By Dave Dentel
Can an event as violent and fraught with emotional turmoil as the American Revolution ever be examined in a way that does justice to both sides?
Nathaniel Philbrick certainly strives for this ambitious goal in Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution—the first book in his trilogy on the American War for Independence.
As hinted at in the title, Bunker Bill recounts the dramatic back-and-forth between patriots and forces loyal to the British king that culminated in the battle that launched a broader war.
Philbrick builds his narrative by focusing on people—and not just the major figures familiar to most readers. The author digs deep, mining a broad range of resources for details on individuals as obscure as Boston lads who parrot the rhetoric of patriot firebrands when their sledding slopes are barricaded by loyalists.
The downside is that these historical nuggets don’t always fit neatly in a narrative. Philbrick’s account sometimes bogs down as he pauses to fill in the backstory of a person he is just introducing.
Otherwise the author does an amazing job of showing how the attitudes and motivations of the people involved were neither simple nor monolithic.
Some British politicians, for example, expressed sympathy for the colonists. And British soldiers weren’t uniformly stalwart in wishing to suppress the rebels, either. Many deserted.
Among the patriots, even the militia who mustered when redcoats attacked Lexington and Concord insisted they still pledged allegiance to the king. They aimed their ire instead at parliament, whose ministers they blamed for punitive restrictions such as the Boston Port Act of 1774.
But as Philbrick points out, in reality George III was no friend of disgruntled colonists.
Overall, the author doesn’t focus much on politics or political theory. He attributes as the greatest motivation for patriot fervor the simple wish for a return to an earlier era when the British government treated the American colonies with benign neglect.
Interestingly, aside from the actual fighting, Philbrick notes two developments in 1775 that he feels propelled the uprising in Massachusetts into a national war of independence. The first was the organization of a civil authority to direct the activity of the various patriot militias. The second was the appointment of George Washington to meld these disparate military units into a continental army.
Philbrick ends his narrative before the reader learns to what degree these efforts brought success to the patriot cause—and well before the Continental Congress formally broke ties with mother England. He saves that story for the next book in the series.