighting, only to be killed at Breed's Hill. Philbrick seems to place some stock in the assessment of Loyalist Peter Oliver, who later remarked that had Warren lived, George Washington would have been "an obscurity." Whether or not that's true, the author establishes that, at the very least, the ambitious and well- loved Warren the man who sent Paul Revere on his legendary ride to warn the countryside that the British were coming would have played a major role in ensuing events and would likely be one of our well- known Founding Fathers today.
It is a testament to the author's skills as a researcher and writer that Warren's death has emotional heft. Philbrick is masterful when it comes to selecting rich details to give an epic story a human dimension, whether describing renowned figures like Samuel Adams and John Hancock or anonymous soldiers. He describes a young, recently married brickmaker who donned his wedding suit before heading into the fighting following the British retreat from Concord and Lexington; he told his new wife, "If I die, I will die in my best clothes" and indeed, he did.
While Bunker Hill is dramatic popular history, Philbrick anchors it in larger political themes. He reminds us that even after the fighting began, many Patriots remained loyal to the British monarch, George III, and saw themselves as struggling not for independence but for the liberty due them as Englishmen liberty that they did not extend to women, blacks, Native Americans, or Catholics. By late 1775, however, the tone was shifting: the Patriots "were no longer fighting simply to preserve their ancient liberties; they were fighting to create a new nation." What had started out as a conservative movement had taken a radical turn, and when, the following summer, the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud in Boston, it was met with cheers. Of course, the contradictions between the affirmation that "all men are created equal" and the realities of American life would test the nation again and again, long after the battleground in Boston had receded into something like myth.
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Reviewer: Barbara Spindel
Read an Excerpt
Preface: The Decisive Day
On a hot, almost windless afternoon in June, a seven-year-old boy stood beside his mother and looked out across the green islands of Boston Harbor. To the northwest, sheets of fire and smoke rose from the base of a distant hill. Even though the fighting was at least ten miles away, the concussion of the great guns burst like bubbles across his tear-streaked face.
At that moment, John Adams, the boy’s father, was more than three hundred miles to the south at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Years later, the elder Adams claimed that the American Revolution had started not with the Boston Massacre, or the Tea Party, or the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord and all the rest, but had been “effected before the war commenced . . . in the minds and hearts of the people.” For his son, however, the “decisive day” (a phrase used by the boy’s mother, Abigail) was June 17, 1775.
Seventy-one years after that day, in the jittery script of an old man, John Quincy Adams described the terrifying afternoon when he and his mother watched the battle from a hill beside their home in Braintree: “I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the Battle of Bunker’s hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own.” They feared, he recounted, that the British troops might at any moment march out of Boston and “butcher them in cold blood” or take them as hostages and drag them back into the besieged city. But what he remembered most about the battle was the hopeless sense of sorrow that he and his mother felt when they learned that their family physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, had been killed.
Warren had saved John Quincy Adams’s badly fractured forefinger from amputation, and the death of this “beloved physician” was a terrible blow to a boy whose father’s mounting responsibilities required that he spend months away from home. Even after John Quincy Adams had grown into adulthood and become a public figure, he refused to attend all anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Joseph Warren, just thirty-four at the time of his death, had been much more than a beloved doctor to a seven-year-old boy. Over the course of the two critical months between the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington Green and the Battle of Bunker Hill, he became the most influential patriot leader in the province of Massachusetts. As a member of the Committee of Safety, he had been the man who ordered Paul Revere to alert the countryside that British soldiers were headed to Concord; as president of the Provincial Congress, he had overseen the creation of an army even as he waged a propaganda campaign to convince both the American and British people that Massachusetts was fighting for its survival in a purely defensive war. While his more famous compatriots John Adams, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams were in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress, Warren was orchestrating the on-the-ground reality of a revolution.
