A clever, often sardonic history of an iconic battle.
Prolific historian Nelson (George Washington’s Great Gamble: And the Sea Battle that Won the American Revolution, 2010, etc.) begins in turbulent 1760s Massachusetts, which, in his often tongue-in-cheek narrative, resembles less the traditional high-school patriotic pageant than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than a century and a half of Britain’s benign neglect had left the colonies largely self-governing. Attempts to reassert control by levying taxes produced widespread outrage and violence. Zealots such as Sam Adams and Joseph Warren denounced Britain in rhetoric similar to today’s Tea Party. By the mid-1770s, matters were out of hand with trigger-happy militia springing up, far outnumbering British troops. Massachusetts governor Thomas Gage understood the situation, but superiors in London demanded action. When he sent troops to seize arms in Lexington and Concord, the resulting debacle merely convinced superiors that he lacked the necessary firmness. They sent reinforcements and hectoring advice as angry militia laid siege to Boston. In June 1775, overconfident British forces charged well-defended entrenchments around Bunker Hill, suffering repeated bloody repulses before overrunning them. Gage was dismissed. Ironically, his replacement, Gen. William Howe, commanded during the battle and bears responsibility for Britain’s pyrrhic victory. In 1776, Howe’s forces routed Americans on Long Island, demoralized remnants took shelter behind entrenchments on Brooklyn Heights. An attack might have annihilated them. Instead, possibly recalling his unhappy experience the previous year, Howe paused, allowing them to withdraw intact.
Nelson makes an entertaining case that the American Revolution may have been won on Bunker Hill.