Review of “Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution” by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is a very good, very detailed view of a very small window of American revolutionary history, from the beginnings of the patriot movement to the end of the siege of Boston in 1776.

With a story told so often, what does Philbrick do differently to justify this new volume?


For one thing, he includes many details that are generally omitted from popular representations of the rebellion of the colonists. For example, he explains why greed was a more salient motivation for the Boston Tea Party than outrage over an unfair tax, and he exposes the culture of collective violence that characterized Boston at that time. He records the hypocrisy of these early patriots, who wanted services and goods from the Crown, including military protection, but didn’t want to pay for these things, and who were outraged that the British would try to encroach upon their freedom by offering freedom to their slaves! They loved the idea of liberty, Philbrick points out, but not for everyone. They were quite pious (although there was enough prostitution to result in an area of Boston being named Mt. Whoredom), but they didn’t want Catholics to be able to practice. And they especially resented the way the British were trying to enforce treaties made with the Indians, so that they, the erstwhile recipients of God’s Manifest Destiny, could not expand into the West. [Many other colonists resented this as well, including one of the biggest land grabbers, George Washington.]

From Boston Magazine, 4/20/2013

From Boston Magazine, 4/20/2013

Philbrick also does an excellent job of conveying just how confused and unorganized all the parties were in those early days – not just the patriots, who were from different colonies and had various and competing interests, but even the British, who weren’t sure how to proceed against an army of British subjects. The British also had to wait for orders that could take up to a month by ship to reach them, eliminating the advantage of acting swiftly and decisively.

Communications within the colonies weren’t much better. An informal network of couriers helped, but there was not really a clear central authority, and certainly no means of enforcement. The Battle of Bunker Hill (which actually took place on Breed’s Hill) was fought by a group of rival generals carrying out rival plans with separate groups of soldiers.

Thus, with the absence of good information and a definite line of command, rumors ran rife, and potential disasters from misinformation and political disarray were a continual threat.

The appointment and arrival of George Washington two and a half weeks after Bunker Hill changed a great many things: Washington sought to forge a national army, but it was slow going at first. And the appointment might not have happened at all, Philbrick argues, had Joseph Warren, the most esteemed man in Boston, not been killed on Breed’s Hill.

Dr. Joseph Warren, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill just six days after turning 34

Dr. Joseph Warren, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill just six days after turning 34

In fact, most of Philbrick’s book is focused on Warren, and his leadership of the Boston movement, which distinguishes this account from many others. We get to know some of the British officers as well, including Thomas Gage and William Howe. We also get a brief look at some of Washington’s more colorful cronies, including Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene.

The amazing Henry Knox, as pictured by Charles Willson Peale in 1784

The amazing Henry Knox, as pictured by Charles Willson Peale in 1784

Evaluation: The beginning of any revolution is a time of monumental import. This is a great story, and Philbrick tells it well. There are a lot of names and places thrown at you that may seem daunting if you are unfamiliar with the history of the American Revolution, but a good many of the characters are American icons, and should be fairly well-known. There is so much action and excitement, it is not a surprise to learn that a movie studio has purchased the dramatic rights.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking, a member of the Penguin Group, 2013

Note: The book includes a number of helpful maps and pictures.


One Response

  1. I was utterly engrossed in this book as well. In fact, until now I had never really known of this Warren fellow. It turns out that Warren was also the man who sent Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride (I also didn’t know that). Elaine Charles, the host of the Book Report radio show has an interview lined up with Philbrick this coming Sunday WIOD 610 AM in Atlanta. They’ve got shows elsewhere in the Statres also so just check their schedule: bookreportradio dotcom.

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