books History

The Accidental Revolution: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill”

“Somehow it had come to this: a battle that could very well determine the fate of the English-speaking world. And here they now were, on the rooftops and on the hills—a city of loyalists, patriots, soldiers, and refugees—awaiting the outcome.”

The climax of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill is as stirring as it is relatable. The eminent popular historian of New England, fresh off the success of Mayflower, moves forward nearly a century to the second grand event in America’s national mythology: the Battle of Bunker Hill and the birth of the American Revolution.

While Bunker Hill is, in many ways, a spiritual sequel to Mayflower, the work is the first in a modest trilogy dealing with the American Revolution. Like his other works, Philbrick’s Bunker Hill is an easy-reading popular history that moves through the twists and turns of historical events and personages with a flowing grace that restores pleasure to reading histories. It is meant for a wide audience, hence the popular tag, unburdened by the labors of thousands of footnotes but still bringing fresh insights to an old topic.

Much changes, but much also remains the same. The early chapters of Bunker Hill reveal Boston, and wider New England, as an epicenter of political bullying—much as it remains today. The first chapter details the gruesome tarring and feathering of John Malcolm, a British (loyalist) customs officer in Boston. Dragged out of his home by Boston patriots with his wife and children weeping in terror, the patriots tar and feather him as a message of brute force to those who would oppose the Sons of Liberty. Undoubted, Malcolm eventually travels back to London and secures an audience with King George III.

New England—as Philbrick highlights in his short history of the tumultuous years from the Boston Massacre to the Siege of Boston, with the tense and tumultuous weeks between Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill as the climax of this whirlwind of passion and planning—was a place of bullying politics; Philbrick doesn’t mythologize the fact that those with greater force often prevailed in the early political debates and tensions that fomented to explode into the American Revolution. At the same time, however, the less than magnanimous patriots of New England are shown to be heroes all things considered. They risked much, everything, to affirm the liberties they believed were theirs by English right.

Here Philbrick brings to the fore something that has often been swept under the rug by the hagiography surrounding the American Revolution. Most of the most ardent patriots did not want to secede from Great Britain. In fact, even in the days leading up to the Battle of Bunker Hill the patriots saw themselves as true English patriots, reaching back not merely to the Puritans and the English Civil War tradition, but further back to the very essence of being English. They even saw themselves as the loyal subjects and soldiers of King George III while the British Army stationed in Boston were pilloried as unlawful tools of Parliament. There is an irony in this, though, since their genealogical and ideological forefathers, the Puritans and Parliamentarians, fought against the King while the patriot forces clustered around Boston in the spring of 1775 saw themselves as standing up against Parliamentarian tyranny.

Nevertheless, “if they want to have a war let it begin here.” So a war begins out of the flame and passion of political protest and street violence.

Yet the inevitability of war wasn’t that. While many of the patriots, even the most militant, never dreamt of separation with England, even the most heroic of patriots in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord thought cooling heads may still prevail. One such patriot was Dr. Joseph Warren.

If there is a central hero that Philbrick concentrates on, it is the young, charismatic, and romantic spendthrift physician Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren was once one of the most famous and iconic American heroes of the Revolution. He was beloved by Boston and the soldiers surrounding the city. He was well-respected by the impromptu Continental Congress. He was friends with the Adams family, having helped save John Quincy Adams as a young boy. He was also friends with John Hancock. Over the course of a few months in 1775, Warren found himself at the center of the various events that would explode into full-fledged war between America and Britain. Active in the Sons of Liberty and a leading member of the Committee of Safety, he drummed up support for the patriot cause, was at the pastures of Lexington Green as the British soldiers marched to seize colonial gunpowder and weapons, and thrust himself into the heart of the fighting at Breed’s Hill where he would die.

It is clear that Philbrick has much admiration for Warren. And who wouldn’t? A spendthrift romantic and clandestine mason and rebel, Warren might well have become a national icon had he survived Bunker Hill and played a part as a leading general in the future Continental Army or a member of the Massachusetts Delegation in 1776. No single man in 1775 commanded the same gravitas and respect as did Warren. Even the British admired him, with General Howe lamenting upon discovering his dead body that he was “worth five hundred men.” In fact, he was a national icon until his memory faded as memory invariably does. Without being a Founding Father or President, the heroism of Warren has retreated to the confines of New England, and from New England to Massachusetts, and from Massachusetts to a few statues and plaques in Boston. How the mighty are fallen!

But Philbrick’s short and sweeping narrative of Boston in turmoil rightly restores this imperfect hero on a pedestal for a wider audience. While other patriots had yet to make their names or had slipped away from the bloody business of battle to convene in Philadelphia, Warren was in the thick of it till a bullet passed through his skull. As a doctor who made contacts with patriots and loyalists alike, giving him unprecedented access (and compromise) to the logistics and plans of 1775. He was “the man” for the Philadelphia Congress to turn to when seeking updates about the state of New England’s fury. He was commissioned a major general on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill and approved Benedict Arnold’s raid on Fort Ticonderoga which would prove instrumental in eventually forcing the British to evacuate Boston later that year.

When George Washington later arrived and assumed command of the colonial forces, the efforts of Joseph Warren were still reverberating around the countryside. Arnold’s captured cannons arrived and helped dispel the British from the city. Philbrick even ponders what might have been had Warren survived, “One can only wonder what would have happened if at the outset Washington had had a New England general with the polish and empathy of Joseph Warren on his staff.”

While a litany of heroes and other characters careen across 295 pages of joyful material, Warren remains the one figure who stands out. Washington, Arnold, and even Adams and Hancock whom we met earlier, are now taking central stage in the American drama, but a young physician who became a widower with four children, became engaged to Mercy Scollay, and likely impregnated Sally Edwards and visited her when the first cannon shots signaling the beginning of the British assault on Breed’s Hill rocketed across the air.

However, Warren’s death shifts our focus. Washington and Arnold are now going to take center stage in military affairs. And the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia are going to reap the immortality of political glory for the Declaration of Independence. But in the tumultuous years of 1770-1775 in Boston, Massachusetts, Philbrick brings back to life a city of filled with street violence, spies, and patriots in a lively and simple read that does as close a job as possible to transporting us back to the very events etched in the memory of America’s birth.

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