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David Tiedemann reviews ‘Bunker Hill’ by Nathaniel Philbrick

bunker_hillOne of the problems with popular history of the American Revolution, and its era, is that it has been largely unable to free itself from the “Great Men of History” style. One needs to look no further than the two books by David McCullough, on John Adams, and the military leadership of the Continental Army in 1776, published in the early years of this century to see this trend. As the coming sestercentennial of American independence approaches there is sure to be a glut of publishing on the subject. One can only hope those books, when they come, are in the same style as Bunker Hill a City a Siege a Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick, as the book so easily departs from this staid methodology. In Bunker Hill Philbrick essentially writes a local history of Boston, and its surrounding towns, between the Tea Party of late 1773, and the evacuation of British forces from the city in early spring 1776. As a local study all of the petty disagreements, person intrigue, and the political back and forth between the colonies and Britain, that created a situation where New Englanders were willing to take up arms against their mother nation are described. In creating this local study Philbrick is able to erode some of the myths of the period, and give a greater understating of the roots of the American Revolution.

            The first thing that is striking about Philbrick’s study is how small it is. As the author notes the population of Boston in the 1770’s was a modest 15,000, about the size he points out of his home island of Nantucket today. This compact frame of investigation allows Philbrick to observe the personal reasons average Bostonians resisted the new “Intolerable Acts,” and what political future they imagined. For example, because the “Intolerable Acts” closed the city’s port many Bostonians were angry at parliament for affecting their livelihoods.   Others felt that changes to the structure of local government, particularly the installation of royally appointed civil officials, imposed by the acts, ended the principal of self-government that New England had enjoyed for almost a century. Bunker Hill also discusses the individual political incidents that lead to all out war. Philbrick makes it easy to see how urban riots in Boston meant as a show of protest to, not rebellion against, parliament and the crown, lead to an atmosphere of acceptable political violence, which eventually resulted in the action at Bunker Hill. Herein lies the great strength of the book, Philbrick is able to show how the American Revolution started with urban riots meant to display the colonies displeasure with new legislation, and ended in open conflict with Britain. With this local study of politics surrounding the conflict Philbrick is able to make a convincing case that the men who fought at Bunker Hill were there not to create a new country, or found new liberties, but fired on British soldiers to protect what they saw as their rights as Englishmen. Essentially, Bunker Hill argues that the rank and file of the American Revolution were not radicals, but conservatives fighting to maintain the status quo.

            There are of course other elements to the book worth noting. The description of the battle itself as well as the engagements at Lexington and Concord, and the eventual siege of the city by continental forces are lucid, and sure to keep the fans of military history interested. Philbrick also presents several portraits of lesser-known figures involved in the growth of the revolution. The doctor Joseph Warren, who died at Bunker Hill features prominently, as does the British officer and appointee Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Gage, and the Continental general Israel Putnam. What is so wonderful about the description of these men is how flawed they were. Warren had a bit of a martyr complex, while both Gage and Putnam were at times ditherers, at other times outright failures. These sketches are not only more interesting than those of the greats of the revolutionary generation, but also more human, and make Bunker Hill a more accessible book.

            Bunker Hill is meant to be the first of a series of three books on the conflict with the next focused on the Battle of Saratoga, and the third on the Siege of Yorktown. One can only hope that these future books are as insightful, and as willing to defy the Founding Fathers obsessed narrative of popular history on the American Revolution.

About David Tiedemann

David is a PhD candidate at UCL where he specialises in Anglo-Amercian relations during the second half of the 19th Century. He can be found on Twitter here - @hanstiedles.

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