Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking, May 2013
This is an astonishingly fresh and well-written example of popular history at its best. I highly recommend this splendid book to anyone who has the slightest interest in the genuine revolution that made this country. The book is gripping in its narration of the beginning conflict in a war whose importance nearly everyone “knows,” though aside from George Washington -- who did not enter the picture till Bunker HiIl was over -- few of the major players are known outside specialized classes taught in college. Along with eloquent mini-bios of several movers and shakers, including Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and the traitor Benjamin Church, Philbrick introduces us to the heroic Dr. Joseph Warren, who directs much of the preparation among the patriot “Minute Men,” leading to the staggering outcome that still surprises, though it happened in June of 1775.
As for the “battles” of Lexington and Concord, and the real and terrible battle of Bunker Hill (Breeds Hill), this book is vivid testimony to the author's understanding of the profound influence of the past upon the present.
True, one begins such a book thinking skeptically, “Oh-oh, another book on the legendary battle above Boston,” but as the tale unfolds, the author's ability to engage the reader's interest moves this page-turner from incident to incident, and via his well known mastery of detail (evidenced in Sea of Glory), he actually manages to provide
a telling lesson from history, via his bloody and unflinching chronicle of the battle itself. At the same time, he never loses sight of the human element.
It is impossible here to summarize Philbrick's impressive grasp of the importance of the events he covers, but as he tells the story through decisions made (or not made) by the characters themselves, the core of that “victory” in the Revolutionary War is revealed, as from behind a curtain of myths and fantasy. We see how the physical necessity and violence of war brought out the bravery and self-sacrifice of the patriots who fought there and, in the process, started a national life, forged in the crucible of battle. Bunker Hill names an epic event that made a rebellion into something much greater. Nor are the British dismissed as badly led fools marching into hell: They come across as equally brave, if not equally inspired.
I warrant that Bunker Hill will land on the short list of books that historians love as much as the general public, since the author spares nothing in his biographical précis of the major actors in the drama. And drama it is. In the end one puts the book down reluctantly, with new understanding of why the “provincials” met the challenge -- and won through in the end, eight years later.
reviewed by Kenneth C. Wylie
April 30, 2013
Nathaniel Philbrick’s IN THE HEART OF THE SEA won the National Book Award in 2000, and his MAYFLOWER was a Pulitzer finalist. Among other titles, he is known to some readers of Books in Northport as the author of WHY READ MOBY-DICK?
Kenneth C. Wylie, a freelance writer, received his Ph.D. in African History in 1967 at Michigan State University and his B.A. from Albion College in 1960. He has taught at Wayne State University, Lehman College of CUNY, the Maritime College of SUNY, and Michigan State University. He has published books on Africa, as well as pieces on wildlife and the environment, ranging from the Common Crow to the vanishing legend of Bigfoot. He is also the author of a short collection of poems centered on the magnificent landscape around his rural home near Traverse City.