‘Bunker Hill:’ a city, a siege, a new book by Nathaniel Philbrick
Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill” is a vivid account of the Boston battle that proved a “critical turning point” in the American Revolution. Philbrick discusses his book May 21 at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Bunker Hill” will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday May 21 at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 at www.townhallseattle.org or 888-377-4510 and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
“Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution”
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking, 396 pp., $32.95
Nathaniel Philbrick strives to find fresh perspectives in his historical works. In “Bunker Hill” he concludes that, contrary to what you may have thought, the American Revolution was not the result of a spontaneous uprising of freedom-loving patriots against oppressive British rule.
In fact, he says, some of the so-called patriots were little more than thugs who harassed and persecuted loyalist-leaning citizens until they either fled or surrendered to circumstances. Other colonists simply had trouble choosing sides in the developing conflict.
Not only that, but Philbrick asserts that the patriots really had little cause for complaint. “Compared to other outposts of [British] empire, the American colonists were exceedingly well off,” he writes. “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.”
Philbrick’s narrative details the first clashes at Lexington and Concord, the bloody British retreat to Boston, and finally the Battle of Bunker Hill. The battle was “the critical turning point in the story of how a rebellion born in the streets of Boston became a countrywide war for independence,” Philbrick says. It was also “ultimately named — perhaps appropriately, given its befuddled beginnings, for the wrong hill.”
The Colonial army took the field with nobody in overall command, although there was an agreed-upon plan to build fortifications on Bunker Hill. But one officer, Col. William Prescott, ignored the plan and advanced instead to Breed’s Hill, closer to Boston, where he ordered his men to build fortifications directly overlooking the city.
British regular troops in the city responded quickly and marched out to forcibly evict the colonists. All the fighting took place on Breed’s Hill, but somehow the battle ended up named after Bunker Hill.
The first British attempt to storm the American lines ended in disaster, but a second try finally succeeded in driving away the colonists, who by then were desperately short of gunpowder.
Yet it was a hollow victory for the British; of approximately 2,200 men they sent into battle, nearly half — 1,054 — were killed or wounded. American casualties were less than half that number.
The battle also did nothing to alter the basic military situation; Boston remained just as indefensible after the battle as it had been before, and after a long siege the British finally evacuated the city.
Drawing on a multitude of sources, Philbrick spices his text with first-person accounts from many participants in the drama, including patriots, loyalists, generals, privates, spies, even the victim of a tar-and-feathering. This is easy-reading history, uncluttered by footnotes and assisted by some excellent maps.
Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond’s latest book is “In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment” (Globe Pequot Press).