Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Title: Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Viking
Publish Date: April 30, 2012
Source: I received a copy from the publisher; however, this did not affect my review.

Why You're Reading This Book:

  • You're a non-fiction fan.
  • You're a history fan.
What's the Story?:

From "Boston in 1775 is an island city occupied by British troops after a series of incendiary incidents by patriots who range from sober citizens to thuggish vigilantes. After the Boston Tea Party, British and American soldiers and Massachusetts residents  have warily maneuvered around each other until April 19, when violence finally erupts at Lexington and Concord.  In June, however, with the city cut off from supplies by a British blockade and Patriot militia poised in siege, skirmishes give way to outright war in the Battle of Bunker Hill. It would be the bloodiest battle of the Revolution to come, and the point of no return for the rebellious colonists.

Philbrick brings a fresh perspective to every aspect of the story. He finds new characters, and new facets to familiar ones. The real work of choreographing rebellion falls to a thirty-three year old physician named Joseph Warren who emerges as the on-the-ground leader of the Patriot cause and is fated to die at Bunker Hill. Others in the cast include Paul Revere, Warren’s fiancĂ© the poet Mercy Scollay, a newly recruited George Washington, the reluctant British combatant General Thomas Gage and his more bellicose successor William Howe, who leads the three charges at Bunker Hill and presides over the claustrophobic cauldron of a city under siege as both sides play a nervy game of brinkmanship for control.

With passion and insight, Philbrick reconstructs the revolutionary landscape—geographic and ideological—in a mesmerizing narrative of the robust, messy, blisteringly real origins of America."

My Two Cents:

"Bunker Hill" is the story of the battle called by the same name that was the bloodiest battle of the American Revolution. Philbrick really makes the story of this battle and the people that were affected by and participated in the battle come to life. I did not know much about this battle before reading this book and found this book to be a really good primer on the battle. That being said, I think those that are familiar with the battle will still get a lot out of this book.

I had read "Mayflower" by Philbrick several years ago and one thing that I really enjoyed about that book and this book is that Philbrick really does a great job of pulling you into the story. While there were some parts of "Bunker Hill" that were a little bit dry, most of the book is very engaging. Philbrick weaves the extensive research into a fascinating narrative. There are definitely some parts of the book that almost have a fiction feel to it. I don't mean that the detail feels fictional, I mean that the book is just that engaging and pulled together that you feel like you are reading a story rather than a non-fiction history book.

I really liked that Philbrick focused a lot on the personalities and people that played some pretty major roles in this battle. I think learning about these people and who they were and why they wanted to be involved and what they were doing once they got involved. Because you are not only seeing the events but the people behind the events, I really think that you get a great picture of what happened.

I think this book will definitely appeal to history lovers. Philbrick definitely knows his stuff. This book definitely whet my appetite to read more about the American Revolution.

Key Events Leading Up To
BUNKER HILL: A City, A Siege, A Revolution
by Nathaniel Philbrick

In his new book, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the story of the battle that transformed a revolution into a full-fledged war.  Philbrick focuses his narrative on the little known Dr. Joseph Warren, the charismatic physician who was at the forefront of the revolution in Massachusetts during the spring of 1775 and was fated to die at Bunker Hill. What follows is an account of the events leading up to that historic battle in June 17, 1775. 

April 2:  With tensions rising, patriot families begin to evacuate Boston.

April 13:  Massachusetts Provincial Congress directs the Committee of Safety to create six companies of artillery.

April 17:  Thomas Gage prepares his plan to send Col. Francis Smith and 700 troops to destroy rebel military stores in Concord.

April 18:  at 10 pm, British grenadiers and light infantry assemble at Boston Common for transportation to Cambridge; learning of the plan, Joseph Warren orders William Dawes and Paul Revere to alarm the countryside that the soldiers are headed to Concord. 

April 19:  British regulars fire on militiamen at Lexington Green, killing eight and wounding ten; later in the day, men die on both sides during a clash at Concord’s North Bridge.

April 20:  Thousands of patriot militiamen from towns throughout Massachusetts flood into Cambridge and Roxbury. 

April 23:  Admiral Graves begins building a gun battery on Copp’s Hill in Boston’s North End; the Provincial Congress reconvenes at Watertown and elects Joseph Warren as President.

May 22:  The Provincial Congress passes a resolve that all persons who remain faithful to the king “are guilty of such atrocious and unnatural crimes against their country, that every friend to mankind ought to forsake and detest them.”

May 27:  General Israel Putnam captures and burns the British schooner Diana in the Battle of Chelsea Creek.

June 14:  Joseph Warren is appointed a major general in the provincial army.

