I thoroughly enjoyed reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn so I looked forward to reading his latest, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. Bunker Hill is a look at the eighteen month period from before the Battle of Lexington and Concord to the British evacuation of Boston, the birth of the American Revolution. This is not a book that just lists the facts and details the movements and outcomes of the battles. Just as he did in The Last Stand, Philbrick develops the personalities of the figures involved on both sides, in this case Patriot, Loyalist, and British. He gives a good description of the geography of Boston and how it contributed toward the events that unfolded. He describes the engagements from the command and staff point of view, from the field command point of view, and from the point of view of the common minuteman and soldier.
Philbrick treats Boston not as an inanimate object, but as a living, breathing organism – just as much as the Patriots, Loyalists, and British living within it. Boston is the central character of the book. Vivid descriptions of Boston’s geography put you in the city and give you a mental map of the city and its surroundings. The inhabitants and central figures of Boston are not only described, so are the relationships between the Patriots, Loyalists, and the British officials. Philbrick explains how one’s profession or social standing probably influences whether you are a Patriot or a Loyalist.
Besides the City of Boston, the other central figure of Bunker Hill is Joseph Warren. Warren was a natural and master politician, a key early figure in the Patriot movement – the glue that held the Patriot cause together when it could have fell apart from apathy or blew apart from the actions of the overenthusiastic. To Philbrick, he is more important at the time than figures such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock. On the opposite side, the personalities of Thomas Gage and William Howe are developed. As the Continental Army is formed and becomes a player, George Washington enters the picture and Philbrick explains how the facets of his personality influence the events. One of my favorite aspects of Bunker Hill is how Philbrick describes (just as he did in Last Stand) how the interplay between the leaders’ personalities influenced and shaped events.
Unconsciously, I chose this book to read just before Independence Day and I’m glad I did. The book is a well balanced look at the beginning of the the Revolution. He looks at the successes and the failures of both the Patriots and the British. He shows the transition of the Patriots from a group that was loyal to the King if not Parliament to a rebellion that wished for Independence from Britain. The books shows how misconceptions and misunderstandings on both sides contributed to the coming revolution; perhaps the Patriots weren’t as put out as the they thought they were. Philbrick shows us that the Patriots weren’t always the Saints we’re taught to think they were in school; there were plenty of well meaning patriots but there were also thugs in the movement and what would be considered atrocities were committed on BOTH sides of the fence. This was the perfect book to read in the days before we celebrate our Country’s birthday.
One final thought: If more histories were written like Bunker Hill and Last Stand are, perhaps more people would be interested in reading them.