Warren had only recently emerged from the shadow of his mentor Samuel Adams when he found himself at the head of the revolutionary movement in Massachusetts, but his presence (and absence) were immediately felt. When George Washington assumed command of the provincial army gathered outside Boston just two and a half weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was forced to contend with the confusion and despair that followed Warren’s death. Washington’s ability to gain the confidence of a suspicious, stubborn, and parochial assemblage of New England militiamen marked the advent of a very different kind of leadership. Warren had passionately, often impulsively, tried to control the accelerating cataclysm. Washington would need to master the situation deliberately and—above all—firmly. Thus, the Battle of Bunker Hill is the critical turning point in the story of how a rebellion born in the streets of Boston became a countrywide war for independence.
This is also the story of two British generals. The first, Thomas Gage, was saddled with the impossible task of implementing his government’s unnecessarily punitive response to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Gage had a scrupulous respect for the law and was therefore ill equipped to subdue a people who were perfectly willing to take that law into their own hands. When fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, militiamen from across the region descended upon the British stationed at Boston. Armed New Englanders soon cut off the land approaches to Boston. Ironically, the former center of American resistance found itself gripped by an American siege. By the time General William Howe replaced Gage as the British commander in chief, he had determined that New York, not Boston, was where he must resume the fight. It was left to Washington to hasten the departure of Howe and his army. The evacuation of the British in March 1776 signaled the beginning of an eight-year war that produced a new nation. But it also marked the end of an era that had started back in 1630 with the founding of the Puritan settlement called Boston. This is the story of how a revolution changed that 146-year-old community—of what was lost and what was gained when 150 vessels filled with British soldiers and American loyalists sailed from Boston Harbor for the last time.
Over the more than two centuries since the Revolution, Boston has undergone immense physical change. Most of the city’s once-defining hills have been erased from the landscape while the marshes and mudflats that surrounded Boston have been filled in to eliminate almost all traces of the original waterfront. But hints of the vanished town remain. Several meetinghouses and churches from the colonial era are still standing, along with a smattering of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses. Looking southeast from the balcony of the Old State House, you can see how the spine of what was once called King Street connects this historic seat of government, originally known as the Town House, to Long Wharf, an equally historic commercial center that still reaches out into the harbor.
For the last three years 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.
It was not a simple case of picking right from wrong. Hindsight has shown that, contrary to what the patriots insisted, Britain had not launched a preconceived effort to enslave her colonies. Compared with other outposts of empire, the American colonists were exceedingly well off. It’s been estimated that they were some of the most prosperous, least-taxed people in the Western world. And yet there was more to the patriots’ overheated claims about oppression than the eighteenth-century equivalent of a conspiracy theory. The hyperbole and hysteria that so mystified the loyalists had wellsprings that were both ancient and strikingly immediate. For patriots and loyalists alike, this was personal.
Because a revolution gave birth to our nation, Americans have a tendency to exalt the concept of a popular uprising. We want the whole world to be caught in a blaze of liberating upheaval (with appropriately democratic results) because that was what worked so well for us. If Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, the guidebook that has become a kind of bible among twenty-first- century revolutionaries in the Middle East and beyond, is any indication, the mechanics of overthrowing a regime are essentially the same today as they were in the eighteenth century. And yet, given our tendency to focus on the Founding Fathers who were at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia when all of this was unfolding in and around Boston, most of us know surprisingly little about how the patriots of Massachusetts pulled it off.
In the pages that follow, I hope 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 Unites States of America. This is the story of two charismatic and forceful leaders (one from Massachusetts, the other from Virginia), but it is also the story of two ministers (one a subtle, even Machiavellian, patriot, the other a punster and a loyalist); of a poet, patriot, and caregiver to four orphaned children; of a wealthy merchant who wanted to be everybody’s friend; of a conniving traitor whose girlfriend betrayed him; of a sea captain from Marblehead who became America’s first naval hero; of a bookseller with a permanently mangled hand who after a 300-mile trek through the wilderness helped to force the evacuation of the British; and of many others. In the end, the city of Boston is the true hero of this story. Whether its inhabitants came to view the Revolution as an opportunity or as a catastrophe, they all found themselves in the midst of a survival tale when on December 16, 1773, three shiploads of tea were dumped in Boston Harbor.