June 16:  At 6 p.m. Colonel William Prescott and 1,000 soldiers assemble in Cambridge with instructions to build a redoubt on Bunker Hill; for reasons that remain unclear to this day, they build the fortification on Breed’s Hill instead.

June 17:  Joseph Warren is killed during the final stages of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which proves to be the bloodiest engagement of the Revolution.

Q&A with Nathaniel Philbrick

You are the author of In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower, among other books. Each
takes a piece of history we all think we know about and brings to life aspects that aren’t
part of common lore. In BUNKER HILL you do the same. What piqued your interest in
Bunker Hill?

By writing BUNKER HILL, I’ve actually returned to the subject and the place where my love
of history began. When I was in the fifth grade in Pittsburgh I was captivated by Esther Forbes’s
historical novel Johnny Tremain. Even after I’d studied American history in high school, college,
and beyond, I still found myself longing to know more about what unfolded in and around Boston
during the early years of the Revolution. Before settling on Nantucket, my wife and I lived for a
year in Boston, and it was while pushing my daughter’s stroller through the crooked streets of the
North End that I first began to think seriously about writing about the past. And, as has been true
with all my previous books, once I started researching, I quickly realized that the truth about what
happened to the inhabitants of Boston during the two and a half years between the Boston Tea
Party in December 1773 and the evacuation of the British troops in March 1776 was much more
complex, disturbing, inspiring, and just plain interesting than I could have ever imagined.

How have your past books informed your research and writing for BUNKER HILL?

My book Mayflower ends with the horrendous Native-English conflict known as King Philip’s
War, which was fought a century before the events described in BUNKER HILL. Almost as
soon as I started my research on this book, I began to understand that the American Revolution
was as much about the unfinished business associated with that earlier era as it was about issues
like liberty, freedom, and taxation without representation. For the farmers in the outlying towns
of New England—the ones who fought and died at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill—
the Revolution wasn’t about their frustrations with Parliament; it was about keeping what their
forefathers had fought and died for during not only King Philip’s War but the subsequent series
of brutal wars against the French and Indians to the north. We like to think of the Revolution as
a conflict based on high-minded ideals, but there was a darker aspect to the colonists’ resentment
of the British soldiers that reached back all the way to the settlement of this ancient and blood-
soaked land.

BUNKER HILL is also informed by The Last Stand, my book about the Battle of the Little
Bighorn. The research and writing of that book, which involved what were in essence three
battles in one, was enormously helpful when it came to bringing the grim reality of revolutionary-
era warfare to life. I didn’t want this to read like a costume drama; I wanted the reader to
viscerally experience a bayonet charge and the smoky chaos of defending a fortress made of dirt
on a hot, almost windless day in June.

And, finally, there is a decidedly maritime aspect to BUNKER HILL that relates to my research
into the whaling worlds of In the Heart of the Sea and my history of Nantucket, Away Off Shore.
Two of the ships that were targets in the Boston Tea Party were from Nantucket, and at least fifty
of the whaleboats the provincials used to battle the British in Boston Harbor were confiscated
from the largely loyalist whaling port. There is also the historic race between the British ship

Sukey and the American schooner Quero to deliver the news of Lexington and Concord to
London. The sea is, in fact, one of the main characters in BUNKER HILL, for it was the 3,000-
mile-wide Atlantic—and the more than three-month communication lag it created between Great
Britain and the America colonies—that ultimately made it impossible for the two sides to resolve
their differences.

How did you go about your research for BUNKER HILL?

First, I wanted to establish, as best I could, a sense of what Boston was like during the
revolutionary period—a difficult thing to do since the city has changed almost beyond
recognition since the days when Boston was a hilly island of approximately one square mile
with only a thin neck of land connecting it to the adjoining town of Roxbury. I purchased about
half a dozen historic maps of Boston and Boston Harbor and blew them up to poster size and
positioned them around my desk, and for the last three years I’ve been making notes on them with
a pencil and pen. The archives are particularly rich when it comes to revolutionary Boston, and
I have spent countless hours at historical societies in the city and beyond, including the Clements
Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which has the papers of General Thomas
Gage and other important documents. In addition to diaries, letters, and newspapers, the visual
record is quite good, and many portraits by John S. Copley and others, as well as sketches and
paintings of Boston, are included in my book. I was also able to meet with the descendants of
two key players in this drama. Lord Nicholas Gage spoke with me over a glass of sherry at his
ancestral home of Firle in Sussex, England, and a few months later I had lunch with Paul Revere
Jr. at a clam shack on Cape Cod.

What did you discover in your research that surprised you?

