Lockhart (History/Wright State Univ.; The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army, 2008, etc.) suggests that conventional Fourth of July hyperbole about the Battle of Bunker Hill “confuses history with heritage, conflates fantasy and patriotic sentiment.”
The author compares the British and American forces and find them both made up of poorly trained raw recruits, led by generals—Thomas Gage and Artemas Ward—who had profited from the lessons of the French and Indian War, in which they had fought side-by-side. The American militiamen were settled farmers, not hardy frontiersman, and the British army was not the finest in the world. Gage had gained respect for American militiamen and recognized the need for marksmanship, while Ward recognized the importance of drill and light infantry tactics. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the Committee of Safety were prepared to respond quickly and decisively when Gage moved his army into Concord and Lexington to quell the incipient rebellion. However, the militiamen who responded enthusiastically to the call to protect their colony were not prepared for a war, and Ward faced the problem of establishing even rudimentary discipline in camp. Lockhart explores how the militant Massachusetts leadership—Ward, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, General Ward and Israel Putnam—were spoiling for a decisive battle. For six weeks—until British forces were reinforced—the militia commanded the heights surrounding Boston. Ironically, the actual battle on June 17 was not fought on Bunker Hill as planned, but on the less defensible, neighboring Breed’s Hill; the author calls the battle a “triumphant defeat.” Yet this was a mixed blessing because it obscured the need for a disciplined and trained army in order to defeat the British.
Nonetheless, as the author ably demonstrates, the actual story is “about ordinary people who, when put to the test, did extraordinary things.”