Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution

Benjamin L Carp commends an account of a key conflict in the American War of Independence

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Reviewed by: Benjamin L Carp
Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
Publisher: Doubleday
Price (RRP): £25

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Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill covers the bloody battle of 17 June 1775, as well as the civil and military struggles that preceded it. The British army and navy had been occupying Boston, Massachusetts, for several months, and armed conflict had begun on 19 April at Lexington and Concord. When rebellious New England militiamen seized the heights of the Charlestown peninsula, just north of Boston, British generals ordered 2,200 soldiers to dislodge them.

The British army won the day, but at a horrible cost of 1,054 killed and wounded, including a disproportionately large number of officers. The businesses and homes of Charlestown smouldered, a fiery monument to British imperial might. The New Englanders (despite their disorganised blundering) would crow about their resilience in the face of the British army, while British generals would hesitate before launching further incursions into the American interior.

The battle begins two-thirds into Philbrick’s main text. Along the way, he examines the culture and history of colonial Boston, the political disputes that led to ugly violence in the streets, and the British attempts at pacification that finally led to civil war. Philbrick’s compilation of existing research is broad- ranging and doesn’t get in the way of his narrative: he uses discursive endnotes to sift the legends from the facts. Readers may be surprised as they watch events escalate in spite of the participants’ best intentions, and Philbrick does his best to avoid romanticising any of the characters in his story. The British under General Thomas Gage attempt to maintain order and authority, while the Americans, initially desperate for reconciliation, react with panic and outrage. The results are chaotic and explosive, and Philbrick offers surefooted guidance through the months preceding the clash at Bunker Hill.

The author also highlights individual characters, particularly radical physician Joseph Warren, the most prominent American to die during the battle. Warren makes for an energetic protagonist, jumping from town committees to the provincial congress as an orator, organiser, and inspiring leader. Philbrick lingers too long on unsubstantiated (and ultimately unimportant) rumours that Warren fathered an illegitimate child, and he is mesmerised by the question of what he would have done with his career if he had survived the battle. George Washington arrives on scene only after Warren has fallen, and finds himself out of sync with an undisciplined New England army. Nevertheless, he successfully manoeuvres General Howe’s army out of Boston three months before the Americans declared independence. Loyalist accounts, and those of British officers, counterbalance the perspectives of rebellious Bostonians.

The book moves at a lively pace, doing a fine job of evoking the complex emotions surrounding the New Englanders’ break from the British empire.

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Benjamin L Carp is the author of Defiance of the Patriots (Yale University Press, 2010)