I was surprised at the level of sympathy I had for the plight of General Thomas Gage, the decent,
law-abiding British officer who was given the impossible task of enforcing his government’s
unnecessarily punitive response to the Boston Tea Party. It was Gage’s respect for the
Bostonians’ liberties that gave the city’s patriots the opportunity to prepare so effectively for a
revolution. The patriots’ complained about what they called British “tyranny,” but never before
(and perhaps since) have the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much
freedom as the patriots of Boston.

Ambivalence is a natural human emotion, but I was struck by how much it had been written
out of the story of our revolution. We’ve all been taught to believe that the choice between
being a patriot and a loyalist was tantamount to choosing between good and evil, but many
New Englanders, at least in the beginning, weren’t sure where they stood. The patriots didn’t
originally want to invent a new society; they were intent on keeping their society the way it
had been since their ancestors arrived in the New World a century and a half before. It was the
British who were trying to move in a more modern direction by increasing the efficiency of their
empire, and the patriots often opposed what they disparagingly called Parliament’s “innovations”
with intimidation and outright physical violence. It’s true that the American Revolution was
much less bloody than most insurgencies, but I think many Americans do not fully appreciated
the level of brutality that existed on the streets of Boston, and I focus the first chapter of
BUNKER HILL on the tarring and feathering of the customs official John Malcom just a month
after the Boston Tea Party.

I was also struck by how the Revolution literally turned the city of Boston inside out—the siege
in my subtitle is a siege by patriots (or colonists) of a British-occupied city. We all think of
revolutionary Boston as the hotbed of patriot resistance, but I think fewer of us realize that after
the fighting at Lexington and Concord, most of the patriots fled the city, leaving Boston to a few
thousand loyalists and close to 9,000 British soldiers as more than twice that number of patriot
militiamen from the outlying towns of New England surrounded the city. Boston, once the center
of American defiance, became a British-occupied garrison gripped by an American siege. But
there were no clear lines of battle or encampments–citizens and soldiers were intermingled to
such an extent, that the Battle of Bunker Hill on the Charlestown peninsula made for a terrifying
kind of spectator event as thousands watched the fighting from the hills, roofs, and steeples of
Boston, Cambridge, and Roxbury.

George Washington also surprised me. We think of him as this cool, confident, and stoic icon,
but when he arrived on the scene in Cambridge shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was
filled with a passionate need to prove himself. Even though his army did not have the gunpowder
required to mount a proper offensive, he wanted desperately to attack the British, which would
have surely destroyed Boston and might have also destroyed his own army. For the next six
months Washington kept pushing to attack while the generals in his council of war insisted on
restraint. This meant that the greatest threat to Boston’s survival came not from the British army
but from its supposed savior, George Washington.

When many of us think about the Revolution we think of John Adams and Paul Revere,
among others, but not of Joseph Warren who plays quite a significant role in BUNKER
HILL. What did he do, why did he stand out, and why don’t we hear much about him in
our history books? Who are some other noteworthy characters?

Dr. Joseph Warren is one of the great unsung heroes of the American Revolution. John Adams,
John Hancock, and Sam Adams had gone to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia,
leaving Warren, just thirty-three, to lead the on-the-ground revolution in Massachusetts. As
a member of the Committee of Safety, he ordered Paul Revere to alert the countryside that
British troops were headed for Concord. As President of the Provincial Congress, he oversaw
the creation of an army and was eventually named a major general. He was eloquent and
charismatic, and if he hadn’t been killed during the last moments of the fighting at Bunker Hill,
he might have been one of the Founding Fathers we revere today. One loyalist even claimed that
had Joseph Warren lived, Washington would have been “an obscurity.” But Warren is only one
in a cast of characters who have been virtually forgotten today. There’s Warren’s fiancĂ©, Mercy
Scollay, who cared for his four orphaned children after his death and whose father was the chair
of the Boston Selectmen; there’s Josiah Quincy Jr., a young patriot lawyer who spent several
months in London trying to set things right between Massachusetts and the mother country but
died of tuberculosis just as his ship arrived on the New England coast only a few days after
Lexington and Concord; there’s Dr. Benjamin Church, great-grandson of the Indian fighter who
helped win King Philip’s War, who proved to be a spy for the British; there’s John Winthrop,
Jr., who declared himself “chairman of the committee of tarring and feathering” and led gangs
of vigilantes who harassed Boston loyalists; and there is the loyalist minister and noted punster
Mather Byles, who after being placed under an armed guard by patriot officials referred to the
sentinel as his “observe-a-Tory.” The list goes on and on.

There are many people interested in the revolutionary war and reenactments. There are
also many who are interested in the sites that make up the story. If one wanted to take a
tour of some of the significant sites what are some that should be included on an itinerary
and why?

