Recently I read two books: one was great and one was pretty good. In this post I am going to discuss the pretty good one, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, first. The great one, The Black Count: Glory, Betrayal, and the real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, I will discuss at some later date.
I had read two of Nathan Philbrick’s books, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (the true story of Moby Dick) and Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (Pilgrims, pilgrims, pilgrims) before I read his new book Bunker Hill. So I was familiar with his writing and I think that he is a very competent author of pop nonfiction. In Bunker Hill he recounts the period in Massachusetts surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill, perhaps the bloodiest battle of the American Revolution. He does something slightly unique with the book by focusing on a lesser known founding father, a man named Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren was an interesting figure in that he was a medical doctor and also the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Major General of the colony’s militia who assumed the rank of private so he could fight in the front lines of the battle on Breed’s Hill, where he lost his life. The author also humanizes the British troops portraying them as not some monolithic boogeyman but as people with real reservations about fighting their fellow Englishmen and were suffering many deprivations being stuffed into Boston with few supplies.
Some passages that stand out to me are little things such as the irony of the British troops playing the medieval ballad Chevy Chase as they march unknown into conflict at Lexington and Concord. Chevy Chase (or the Battle of Otterburn) is an account of a battle where the English army led by Henry Percy (Hot Spur), Earl of Northumberland, chases the Scottish army into Scotland only to be defeated in a rare medieval night battle. Furthermore, Philbrick paints a very nuanced depiction of George Washington. Although he is a bit of an haughty Virginia slave owner and doesn’t hide his contempt for the more egalitarian population of New England, which they often resent him for, Washington comes to respect their fervor, fighting skills and ingenuity. Likewise, he is initially against using free black men as soldiers until he is confronted with the fact that the most lauded soldier for bravery during the battle of Bunker Hill, a battle where many white men ran away from conflict, was a free black man named Salem Poor. The author portrays astutely Washington’s ability to rethink internalized beliefs by allowing free blacks to serve in his new Continental Army now that he has seen how they can fight.
The depiction of the battle of Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) is the best writing of the book. You can really get a feel for how desperate and murderous the battle was. And although the British won the field, their casualties were many times that of the Americans, casualties that were vividly depicted by the author, thrusting you into the grim reality of battle.
The main thesis of the book in my view is that the elites like Joseph Warren and George Washington won the revolution, but I have always leaned on the history from below approach, which compels me toward the belief that it was the common man such as freed-man Salem Poor at Bunker Hill or the 58 year old family man, Jason Russell, who was killed on his doorstep defending his home along with twelve other militiamen during the battle of Lexington and Concord, that really won the revolution through their bravery and sacrifice.