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Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution (2013)

by Nathaniel Philbrick

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8042120,432 (4.05)27
Boston in 1775 is an island city occupied by British troops after a series of incendiary incidents by patriots who range from citizens to vigilantes. After the Boston Tea Party, British and American soldiers and Massachusetts residents have maneuvered around each other until April 19, when violence erupts at Lexington and Concord. In June, with the city cut off from supplies by a British blockade and Patriot militia poised in siege, skirmishes give way to war in the Battle of Bunker Hill.… (more)

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Another good history from Nathaniel Philbrick, covering the events in and around the city of Boston from 1773 (the Boston Tea Party) to 1776 (the evacuation by the British). In between are the “Port Act” (which the Bostonians and colonists in general thought too harsh a response to the Tea Party), the Powder Alarm (where regulars deployed from Boston to seize colonial powder stores), Paul Revere’s Ride and the battles of Lexington and Concord, the titular battle (which was actually fought on Breed’s Hill, not Bunker Hill), the siege of Boston by the Americans, and finally the American seizure and fortification of Dorchester Heights, which made the city untenable and forced a negotiated evacuation.

Philbrick pays a good deal of attention to characters – British General Gage and American Doctor/General Joseph Warren figure heavily. In particular Warren is seen as one of the early driving factors for the Americans, to the extent of suggesting that if Warren hadn’t been killed at Bunker Hill, George Washington might have ended up as a historical footnote.

There’s also some interesting discussion of revolutionary politics; the colonies feared a powerful standing army might end with New England dominating the rest with a Cromwellian-style military dictatorship. And there was a lot of hostility between Loyalists/Tories and the revolutionaries, with people tarring and feathering their neighbors based on their politics. As other histories have pointed out, Loyalists were probably a majority in the colonies, and Loyalists plus Neutrals certainly were, but the revolutionaries were much better organized and much more willing to fight.

There were some comments about Washington I found interesting. Philbrick suggests the aristocratic planter Washington originally found the New England soldiers too egalitarian for his taste – for example, he saw to it that all free blacks in the army were discharged and forbade further enlistment. However, he came around, and not only allowed black enlistment but invited black poetess Phyllis Wheatly to visit him at his headquarters after she wrote a complimentary poem. Philbrick doesn’t speculate on reasons for the change of heart.

The only flaw in note is Philbrick’s treatment of the causes for the Revolution is perfunctory. There’s mention of the Stamp Act and the Townsend Acts, but Philbrick goes on to note that the colonies were less heavily taxed than almost any other developed area in the world. However, as other works have noted, it wasn’t so much the direct taxation but other interference in colonial government and industry that set things off – in short, the Americans resented being treated as colonies rather than integral parts of Great Britain. Although it might raise political hackles, it could be argued that the American Revolution was the first “movement of national liberation”.

Excellent maps, clearly showing the deployments and battles. Contemporary illustrations, mostly portraits of the participants. No foot- or endnotes, but a detailed section on sources for each chapter and a very complete bibliography. For more books on the run-up to the war and the early war years, see The Long Fuse, and The British Are Coming. ( )
3 vote setnahkt | Jun 10, 2021 |
Interesting history of the start of the Revolutionary War. The author offers some new perspectives on some of the leading characters in the start of the Revolution. George Washington was not perfect, Joseph Warren was an inspiring leader, the British generals were not particularly evil, and some of the American "patriots" were not that decent. ( )
  ChuckRinn | Oct 4, 2020 |
A story about Boston, a place I've never been ... and the (too many) people of the American Revolution. I lost interest after about an hour and stopped reading. Never to pick it up again. ( )
  buffalogr | Jun 4, 2019 |
This is a very thorough and highly readable account of the Battle of Bunker Hill--what led up to it, the battle itself, and its consequences in the unfolding conflict between England and the colonies that was not yet an outright war for independence.

Philbrick introduces us to the major players on both sides, and the complications of the situation that have largely been lost in the patriotic glow with which we remember these events. Many of the figures on the British side most hated by Americans were in fact trying to soften British policy towards the colonies. General Thomas Gage had an American wife and strong ties in the colonies. He wasn't prepared for the hostility he encountered in Boston. Likewise, Benjamin Franklin went to England as Pennsylvania's colonial agent a strong supporter of the British Crown, and returned, several years later, and after repeated, intentional, public humiliation, a committed American patriot.

