Rob Hardy on books


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The Start of the American Revolution Revisited



Rob Hardy


If you go to Boston, you have to hike the Freedom Trail, rich with historical sites important to our independence. Take it to the end and you get to Bunker Hill, a name resounding with patriotic fervor. Our glorious victory at Bunker Hill was no victory at all; the huge obelisk to commemorate it is a monument to a defeat. Not only that, but the battle was fought at another hill a mile to the southwest, Breed's Hill. Not only that, but the famous cry of the defenders of Bunker Hill (no, Breed's Hill), "Don't fire 'til you see the whites of their eyes," was not uttered here. It takes a good deal of sorting out, but historian Nathaniel Philbrick is just the one to do so, in Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (Viking), a vivid account not just of the battle, but of the causes of the American Revolution particular to Boston, the misunderstanding and missteps of the loyalists to Britain, the battles at Lexington and Concord which preceded Bunker Hill, and the effect of the siege of Boston and the end of the siege on the Revolution overall. In fact, the part about Battle of Bunker Hill itself is only a couple of chapters in this extensive history. Anyone looking for a broad account of the start of the Revolution will find this book perfect. 




With its focus always on Boston, Philbrick's book begins with the Tea Party on 16 December 1773. Governor Thomas Hutchinson was that evening giving his presentation defending the British ministry's imposition of a tiny tax on tea imports. His audience included loyalists as well as opponents; one of the themes in the book is that there were many in the colonies who agreed with Britain and the way it governed, and that at least initially even those who opposed them were looking for liberty rather than independence, and that between these groups there were plenty of undecideds. While the debate was going on, hotheads in Indian guise were tossing chests of tea into Boston Harbor. They became patriots only in retrospect; it was a mob action, and it was a simple opposition to whatever the British did, rather than an effort to come to an understanding about fair taxation.  




The British made the mistake of magnifying the mob action into virtual treason. Into the hornets' nest they sent General Thomas Gage, to whom Philbrick shows sympathy. Gage showed a record of accepting the civil liberties of the Bostonians who disagreed with English rule, but the royalists got little acceptance in return. Also, Philbrick points out a distinctive difference in the way the new Americans conducted themselves. Gage and the other loyalist leaders would have been honored and promoted for deference to a distant crown, but there was no aristocratic system among the Americans who opposed the loyalists, and deference to power was far less important than bustle and ambition. 




In response to the rabble, Britain attempted to negate the self-government that was given by Massachusetts's charter in 1692, forbidding town meetings and hand-picking its own leaders for the colony. It was a blockhead move that not only was a goad for Samuel Adams and his crew, but it united the other colonies onto Boston's side. At the start of the events described here, those who opposed British oppression were, Philbrick says, profoundly conservative. They wanted the liberties that other Britons had but didn't want to be independent Americans; they favored a return to the hands-off policies of the decade before. When it finally came to showing opposition by meetings, or vigilante behavior, or eventual gunfire in the inchoate war, they were fighting for their own freedoms, but were far from insisting that such freedoms applied to slaves, Indians, or Catholics. Philbrick does not romanticize the rebels. 




Despite the agitation and the radicals, the early fighting was defensive. Gage sent troops out to Lexington and on to Concord as a way of seizing weapons. After the chaos of these skirmishes, the British returned to Boston, and at least some leaders on both sides thought that negotiation rather than war would settle the conflict. It was thus not at Concord, as Emerson told us long after, that the shot heard around the world was fired. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a full-scale military endeavor, and as such is the best candidate for the actual start of the Revolution. The British were surrounded and besieged within Boston, and the rebels heard that they were planning to cross the harbor toward Charleston and to take Bunker Hill. The rebels, a thousand strong, set out to fortify Bunker Hill, and for reasons unknown (perhaps just the fog of war) wound up making a redoubt on Breed's Hill, closer to Boston and to the sites where British boats would unload troops. The rebels were no longer on the defensive; taking a stand on Breed's Hill was a defiant act that dared a response from the British. 




The rebels were an amateur army. They had no horses, and although they had cannons, their artillerymen were not adept in their use. Nonetheless, the British were repulsed in a first attempt to take the rebels' redoubt. A second pulse drove the colonists away; they had no gunpowder to keep fighting. Victory went to the British, but as their General Howe said, "The success is too dearly bought." Of about 2,200 British troops, nearly half were killed or wounded, with American casualties less than half that. Dead on the field of battle was Joseph Warren, a central figure of Philbrick's book. Warren was a beloved doctor and was president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He was more interested in being a soldier than a doctor, wishing to be, he said, "where wounds were to be made, rather than where they were to be healed." It was he who had given Paul Revere, and the lesser known but equally important William Dawes, orders for their midnight rides which raised the militia that confronted the British in Lexington and Concord. He was a charismatic leader who "possessed a swashbuckling personal magnetism," and who, had he lived, would probably have been among our most famous founding fathers. Indeed, Philbrick quotes with apparent agreement the opinion of a contemporary that if Warren had not suffered a hero's death at Bunker Hill, then Washington would have been "an obscurity." 




Washington himself shows up in the final chapters. The Continental Congress in Philadelphia had organized an army before Bunker Hill, and appointed Washington to command. He arrived two weeks after the battle, a Virginian trying to lead the haphazard collection of New Englanders. Washington was there with the idea that there would be battle, with no hope of reconciliation with Britain. The events at Bunker Hill, which the Yankees quickly shaped retrospectively into a victory, had ensured that there would be a war of independence. Philbrick's entertaining history is even-handed, questioning the motives of those we usually think of as patriots in reverential oil paintings, and sympathizing with the British who were trying to carry out the orders of a monarch at an ocean's distance. Philbrick's portraits of extraordinary men on both sides, and his detailed and graphic description of the brutality of military conflict, make this a history that even those familiar with these oft-told events will find enlightening.



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