'Bunker Hill': Ye olde Boston strong

With his usual skill, Nathaniel Philbrick recasts the start of the American Revolution

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T.S. Eliot had Chaucer, not Boston, in mind when he famously called April "the cruelest month" although this time of year has brought more misery than showers to one of the oldest and most storied cities in America.

April 19, observed as Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, marks the bloody fighting in Lexington and Concord, towns to the west of Boston in 1775 -- just as it will be remembered as the bloody conclusion to the city's marathon and the turmoil that gripped the nation for days this month. The impact of the bombing continues to play out, but the history of Boston circa 1775 seems frozen and unexamined in the closet of conventional mythology.

Nathaniel Philbrick unthaws that era with his newest volume of popular history, "Bunker Hill," a recasting of the events and personalities surrounding the start of the American Revolution in the Boston area following the French and Indian War in 1763. Handsomely produced with abundant illustrations and maps, it's a companion piece to his 2006 "Mayflower" in which he charts the beginnings of independence in Britain's New England colonies among the king's "subjects," the spirit that led to a new nation.

Since his 2000 best-seller, "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," Mr. Philbrick (who grew up in Pittsburgh) has become an archaeologist of American myth, digging beneath the shiny monuments to unearth a more complex and messier version of the nation's past. He gave himself a challenge with "Bunker Hill" because the story of 1775 is so well known, as Longfellow pointed out in 1863: "Hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year."


By Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking ($32.95).

Mr. Philbrick must find a way to refresh the familiar legends to keep his readers from losing interest. He almost pulls it off by focusing on a little-remembered romantic character, describing in gory detail the violence of the fighting and criticizing George Washington.

"Bunker Hill," however, much like the static nature of the siege that followed the battle, loses the urgency and drama of its opening chapters, sliding slowly to a halt as the British decide to abandon Boston for New York.

Mr. Philbrick tries to inject friction into those last chapters with a negative view of Washington, describing him as "a long way from the stoic icon that stares at us ... from the dollar bill" when he took command of the jumble of militias after the June 17 battle.

The Virginian, a bumbler in the war against the French, viewed his New England officers as "spineless, self-serving imbeciles," planned a foolhardy attack on the British and failed to prevent many militias from disbanding while living in comfort and ogling attractive women.

Mr. Philbrick's true hero, whom he tried to rescue from obscurity, is Joseph Warren, skilled Boston physician, brilliant political tactician on local organizing committees and charismatic figure among the "patriots," his word for what were really insurgents. Errol Flynn would have played him in a 1940s biopic as Warren courageously -- and foolishly -- died in the Bunker Hill battle, two months after the outbreak of armed resistance against the British occupation of Boston.

While the unplanned and improvised skirmishes of April 19 at the villages of Lexington and Concord should have led to effective British reprisals that would have doused the fires of insurrection, they were permitted to grow into full-scale war June 17 around high ground west of Boston called Bunker and Breeds hills where the battle was concentrated.

The daylong clash between professional British soldiers and the ragtag militias of New England ended in retreat of the insurgents, but at an enormous price for the victors. Mr. Philbrick sets the British casualties at 1,054 among the 2,200 fighters, but the American toll was 115 dead and 305 wounded.

The British leadership was in shock. The Americans were emboldened enough to create the Continental Army under Washington, the first manifestation of a country in the process of being born.

As he demonstrated in earlier works, Mr. Philbrick deals in realism, not myth. Much of what we thought we knew is tossed out in his practical and unsentimental accounts of America. For example, his explanation of the Boston Tea Party turns the stirring version of events into a more understandable -- and sensible explanation.

The "patriots" who tossed tea from England into the harbor in 1773 were doing so because it was priced lower than the stuff they imported from the Dutch. Parliament's tax was their excuse to destroy the competition and keep their prices high enough to make a profit for such merchants as John Hancock.

Mr. Philbrick has no illusions about the nature of the principals involved in the incipient rebellion, men who were both patriotic and power-hungry, driven by jealousy and personal motive, including Warren.

"If only" Warren had survived to counsel Washington, speculates the author, the outcome of the siege might have been more to the advantage of the Americans. This view is wishful speculation, not serious history, and Mr. Philbrick should know better than to engage in it.

"Bunker Hill," though, presents an otherwise realistic corrective to the conventional version of the nation's struggle to be born. Mr. Philbrick puts a human face on the principals, American and British, who managed, for better or worse, to write the first chapters of the story of the United States.

Nathaniel Philbrick will be speaking in Pittsburgh on May 16 for Writers Live at Carnegie Library in Oakland. The free event begins at 6 p.m.; please register at pittsburghlectures.org.


Bob Hoover: pittbookeditor@hotmail.com. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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