Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking, New York, 2013, $32.95
Imagine picking up a book entitled Attack on Pearl Harbor and discovering the book begins with the 1937 Japanese bombing of the gunboat USS Panay. Nathaniel Philbrick does something like this in Bunker Hill. But just as knowledge about the Panay incident gives us a broader understanding of Dec. 7, 1941, Philbrick’s long lead-up to Bunker Hill shows how that fierce battle, not the sharp encounters at Lexington and Concord, truly launched the American Revolution.
Philbrick knows exactly what he is doing by starting the Battle of Bunker Hill on P. 208. Once he gets there, his narrative never leaves the desperate fighters on both sides. As he showed in his books In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower, history is best told through the words and deeds of the people who lived it.
Philbrick skillfully describes the April 1775 skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, regarding them as important but not pivotal. There remained a chance war would not follow these impromptu encounters between militiamen and Redcoats. His subtitle—A City, a Siege, a Revolution—discloses his intent: British-occupied Boston, seething with rebellion, is where it all begins, from Stamp Act defiance through the Boston Massacre and Tea Party. If the Revolution were to end in Boston, how and where could it begin anew?
The answer came on June 17, 1775, in the Battle of Bunker Hill on Charlestown Heights. (Though most of the fighting was on adjacent Breed’s Hill, Bunker Hill became the battlefield’s lasting name.) Up those steep and rocky slopes marched some 2,200 British regulars, expecting to crush the rebels. Leading the British assault was Maj. Gen. William Howe, a master tactician. In ragged array along the crest were about 1,500 Americans under command of three officers with three battle plans. At the end of a long and bloody day the Americans, running out of ammunition, would retreat. But behind them lay 1,054 dead or wounded British soldiers. “The success,” Howe later wrote, “is too dearly bought.”
The hero of the book is Dr. Joseph Warren, a Boston physician who was president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Philbrick hails Warren as the true architect and leader of the Revolution, rather than “Samuel Adams and his junta.” Warren held the rank of major general, but on the day of battle he chose to be a foot soldier. He borrowed a musket and headed for the sound of guns “to give what assistance I can, and to let these damn rascals see that the Yankees will fight.” He would be one of the 115 Americans whose bodies lay amid the carnage.
Philbrick, no fan of George Washington, suggests that had Warren survived, he might have become the nation’s first president. That destiny was far in the future for Washington, who learned about Bunker Hill as he headed to Cambridge to assume command of the Continental Army. He asked the messenger whether “the provincials stood the British fire.” Told they had, Washington replied, “Then the liberties of our country are safe.
—Thomas B. Allen