The best way to get a sense of historic Boston is to walk along Washington Street from the
neighborhood known as the South End. As you approach the modern commercial heart of the
city, you are walking over what was in the eighteenth century the narrow neck of land that
connected the town of Roxbury to Boston. The gallows and town gate were at the corner of
Washington and East Berkley Streets. A couple of blocks beyond that, at the corner of
Washington and Essex Streets, you’ll see a memorial marking the former location of the Liberty
A few blocks beyond that is the Old South Meetinghouse, the brick structure that
accommodated gatherings of as many as 5,000 people during revolutionary times. A few blocks
beyond that, at the head of State Street, is the Old State House, known as the Town House in the
colonial era, and home to the province’s legislative body, the General Court. It was in the square
in front of the Old State House that the Boston Massacre unfolded. You must also make sure to
visit nearby King’s Chapel, the stone church frequented by loyalists, and a few blocks from that,
Boston Common, which once bordered the waters of the Back Bay. The Golden-domed State
House on Beacon Hill is near where John Hancock’s house once stood; a few blocks down
Charles Street, which borders the Common, is where the painter John Singleton Copley’s house
once stood. Other buildings that shouldn’t be missed are Faneuil Hall, where town meetings
were traditionally held on the second floor; the Paul Revere House in the North End, as well as
the Old North Church, and the Copp’s Hill Burial Ground. In Cambridge there is Washington’s
Headquarters on Tory Row; in Arlington, there is the Jason Russell house where 12 militiamen
were killed in brutal fighting with retreating British soldiers; in Lexington, there is the famous
Green and a large number of historic houses, and in Concord there is Minute Man National Park
and the famous North Bridge. Visits to Dorchester Heights (where in one night the Americans
managed to build the fort that forced the evacuation of the British) and Castle Island (which
served as a refuge for loyalists after the Tea Party and is now accessible by land) are also
recommended, but perhaps the best seat in the house, especially when it comes to taking in all of
Boston and Boston Harbor, is atop the 221-foot-high Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown.

The American Revolution resonates with what is going on today with recent revolutions /
uprisings in the Middle East. Can you address some of the parallels?

Just as the rise of the internet helped make possible the recent uprisings in the Middle East,
so was the outbreak of the American Revolution directly linked to the creation of what was in
its day a new form of social networking: the Committees of Correspondence. The apparent
brainchild of Sam Adams, the Boston Committee of Correspondence was made up of a group of
patriots who began sending letters about the great political issues of the day to towns throughout
Massachusetts, where other citizens quickly created their own local committees to give those
issues a public hearing. This meant that town meetings, which had formerly been where only
local concerns (like repairing roads or bridges) were discussed, suddenly became forums for the
creation of public opinion. Before the royal governor had a chance to issue his latest official
pronouncement, townspeople throughout Massachusetts were already talking among themselves,
forming a consensus, and more often than not, cheering Boston on in its stand against British
tyranny. With the Committee of Correspondence, Sam Adams had created an extralegal, colony-
wide network of communication that threatened the old established order, which is essentially
what has been going on in countries throughout the Middle East. The American Revolution was
not all about the Founding Fathers speaking eloquently on the floor of the Continental Congress;
it was about ordinary Americans suddenly finding a new way to enter the political conversation.

June 17th is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. How would you like to spend that

I begin and end my book with John Quincy Adams, who as a seven-year-old boy watched the
battle unfold from a hill near his house in Braintree. Adams was so traumatized by the battle and
saddened by the death of Dr. John Warren, who had once mended his badly broken right hand,
that for the rest of his life he refused to attend all anniversary celebrations of the battle, feeling
that the pomp and circumstance were a violation of what were for him extremely poignant, even
sacred memories of a conflict that changed not only the course of his own life, but of a nation.
Although I sympathize with John Quincy Adams’s disdain for chest-thumping in the name of
patriotism, I have also developed a huge respect for the men—both American and British—who
fought and died in that battle, and I would very much like to visit the monument on June 17,

What do you want people to take away from reading BUNKER HILL?

I hope readers will come away with a renewed sense of the importance of what happened in
revolutionary Boston. But I also hope readers will come away with a sense of the past as a time
very much like our own: a time when ordinary people were forced to do extraordinary things; a
time when chaos and confusion reigned; a time when no one—not even George Washington—
knew what was going to happen next. The people who experienced the American Revolution
were no better or worse than we are in the 21st century. They achieved a great deal, but they by
no means completed the job of forging a new American society—that is the ongoing challenge
that every new generation must face; otherwise, all those hard-won battles of the past will have
been fought in vain.


  1. I love reading about the American Revolution - I am actually reading about Benedict Arnold right now. I have had Philbrick's Mayflower on my reading list for awhile. I love when non-fiction has a narrative feel to it - especially when listening to it on an audiobook.

  2. I'll keep this one in mind for the American Revolution reading challenge!


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