Review

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

by Nathaniel Philbrick

I work in Trenton, New Jersey, the City that Architecture Forgot, in a five-story cube faced with pale orange brick. The building overlooks the Assunpink Creek --- well, it would if there were any windows on that side --- which was a pivotal landmark in both the First and Second Battles of Trenton in the Revolutionary War. The battlefield is marked by a large obelisk in a traffic circle just north of downtown, and by a sad and ill-maintained set of flagpoles on the south side of the creek. Other than that, what you see around you is a crumbling post-industrial city, propped up by the creaky machinery of New Jersey state government. Looking at Trenton today, it seems unlikely that anyone would ever have found anything strategic in its location, and slightly unbelievable that a major battle was ever fought there.

After I started working in New Jersey, one of the first books I read was WASHINGTON’S CROSSING by the great historian David Hackett Fischer, which described the Trenton campaign step by step, making it clear to the meanest understanding what the British were doing in Trenton, why they were using Hessian mercenaries, and why it made tactical sense for Washington to attack them there. Fischer’s work won him a well-deserved Pulitzer for performing the hard task of making the very obscure motivations of the Revolutionary leaders on both sides understandable.

"Anyone wanting to understand or learn more about the early days of the Revolutionary War in New England will find BUNKER HILL to be an invaluable guide. Philbrick’s patient explication of the revolutionary philosophy and the colonial-era technology is couched in lucid, memorable prose."

What Fischer did for the Battle of Trenton, Nathaniel Philbrick does for the early battles of the Revolutionary War. BUNKER HILL covers all of the action taking place in Boston and its environs in the first year of the war, from the opening war whoops of the Boston Tea Party to the evacuation of the British troops from a besieged Boston. Philbrick traces the rise of the patriot movement from small town meetings and Committees of Correspondence to the creation of a Continental Army capable of taking on the British regulars in a bloody battle.

One of the glories of the American Revolution is that it was the product of a large number of people from diverse and often opposing views, rather than from a small cadre of committed ideologues. Philbrick takes the time to introduce us to all the players involved, including famous heroes like the wealthy and popular John Hancock and the magnetic Samuel Adams, as well as lesser-known names such as the dashing physician Joseph Warren and the pugnacious Indian fighter Israel Putnam. On the British side, Philbrick provides a sympathetic portrait of General Thomas Gage, the military governor of rebellious Massachusetts.

But the focus of Philbrick’s work is not so much the leaders themselves, or even the battles, as the logistical challenges that shaped how the battles were fought. Much of this has to do with the geography of colonial Boston, which at that time was a peninsula jutting into a shallow harbor and connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land. Because the harbor was then so shallow, the deep-drafted British warships could not operate throughout the theater of conflict. In order to project the King’s authority into the rebellious countryside, the British regulars had to march long distances away from their protected base, which opened them up to rebel gunfire. But the rebels had logistical problems of their own in terms of supplies, especially when it came to long-range artillery pieces and gunpowder.

As Philbrick explains, it was these logistical problems that made the battle at Bunker Hill one that both sides had to fight. The British could not afford to let the colonials have the advantage of a high position on which to lob artillery into the besieged city, and the colonials had to do something to lure the British regulars out of their barracks into a pitched battle. It was a battle for which neither side was fully prepared or fully won.

The enduring significance of the Battle of Bunker Hill (which was famously fought on nearby Breed’s Hill) has less to do with the direct outcome of the battle and more to do with the resulting appointment of George Washington as general of the newly formed Continental Army. Philbrick details Washington’s efforts to dislodge the British from Boston, but there the narrative stops. His focus on the role of Boston and Bostonians in the conflict, while perfectly admirable, means that he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the implications of the conflict to the rest of the war, which is unfortunate but understandable.

Anyone wanting to understand or learn more about the early days of the Revolutionary War in New England will find BUNKER HILL to be an invaluable guide. Philbrick’s patient explication of the revolutionary philosophy and the colonial-era technology is couched in lucid, memorable prose. He takes a subject as convoluted as the Boston street map and applies his singular clarity and grace in a book that has lessons for our own revolutionary time.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on May 10, 2013

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
by Nathaniel Philbrick

  • Publication Date: April 29, 2014
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 014312532X
  • ISBN-13: 9780143125327