Near the end of Boston’s picturesque Freedom Trail lies a towering monument to the battle of Bunker Hill, visited by thousands of tourists each year. How many of them, when contemplating the 1775 battle, picture Boston under siege, a “vision of Moses: a bush burning but not consumed”? Writing in 1776, Reverend Samuel Cooper used these last words to describe the city around the time of the early Revolutionary conflicts. They also appear in an epigraph to Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, an account of the prerevolutionary tension in and around Boston, culminating in the battle of Bunker Hill.

Philbrick was fascinated by the notion of a stressed Boston, turned inside out after the arrival of British troops in 1774 and the violent battles of Lexington and Concord. He believes that, though written about a Boston of another time, the epigraph’s meaning endures; it could easily refer to today’s city, recently shaken by the marathon bombings. “I think it speaks to the fact that Boston has been, over the years, a community that has been hit by tremendous blows, but, as a people, they meet those challenges and continue on,” he says over the phone from his home on Nantucket Island.

After confronting the knotty problem of making familiar early American battles and political conflicts seem both modern and surprising in earlier books like Mayflower and The Last Stand, Philbrick has become somewhat of an expert in the counterintuitive twist on received history. “When we think of the Revolution we think of Boston as the center of American defiance,” Philbrick says, explaining a main thread in his book. “It began that way, but with the arrival of British occupation, things begin to change. The inhabitants leave and you get all of these provincial soldiers descending on the city, so that Boston, once the center of defiance, becomes a militarily occupied city under siege.” Philbrick’s revolutionary Boston is not a symbol of aggression; rather it’s the damsel in distress of its time.

All the usual players—Paul Revere, Samuel Adams—are present to rescue Boston in the book, but Philbrick chose an underappreciated historical figure as his standout character. Dr. Joseph Warren, a Boston physician, moonlighted as a member of various committees in the temporary colonial government (though his true passion, Philbrick argues in the book, was fighting on the ground with the Patriot troops). “We all know about Paul Revere alerting the countryside that the British were coming,” Philbrick asserts. “But it was Warren who gave him the orders. And it was Warren who was actually out there on the field as the British were retreating back into Boston.” The doctor’s enthusiasm did not match his luck or prowess in battle, however. He died early in the Revolution at Bunker Hill—which is why, according to Philbrick, Warren is excluded from many early American history courses.

Continue reading >


 

Resurrecting Warren from the annals of forgotten history is only one of Philbrick’s bold moves that give the tale of the battle of Bunker Hill and the siege of Boston new energy. Philbrick portrays a young George Washington in the Romantic mode: Full of inner anguish, he struggles to put reason above emotion while trying to prove himself as a general. Philbrick remarks that what often remains unconsidered about Washington is how much of a novice he was when he first became commander of the provincial forces. Referring to the section in the book in which Washington pushes for a military invasion of Boston to take it from the British, Philbrick adds, “The fact is that the evacuation of the British occurred almost in spite of Washington, who really was not the one who wanted to occupy Dorchester Heights; he wanted to into Boston and attack. He is a leader that will evolve.”

For American Studies laypeople, Philbrick’s striking characters and attention to narrative detail make Bunker Hill a rewarding read. Philbrick CoverBut scholars in the field, notably the Harvard historian Jill Lepore, have questioned Philbrick’s methods. Writing in The New Yorker in an essay recently reprinted in The Story of America: Essays on Origins, Lepore berated the author for sacrificing historical accuracy to narrative in his book Mayflower. “Maybe if Nathaniel Philbrick had to answer to freshmen, he would have learned to be a little bit more skeptical of his sources,” she writes before questioning —fairly  convincingly—the reliability of many of the primary sources Philbrick used to construct Mayflower’s main characters. I asked Philbrick if he has learned anything from his past books and their critical reception. “I’d like to think I’ve learned with each book, but the fact of the matter is that each book presents such a different set of challenges that it feels like I’m beginning at square one each time,” he replied. “I think for my purposes that’s a good thing, because for me, I am not an expert in any individual topic that I tackle.”

Philbrick, though, is undeniably very skilled at unearthing those few effervescent details hidden in hundreds of pages of diaries and letters. In the thick of describing the battle of Bunker Hill, Philbrick pauses to recount the thoughts of a British soldier named George Harris. Likely heading to his death, Harris reminisces about the vegetable garden he planted outside his tent in Boston Common, yielding “’spinach and radishes, with the cucumbers, beans, and peas so promising.’” Of this find, Philbrick exclaims, “I thought, ‘Oh man, I want to get that sort of bucolic detail in there just in the midst of all this terrifying chaos.’ Because it just brought home to me that these are people, not just automatons of war.”

Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared on the websites of The New Yorker and The Nation, and in the Los Angeles Review of Books.