Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

  • By Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Viking
  • 416 pp.

The personalities, politics, and strategies of the Revolutionary War’s first, pivotal battle.

If you asked most Americans to name the first battle of the American Revolutionary War, they would most likely say, “Lexington and Concord.” While those responses would be close, they wouldn’t be quite accurate. The Lexington/Concord skirmishes did much to inflame the patriots of Massachusetts and indeed the rest of colonial America, but they were not the battle that would push the teetering china off the table. Bunker Hill was.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution makes the case for this statement by laying out in great detail the emotional and political rubric that slowly transformed Boston — and, after Lexington and Concord, the entire Massachusetts colony — into a hotbed of patriots. Whereas other books about Bunker Hill focus on the details of the battle, Philbrick spends far more time on the political background of the region, the players on each side and their motivations, and the logistical and organizational problems that made the colonial effort far from perfect despite its tactical victory. Philbrick is a native New Englander and has written half a dozen histories, including Mayflower, a finalist for a Pulitzer. 

The book uncovers and documents some new (or at least little known) facts: that Dr. Benjamin Church, a distinguished member of the colonial effort — he was made surgeon general of the patriot army — was actually a British spy; that colonial General Israel Putnam was an ebullient leader but useless at tactical planning; that many colonial soldiers refused to budge from Bunker Hill even though the real action was on Breed’s Hill a quarter mile away.

Moreover, were it not for the mysterious shot fired at the 100 militia on Lexington Green, subsequent events might have been completely different. The militia’s orders were not to engage the British unless they had over 500 soldiers as well as artillery. While there were 700 British soldiers in the foray, the militia leaders were planning to let the British do what they would until that fateful shot commenced the bloodshed. 

Philbrick’s book also describes the de facto colonial leader of the early revolutionary period. While Sam Adams, John Adams and John Hancock receive the lion’s share of contemporary historical attention, between 1774, when the first Continental Congress was convened, and the June 1775 battle of Bunker Hill, the practical burdens of leadership lay on the young shoulders of Dr. Joseph Warren.

A physician and widower at an early age, the 33-year-old Warren was asked by the Massachusetts top hierarchy, as they headed to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, to lead both the Committee on Safety (the organization established to perform the colony’s executive functions) and the Provincial Congress. It was Warren who sent Paul Revere on his historic ride; he was also instrumental in raising a colonial army. Later Warren persuaded the Provincial Congress to make him a major general, although General Artemas Ward had overall command of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire militias. Perhaps Warren gets short shrift in modern accounts because he fell at Bunker Hill; however, as Philbrick’s book details, Warren was ubiquitous in the political and military events preceding this key battle.

After Lexington and Concord, 20,000 colonial militia besieged the city of Boston with its 9,000 soldiers and loyalist civilians. When reports emanated from Boston that British General Thomas Gage intended to capture Roxbury and Cambridge, colonial Generals Prescott and Putnam ordered soldiers to establish fortifications on Charlestown’s Bunker Hill, which lay a quarter mile across the harbor from Boston. However, the overeager Prescott instead had a small fort built on Breed’s Hill, immediately adjacent to Charlestown.

But massing on Breed’s Hill left the patriots within easy reach of cannon shot by the British navy and soldiers in Boston itself. As Gage’s troops rowed across from Boston, word was transmitted to the widely dispersed colonial army that troops were needed in Charlestown. When Prescott’s batteries opened up on the British, Gage ordered his troops to remain at the waterfront until reinforcements arrived, giving the patriots sufficient time to supplement their defenses — both men and fortifications. As the British generals puzzled over the strange activities they could see through their spyglasses, three different colonial military leaders constructed works and ordered troops to Breed’s Hill. 

In short, the provincials did everything right, waiting until the last possible moment to fire into the disciplined ranks of the British regulars, and fighting bravely thereafter. In the end, the British held the high ground, but at what cost? Of the 2,200 British soldiers engaged, 1,054 were killed or wounded in less than 90 minutes, including most of their officers, who the colonials had deliberately targeted. By contrast, the Americans had 115 killed and 305 wounded. This turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the entire Revolutionary War. Among the provincials killed was Joseph Warren. General William Howe, who had personally led the British charge, was incredulous that a man of Warren’s political stature had subjected himself to the horrors of such an event: “This victim was worth five hundred of their men.” Some observers commented that if Warren had lived, then Washington would have been an “obscurity.”

Philbrick’s research is phenomenal; the book contains 55 pages of notes and 816 bibliographical references. Despite this detail (he relates how nearly each of the colonials at Lexington and Concord met his demise), the book is highly readable, as it describes the personal travails of average people. Just one anecdote will illustrate this: a tall farmer marched into Boston between the lines of British regulars lining the road, prior to Lexington and Concord, and mocked them thusly, “You don’t know what boys we have got in the country. I am near nine feet high and one of the smallest among ‘em.”

The battle of Bunker Hill showed the British hierarchy — and indeed the American public — that an untrained militia could stand up to the most powerful army in the world. Accordingly, war between the two forces was likely to be protracted. History books often dispose of the battle in a single sentence. But if you want to learn more about a decisive incident in the establishment of the United States, I suggest you pick up this enjoyable read. 

Gary Knight has been a writer and tutor for 15 years, following a 27-year career in lobbying and politics. He served three terms on the Falls Church City Council while raising two talented daughters. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and has a graduate degree from the American University. He lives on the Chesapeake Bay with his wife, Brenda, and their two orange tabbies.

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