May 09, 2013


Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking. $32.95.

     As a nation, the United States tends not to be very inwardly focused or very past-oriented. It is both a strength and a weakness of the national character to spend so much time looking ahead and beyond – an approach that either favors innovation or promotes superficiality, depending on who is discussing it. Historians such as Nathaniel Philbrick therefore doom themselves to serious consideration by only a small portion of the population at large, even when writing books that are not intended as academic exercises. Philbrick, who has explored matters ranging from Mayflower to the real-life events that inspired Moby-Dick (and has also written a book about Moby-Dick itself), turns in Bunker Hill to a seminal engagement of the American Revolution – and produces yet another meticulously researched, carefully written foray into the early days of the United States…and the days before there was a United States.

     The names that even history-phobic Americans know about the Revolutionary War certainly make their appearances here: George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock. But at the center of Bunker Hill is someone less known today: Joseph Warren, a 33-year-old physician who was the person largely responsible for fomenting rebellion and fanning its flames when they gave every indication of flickering out. Philbrick begins by introducing modern readers to a Boston that was almost unimaginably different from the great city of modern times: a one-square-mile town of 15,000 people, little more than an island connected to the mainland. Unsurprisingly, Philbrick opens with the Boston Tea Party, but in novelistic and dramatic fashion, he handles it as backdrop to a confrontation in the Old South Meeting House at which a loyalist warns Josiah Quincy Jr. against “intemperate language” and the 31-year-old Quincy – who was dying of tuberculosis – responds, in the sort of verbiage that now sounds elegant and high-flying but was then simply the discourse of educated men, “If the old gentleman on the floor intends, by his warning to ‘the young man in the gallery’ to utter only a friendly voice in the spirit of paternal advice, I thank him. If his object be to terrify and intimidate, I despise him.”

     The scene portends more than the coming confrontations between loyalists and patriots. It sets up the very style of Bunker Hill, as Philbrick not only uses primary sources to excellent effect but also absorbs some of the rhetorical flourishes of the 18th century and adapts them into a style for the 21st. Thus: “In the fall Warren had worked to soothe the outrage of the country people. By the spring, he was desperately attempting to inject some life into what had become a dangerously listless Provincial Congress. …What [Warren’s medical apprentice William] Eustis and other patriots took to be Warren’s natural and laudatory adjustment to the increasingly perilous times was seen by loyalists as part of a highly calculated strategy.” Again and again, Philbrick personalizes the political maneuverings and the actual skirmishes and battles of the early days of the American Revolution, drawing portraits both intellectual and physical of the primary players in the drama: “They were a most unlikely pair. [William] Heath was fat and bald. Warren was tallish and handsome, his hair pinned up on the sides of his head in stylish horizontal rolls. There is no mention of Heath taking any extraordinary risks that day, but Warren was, according to one contemporary, ‘perhaps the most active man in the field.’”

     And Warren was as active in political circles – and rabble-rousing – as in military confrontations. His pronouncements were scarcely moderate, as in one letter he wrote for widespread distribution, seeking recruits for the provincial army. “‘Our all is at stake,’ he wrote. ‘Death and devastation are the instant consequences of delay. Every moment is infinitely precious. An hour lost may deluge your country in blood, and entail perpetual slavery upon the few of your posterity who may survive the carnage.’” The flowing and elegant language in which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written are thrown into high relief and greater clarity by Philbrick’s repeated use of the verbiage of Warren and others, revealing that the late 18th century was a time in which learned British subjects thought, spoke and wrote with an impressive elegance long since lost in the English of most of their descendants.

     Warren looms so large in Philbrick’s narrative that the actual Battle of Bunker Hill – in which Warren was killed – nearly brings Bunker Hill to a screeching halt. It had, after all, been Warren who had enlisted Paul Revere and William Dawes to spread the word of the British approach to Concord – and had participated in the Battles of Lexington and Concord as well as that of Bunker Hill.  Warren had become president of the revolutionary Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and his death was a significant blow to the rebellious colonists – although by then, the impetus toward freedom of the American colonies from England had become unstoppable. This does not mean it was easily won – the American Revolution was a six-year war, as modern Americans often do not realize, and even though it ended in 1781, the Treaty of Paris was not signed until 1783, eight years after hostilities began. But by the time of Warren’s death a few days after his 34th birthday, the path to the future was becoming clear.

     It was Washington who was left to assemble the militiamen of Warren’s command into an army that would withstand the British, and it is to Washington and other well-known figures of the time that Philbrick turns his attention after Warren’s death. This is, of course, a matter of historical necessity, but Bunker Hill becomes less interesting when it happens. And Philbrick knows this: his narrative continues for only another 60-some pages, with the over-100-page balance of the book devoted to extended and somewhat overdone notes, a very extensive bibliography, and an index. Near the end of the narrative portion of Bunker Hill, Philbrick quotes Thomas Paine’s famous words from Common Sense, “The birthday of a new world is at hand.” This was hyperbole, but Philbrick does his best to show in what way the words were true for the fledgling United States. It is a shame that so few 21st-century residents of the country are aware of the role played by patriots such as Joseph Warren in making their modern way of life possible.

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