Monument to a Rout
The British won the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, but sustained so many casualties that the Americans also claimed victory.
The Wall Street Journal
April 26, 2013
After writing lapidary narratives about Americans facing disaster and death at sea, Nathaniel Philbrick turned to telling twice- and even thrice-told tales of bravery and ordeal on land. His books on the early Pilgrim settlers and on Custer's Last Stand breathed new life into their dramas, with fresh research and a readiness to admit the worst as well as portray the best about history's heroes and heroines. With "Bunker Hill," Mr. Philbrick turns to one of the most retold tales in the American historical lexicon—how Boston started the American Revolution.
The book opens in June 1775, with 7-year-old John Quincy Adams standing beside his mother, Abigail, in Braintree, Mass., while the thunderous battle of Bunker Hill is in bloody progress 10 miles away. Roughly seven decades later Adams remembered his family's fear that the victorious British army might sally out from Boston and slaughter everyone in its path. An even more painful memory was the later report that their beloved family physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, was among the battle's dead.
Boston-born Mr. Philbrick, during his years of education, wandered to Pittsburgh and Providence, R.I., but he has been a resident of a Boston outpost, Nantucket Island, since 1986. Such propinquity no doubt accounts for the enthusiasm with which he tells how the hotheaded Yankees launched a revolution that would change the rest of America and the world. He views the Yankees' flaws from all angles, not all of them flattering.
There are vivid descriptions of the brutality of the Yankees' favorite form of public ridicule, coating those whose politics they disliked with bubbling-hot tar and feathers. There is a terrorist named Joyce Jr. who roams Boston wearing a ghastly death mask, warning those who continue to resist the gospel of revolutionary righteousness that they will be the next to writhe beside the tar barrel. There are patriot leaders, like Dr. Benjamin Church, who are in secret correspondence with Gen. Thomas Gage, the British commander of Boston's occupying army. Even the book's hero, Dr. Warren, writes Gage conciliatory letters that might have won him a visit from Joyce Jr. if his words had ever become public.
Only with Boston's chief agitator, Sam Adams, does Mr. Philbrick relent a little. He is content with telling us about Adams's secret determination to win America's independence, long before anyone else dared to utter the word. He plays down the rest of Sam's less than charming persona, which won him the nickname "Judas Iscariot" in the Continental Congress. High on his list of dislikes was George Washington, against whom he plotted tirelessly.
Fame-hungry young George III and his pea-brained advisers chose to magnify Sam's act of defiance, the Boston Tea Party, into virtual treason. They inserted Gen. Gage and his regiments and tried to delete self-government from the colony's charter—a move that united the rest of the colonies on Boston's side. Mr. Philbrick's masterly narrative takes us swiftly through the ensuing 14 months of rising rage to the deadly confrontation on Lexington's green. This bloodshed was followed by more sudden death on Concord's bridge and on the British retreat to Boston. Much after the fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that Concord's shots were heard around the world. "Bunker Hill" makes it clear that Emerson was not a historian. The shots that reverberated were yet to come.
Dr. Warren displayed reckless courage leading men against the flanks and rear of the retreating British column. With Sam Adams and John Hancock in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress, the handsome 34-year-old physician became the patriots' spokesman as musket-toting volunteers from all over New England rushed to Boston to besiege the outnumbered Redcoats.
Simultaneously, Mr. Philbrick informs us, widower Warren, while proposing marriage to the woman who was caring for his four children, may have impregnated a 17-year-old "vixen" whom he frequently visited at a nearby country inn. Here Mr. Philbrick may have carried his fondness for flaws too far. The evidence of Warren's guilt he presents seems weak—mostly second-hand, without a single eye-witness statement from anyone, including the principals.
And so we come to the book's climax, the battle of Bunker Hill. Mr. Philbrick tells the complex story superbly, from the American and British points of view. Again there is that emphasis on the flaws that afflicted both sides. The British commander, William Howe, planned to outflank the Americans by sending his light infantry up the Mystic River beach, on the northern side of the Charleston Peninsula on which Bunker Hill was situated. They would then attack the Americans from behind. But Howe could not persuade the mutton-headed British admiral who controlled Boston harbor to risk one of his sloops-of-war to clear away the 150 New Hampshiremen defending the beach. The light infantry were driven back in slaughterous disarray, and Howe was forced to commit his remaining troops to a costly frontal assault.
The three American colonels in command were from different colonies and barely on speaking terms. A dire shortage of gunpowder loomed with every volley. While the men in the fort on Breed's Hill fought for their lives, several hundred others skulked on nearby Bunker Hill and did nothing to prevent the battle from ending in a rout. In the final melee, with desperate defenders wielding their powderless rifles as clubs, Joseph Warren died from a point-blank gunshot in the face. He had arrived late in the day and made no attempt to give any orders, beyond encouraging the men to stand their ground. It was hardly the performance of a gifted military leader.
There seems little doubt that Dr. Warren was deeply ambivalent about the decision to march men onto Bunker Hill. He knew it was an act of war. Mr. Philbrick tells how, on the morning of the battle, he was stricken by a migraine, which left him disabled for hours. Thomas Jefferson frequently succumbed to this malaise when he confronted a duty he wished he did not have to perform.
Newly appointed Gen. George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Mass., two weeks after the battle. By that time the Yankees had discovered the horrendous British casualties and were calling their rout a victory. Mr. Philbrick appraises the new commander coolly, noting the military disasters of his early career and his less than enthusiastic reaction to the haphazard New England army he had acquired. He quotes with seeming approval a Bostonian who said that if Gen. Warren had "conquered" at Bunker Hill, Washington would have remained in obscurity.
Nevertheless, Mr. Philbrick notes Washington's intention to create a disciplined "Continental" army. Unlike many Bostonians, the general had no illusory hopes of reconciliation with the Mother Country. Mr. Philbrick more or less admits that it was Washington who saw the direction that the revolution must take to win a struggle that would consume seven more see-saw years. Washington's determination to attack finally persuaded the British to negotiate a humiliating, bloodless evacuation that ended the siege of Boston on a note of triumph.
Mr. Philbrick attempts to sum up the past and future by returning to John Quincy Adams. An immense crowd is celebrating the 1843 erection of a monument to the battle of Bunker Hill. The 85-year-old Adams has refused to attend. He denounces the chief orator, Daniel Webster, and his colleague, President John Tyler. Adams considers both of them soft on the issue of slavery. "My life must be militant to its close," he tells his diary. The scene omits a great deal about Adams and the intervening decades, but like most of this gripping book, the core of truth is powerfully evident.—Mr. Fleming has written more than
a dozen books about the American Revolution and many more about America's other wars.
A version of this article appeared April 27, 2013, on page C7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Monument to a Rout.