Everyone in these precincts knows this story, or apocryphal strains of it: that the Battle of Bunker Hill really was fought on Breed’s Hill, that June 17 forevermore would be a red date on local calendars, that the heroic Joseph Warren died in battle as a nation was being born. Yet this is but the skeleton of the story Nathaniel Philbrick tells in “Bunker Hill,” a masterpiece of narrative and perspective by an author who has helped us look anew at the voyage of the Mayflower and the passage of George Armstrong Custer.
This time he has produced a Boston book, about a revolution that started in Boston and spread, about a battle that changed the city even as it changed the country, about men who came of age in Boston and in turn prompted Boston to come of age.
There are several unforgettable characters in this book — Warren, immortalized in portraits by John Singleton Copley and John Trumbull, along with Sam and John Adams, British generals Thomas Gage and William Howe, and many others. And seminal events: the fighting in Lexington and Concord, occupation of Boston, Battle of Bunker Hill, and British withdrawal. But the central focus is Boston itself: besieged, beleaguered, brave.
Philbrick portrays the city in vivid terms. “Boston had always been a town on tiptoe,” he writes in a beautiful and evocative sentence that has the little-cat-feet whiff of Sandburg. He says that “the town was just one in a huge amphitheater of humped and jagged islands,” and he explains that “[w]hether it was from a hill, a steeple, or a cupola, Bostonians could plainly see that they were surrounded by two deep and endless wildernesses: the ocean to the east and the country to the west.”
Then he establishes the truth on the ground, that America was growing and would soon outgrow Britain, and he sets forth the fundamental and fateful conviction of many in Massachusetts, where 300,000 people were dispersed in 250 towns:
“There were no unintended consequences in the eighteenth century. If something had happened, someone caused it to happen, and Boston was now the victim of a more-than-decade-old plot on the part of the British ministry to enslave America, to drain this bounteous land of all her resources so that England, an island lost to luxury and corruption, could sustain the fraudulent lifestyle to which it had become accustomed.”
No one really expected war in the period we now regard as the run-up to the conflict at Lexington and eventually Bunker Hill. But gradually much of Massachusetts rose up against the British. At the same time the British army presence in Boston was growing, and Boston was witnessing what Warren called “the power but not the justice, the vengeance but not the wisdom of Great Britain.”
And this, of real importance: The country people outside Boston were becoming radicalized.
What stirred so many wasn’t any specific grievance, but a general sense of diminishing freedom and possibility.
What followed at Lexington — really, a skirmish more than a battle — and then at Concord, and then elsewhere, threw much of New England into tumult.
Boston itself was occupied, a city under siege. “A city had been turned inside out: flushed of its inhabitants and artificially stuffed,” Philbrick writes, “as if by a taxidermist, with a British army that, as military transports continued to arrive in Boston Harbor, eventually approached 9,000 men.”
As the British prepared an offensive on Dorchester Heights the patriots prepared an assault on the high ground above Charlestown, unoccupied and thus impossibly alluring. They ascended Bunker Hill and traversed a ridge over to Breed’s Hill. Charlestown lay empty beneath them. The movement to Breed’s Hill was far more provocative, as it put the rebels in range of British shipping.
With axes and shovels they built a roofless fort that couldn’t stay undetected for long. Cannonballs began to rain in on the patriots, an amateur army without even a horse, with artillerymen not quite sure how to fire a cannon. Warren was killed, along with 114 other Americans. The British, whose dead and wounded numbered 1,054, were the victors, but, as Howe wrote, “The success is too dearly bought.”
At the heart of this volume are two abiding opposites that are not irreconcilable: how isolated, and how central, Boston was during this early period of the Revolutionary War.
For the enduring meaning of Bunker Hill was that it awakened both sides to the breadth and depth of the struggle unfolding in and around Boston. And it prompted one of the most remarkable stories of warfare on this continent or any other, the transport of 42 sledges carrying 59 cannons and other pieces of artillery from the mountain fastnesses of New York to Boston in the dead of winter.
Permit the reviewer to linger on this for a moment, as Philbrick does, for there is hardly any story of New England grit and grandeur to match this one. The hope was for snow (the easier to slide the sledges), but there was more than hope involved. There was Yankee ingenuity: piercing the surface of the Hudson River, for example, so small gushers of water leaked upward, resulting in much-thicker ice. There were great dangers, especially on downslopes of the Berkshire Hills (the cannons outran their escorts).
Many of these weapons ended up on Lechmere Point, with a growing patriot threat in and around Dorchester. Eventually the British determined their position was perilous and indicated they would refrain from razing Boston if the patriots let them escape, which they did. Off to Halifax they sailed, no goodbyes, many good-riddances.
So here the story comes full circle. “By purging itself of loyalists,’’ Philbrick argues, “Boston had, in a sense, reaffirmed its origins.’’ The original settlers were alone on these shores because they wanted to pray as they liked. The later Bostonians now also were alone, to govern themselves (or to tax themselves) as they liked.
“They were no longer fighting simply to preserve their ancient liberties,’’ Philbrick writes, but “were fighting to create a new nation.’’ Thus this is not only a story about Bunker Hill (which in truth occupies only about 15 percent of the book), nor is it only the greatest American story. It is also the American story.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.