I first became a fan of the historical writing of Nathaniel Philbrick after reading Mayflower, his history of not just the Pilgrims of early Plymouth County but of the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. My enjoyment of that book led me to The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn which provided a more accurate account of that battle than did They Died With Their Boots On.
For his most recent book, Philbrick returned to his Massachusetts roots with Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. While the title refers to the June 17, 1775 battle just outside of Boston, the story is really about the start of the American Revolution and the key early events that shaped that conflict. The April 19, 1775 fight at Lexington and Concord and the March 1776 siege of British-held Boston by the New England colonists are covered in considerable detail. The book, however, is mostly character driven with Philbrick drilling down to the life details of such notable historical figures as Joseph Warren, Sam Adams, John Hancock, George Washington and British generals Thomas Gage and William Howe.
Like others before him (such as Richard Ketchum in Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill) Philbrick explains that the battle of Bunker Hill was indeed a decisive event in the history of the American Revolution. While fighting and casualties had occurred on April 19th at Lexington and Concord, many in America and in England saw it as a tragic misunderstanding. Not so Bunker Hill where the British suffered more than 1000 casualties including 226 dead (the colonists suffered 450 casualties including 140 dead, plus they lost the hill).
Philbrick, like Ketchum before him, explains how when word of this fight reached London, any hope of negotiating a quick settlement of this conflict was lost. Philbrick does add some other interesting observations. The British generals on the scene, stunned by the readiness of untrained colonial militia to stand up to massed attacks of British regular troops and of the deadly effectiveness of that militia, altered their tactics for the rest of the war. The battle also convinced General Howe that Boston had lost its strategic value to the British and he immediately began preparing to move to New York City well before Henry Knox delivered to General Washington the heavy artillery thought to have forced the British to evacuate the city. For Washington, his time in Massachusetts was a critical learning experience. His early dealings with the New England militia and its leadership was frustrating and maddening, but that long winter of 1775-76 allowed Washington to mellow and to better understand the nature of the troops he would command for the duration of the war.
Anyone interested in the history of the American Revolution should certainly read Bunker Hill but even if you’re not normally a consumer of historical non-fiction, because we live within an hour of all of the places written about in this book, it would be a valuable story for everyone in this region to read. At a minimum, the Mass Highway signs on Route 93 South will take on a whole new significance.