As we follow events and personalities, Philbrick makes clear how large a role personalities, internal conflicts among Americans, and the simple difficulty of communication across an ocean in the late 18th century played in the tensions between colonies and mother country spiraling out of control into warfare and revolution. On more than one occasion, either the colonists or the Crown attempted to ratchet down the conflict and reach an understanding, but because of the distances involved, by the time the attempt at rapprochement reached its intended targets, events had moved on, and the imagined resolution dissolved into mirage.

Much of the book, up until the Battle of Bunker Hill itself, follows the career of physician Dr. Joseph Warren, and readers will be fascinated by the sense of Warren's tremendous and largely positive influence on the development and actions of the Patriot movement, and the lost possibilities represented by his death.

The battle itself is fascinating. I knew in a general way that a number of mistakes had been made, and that though it was a Pyrrhic victory for the British that they couldn't afford to repeat, it was nevertheless a British victory, and it didn't have to be. Philbrick lays out the complicated web of decisions, mistakes, and conflicts among only semi-cooperating commanders of different parts of the battle that first, made the American position less defensible than it should have been, and then, made taking that position far more costly than the British could ever have anticipated.

An excellent and enlightening account of a critical episode in American history.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Nathaniel Philbrick always writes interesting and detailed histories. Bunker Hill tells the story of the battles of Lexington and Concord through the battle of Bunker Hill until the British finally leave Boston after a months-long siege. The author is able to impart all his research in an easy reading style that gives the reader the information they seek about this period of history.
He doesn't get bogged down in tactics but gives enough details so the reader can picture the happenstances that sparked the beginnings of the American Revolution. I very much enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it to fans of history. ( )
  N.W.Moors | Mar 19, 2018 |
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Boston has been like the vision of Moses: a bush burning but not consumed. - the Reverend Samuel Cooper, April 7, 1776
To my mother, Marianne Dennis Philbrick
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(Preface) 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.
More than five thousand people waited inside the Old South Meeting-House, the largest gathering place in Boston.
Liberty is all very well, but men cannot live without masters. There is always a master. And men either live in glad obedience to the master they believe in, or they live in a frictional opposition to the master they wish to undermine. In America this frictional opposition has been the vital factor. It has given the Yankee his kick. - D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923
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Boston in 1775 is an island city occupied by British troops after a series of incendiary incidents by patriots who range from citizens to vigilantes. After the Boston Tea Party, British and American soldiers and Massachusetts residents have maneuvered around each other until April 19, when violence erupts at Lexington and Concord. In June, with the city cut off from supplies by a British blockade and Patriot militia poised in siege, skirmishes give way to war in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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Lost too often in the story of our noble path to liberty is the truly cataclysmic nature of the nation's origins: the interplay of ideologies and personalities that provoked a group of merchants, farmers, artisans and sailors to take up arms against their own country. With his keen sense of the unexplored side of mythic events, Nathaniel Philbrick turns to pre-Revolutionary Boston and the gradual uptick of tension that climaxed in June of 1775 at Bunker Hill, in the firs major battle of the American Revolution.

Boston in 1775 was a city of 15,000 packed onto a land-connected island a little over one square mile. It was occupied by British troops after a series of incendiary incidents by colonists who ranged from sober citizens to thuggish vigilantes. For eighteen months after a feverish gang tossed boxes of surplus tea into Boston Harbor, citizens and soldiers warily maneuvered around each other, but on April 19, violence finally erupted at Lexington and Concord. Not until June, however, with a British-occupied city cut off from supplies by a patriot militia poised in siege, did the skirmishes give way to outright war in the Battle of Bunker Hill. A few hundred citizen soldiers had the bravery and the discipline to hold their fire until the British soldiers marched into within just fifteen yards of their entrenchment. It would be the bloodiest battle of the Revolution to come, and was the point of no return for the rebellious colonists. 

Philbrick's account reflects a deep grasp of the fundamental truths of the American experience - our affinity for recklessness and violence alongside our individual and collective acts of courage in the face of tyranny. He brings a fresh perspective to every aspect of the story. The triumvirate long associated with revolutionary Boston - John Adams, Sam Adams and John Hancock - were far from the scene as the city erupted, so the real work of choreographing rebellion fell to a thirty-three-year-old physician named Joseph Warren, who emerged as the on-the-ground leader of the patriot cause and was fated to die at Bunker Hill.

Others in the cast include Paul Revere, Warren;s fiance, the poet Mercy Scollay; the reluctant British combatant General Thomas Gage and his moody successor, William Howe, who presided over the claustrophobic city under siege; and finally, a newly recruited George Washington, the immaculately dressed Virginian who found himself in the tumultuous void left by the death of Joseph Warren, and who transformed a collection of surly militiamen into the beginnings of an army.
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