Monday, June 10, 2013

Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking Adult, ISBN 9780670025442, April 2013

This is a very thorough and highly readable account of the Battle of Bunker Hill--what led up to it, the battle itself, and its consequences in the unfolding conflict between England and the colonies that was not yet an outright war for independence.

Philbrick introduces us to the major players on both sides, and the complications of the situation that have largely been lost in the patriotic glow with which we remember these events. Many of the figures on the British side most hated by Americans were in fact trying to soften British policy towards the colonies. General Thomas Gage had an American wife and strong ties in the colonies. He wasn't prepared for the hostility he encountered in Boston. Likewise, Benjamin Franklin went to England as Pennsylvania's colonial agent a strong supporter of the British Crown, and returned, several years later, and after repeated, intentional, public humiliation, a committed American patriot.

As we follow events and personalities, Philbrick makes clear how large a role personalities, internal conflicts among Americans, and the simple difficulty of communication across an ocean in the late 18th century played in the tensions between colonies and mother country spiraling out of control into warfare and revolution. On more than one occasion, either the colonists or the Crown attempted to ratchet down the conflict and reach an understanding, but because of the distances involved, by the time the attempt at rapprochement reached its intended targets, events had moved on, and the imagined resolution dissolved into mirage.

Much of the book, up until the Battle of Bunker Hill itself, follows the career of physician Dr. Joseph Warren, and readers will be fascinated by the sense of Warren's tremendous and largely positive influence on the development and actions of the Patriot movement, and the lost possibilities represented by his death.

The battle itself is fascinating. I knew in a general way that a number of mistakes had been made, and that though it was a Pyrrhic victory for the British that they couldn't afford to repeat, it was nevertheless a British victory, and it didn't have to be. Philbrick lays out the complicated web of decisions, mistakes, and conflicts among only semi-cooperating commanders of different parts of the battle that first, made the American position less defensible than it should have been, and then, made taking that position far more costly than the British could ever have anticipated.

An excellent and enlightening account of a critical episode in American history.

Highly recommended.

Book trailer

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.