The birth of the American Revolution in and around Boston was messy, personal and often brutal. Miscalculation and confusion were the norm. The British general in charge began to believe that his mission to subdue the colonists was doomed from the start. The patriot militias facing British soldiers were undisciplined and unreliable.
When George Washington, a wealthy Virginia planter, arrived to command the New England soldiers, he described them in a letter as “an exceeding dirty and nasty people.” He found “an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.”
Somehow, on a hot day in June 1775, those disorganized patriot forces — running out of gunpowder, leaderless at times, and slightly outnumbered — held their ground at the battle of Bunker Hill They repulsed two waves of attacks, killing or wounding almost half of the 2,200 British soldiers they faced before they were forced to retreat.
Nathaniel Philbrick, known for his maritime histories and books on the Mayflower settlers and Custer’s Last Stand, gives the origin of the Revolution its due in Bunker Hill. This is popular history at its best: a taut narrative with a novelist’s touch, grounded in careful research.
The author manages the feat of a telling a complex tale with many personalities in less than 300 pages. There are copious notes for history buffs who want a deeper look. Well-known founders such as Sam Adams, John Adams and John Hancock get quick portraits from Philbrick, but these leaders were away at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during many of the events that shaped the growing rebellion. The author focuses instead on Dr. Joseph Warren, a charismatic leader whose “swashbuckling personal magnetism” held the fractious patriot forces together, and Thomas Gage, the thoughtful British general who grew tired of trying to quell a revolution.
Warren died at Bunker Hill. Philbrick believes that if he had lived, Warren would have become a leader in the new nation: “He had that rarest of talents — the ability to influence the course of events without appearing to assert his own will.”
Philbrick’s analysis of the patriots helps explain how an unruly, clannish group of New England soldiers that did not like to take orders could take on some of the British empire’s best and fight to a draw at Bunker Hill. These farmers and tradesmen always thought of themselves as an autonomous enclave of the realm. The descendants of Puritans survived vicious wars with the French and Indians and knew how to fight.
The patriots also included vigilantes who used cruel intimidation, including tarring and feathering British agents and loyalists, a tradition of collective violence they inherited from England. “The divide between a civic-minded crowd and an unruly, vindictive mob was frighteningly thin,” Philbrick concludes.
After patriot militias showed their mettle at the skirmishes of Lexington and Concord, and the bigger battle at Bunker Hill, Washington had to mold these fighters into a cohesive army for the long haul. His original, negative assessment of the New Englanders changed, and he slowly learned that defeating the British in a blaze of battlefield glory might not be possible — but that his forces just might outlast them.
The focal point of Bunker Hill is the city of Boston, a cauldron of 15,000 people who plotted, conspired, spied on each other, made high-minded appeals for liberty from the crown — or loyalty to it — while occasionally betraying their friends. Boston, Philbrick writes, was known for “liberty, piety and prostitution.”
What began as a “profoundly conservative movement” by colonists to preserve their rights and autonomy evolved into a drive to create something new. And 238 years later, when Gov. Deval Patrick reminded us after the Boston Marathon bombings that “Massachusetts invented America,” that was not an overstatement.
Strong-willed men and women discovered after the battle of Bunker Hill that they had the power “to begin the world over again,” as Thomas Paine declared. That world, and the great American experiment of self-government, began in Boston.
Frank Davies is a writer in northern Virginia.