Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick

17408366Nonfiction — print. Viking Adult, 2013. 398 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “A City, A Siege, A Revolution”, Philbrick traces the start of the American Revolution from the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party — both of which occur long before the battle from which Philbrick’s novel takes it name — through the shift of the battles from Boston to New York. Following the eruption of violence at Lexington and Concord over the removal of gun powder from city storerooms, loyalists and patriots begin to separate from one another with loyalists moving into the city of Boston and patriots moving to the countryside as the British military moves to cut off Boston from supplies in June. The blockade leads to all out war in the Battle of Bunker Hill, which would be the bloodiest battle of the Revolution to come and the point of no return for the rebellious colonists.

Philbrick’s account shattered many of the rosy images attached to the American Revolution and the patriots, which is exactly what I was hoping the book would do. The chant of “no taxation without representation” originally started as a protest against taxation imposed upon the American colonists by the British parliament because the Americans did not want to pay the $22.4 billion in today’s US currency spent defending them during the French and Indian War. They wanted the benefits of being under the protection of the British crown without having to pay for it. (Sound familiar?) The Boston Tea Party occurred because the Boston merchants were selling tea illegally imported from the Caribbean and did not want their profits to be undercut by the British and the East India Company selling surplus tea at a third of the cost despite the tax. And most of the patriots actually considered themselves loyal to King George III referring to the British army as the army of the hated Parliament and themselves “the King’s army”. Not exactly the inspiring, revolutionary message I have been taught from a young age, but I think it is important to see people’s actions in the context of human actions rather than elevating them to mystic status.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, the climax of this book, the 115 Americans were killed and 305 were wounded with most of the causalities occurring during the retreat. It is considered a victory on the part of the British, although 1,054 of the approximately 2,200 British soldiers in the battle were killed or wounded. And Philbrick pay a great deal of attention to nearly every one of men killed in battle that I feared I would need to begin to take notes in order to keep their names, allegiances, and actions straight. The tendency to get bogged down in details made some sections of the book drag on longer than necessary; I felt as though I was waiting far longer than the three or four months it actually took for the Battle of Bunker Hill to begin.

One name stood apart in both the book and in my mind, however. General Joseph Warren served as the leader of the patriots in Boston before and during the Battle of Bunker Hill, and is given a great amount of attention in the text due to his role and the assertion that “if Joseph Warren had lived, the loyalist Peter Oliver maintained in 1782, [George] Washington would have been an obscurity” (pg. 248). I appreciated how much detail is paid to this extraordinary man, and it is unfortunate that his name has been largely lost to history given how universally admired he was by his compatriots in Boston.

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