Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Battle of Bunker Hill. Most Americans have heard of this famous battle. June 17, 1775, the British forces led by General William Howe attacked the newly fortified Colonial position on Breed’s Hill and were repulsed on the first two attempts. On the third attempt the Colonial forces were finally forced to pull back due to lack of powder. The battle was not a large battle, fewer than 6,000 soldiers were involved. This would have been considered barely a skirmish in Europe. Yet this fight lives on in American legend.

Nathaniel Philbrick turns his talent to the story of this famous battle. He starts the book well before the events of that fateful day. He recounts the struggles between the colonial population and the British government over issues such as taxation. He gives a lot of detail about the nature and use of mob violence in colonial world. Philbrick spends a lot of time on this subject. He paints a rather terrifying spectacle of these mobs. One of the stories he relates is of an outspoken supporter of government policy who is taken from his home, dragged through the town, tarred, feathered, beaten, and almost hanged before the crowd is through with him.

There are two prominent characters in this book that we don’t hear enough about today: Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams. These were the two primary leaders in the anti-government movement. Samuel Adams, the elder of the two was a well known rabble rouser. He understood how to work the crowds and to use every situation to his advantage. Joseph Warren was one of the most respected physicians in Boston. He was also dedicated to the cause of liberty. He was, by all accounts, a great orator and a tireless worker on behalf of the cause. Philbrick spends a lot of time speculating as to whether he fathered a child by a maid. This may be the weakest part of the book. It really doesn’t matter whether or not Warren fathered this child and it does nothing to tell the story.

A good amount of the book deals with the lead up to the British march on Lexington and Concord, and with the actual fights on that April day. I was not aware of the British atrocities committed on the retreat to Boston until I read this book. Many of the dead Americans were civilians who were simply murdered by the British who were enraged over being forced to retreat.

Philbrick spends a lot of time on the battle itself. The main part of the battle was actually fought on Breed’s Hill, not Bunker Hill. The colonial forces were supposed to fortify Bunker Hill, but went to far forward and dug in to a less defensible position on Breed’s Hill. The British success drove the colonial forces off of Breed’s Hill and then Bunker Hill. It was in the defense of Breed’s Hill that Joseph Warren has killed. His loss was felt strongly by all who knew him.

Philbrick is a very good writer and knows how to keep the narrative flowing. He has found a lot of interesting stories and a lot of interesting characters. This is an easy to read, enjoyable book that can read with little or no background knowledge of the subject.

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