Like the name of the battle itself, the title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution is a bit misleading. Just as his Mayflower covered more than the Pilgrims’ ship, his newest book is about more than the bloody confrontation at Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775. He tells the story of the Revolution in and around Boston from the time of the tea party through the British evacuation in 1776.
In Bunker Hill, Philbrick’s gift for narrative serves him well when there’s some sort of action going on. The chapters on the war’s first day, on the titular battle, and the siege of Boston are where this book shines, although the best modern account of Lexington and Concord remains David Hackett Fischer’s masterful Paul Revere’s Ride. It’s fitting that Hollywood has already taken an interest in this book, which is cinematic in its vivid characterizations, gripping battle passages, and rapid pacing.
The earlier chapters, which deal with the political maneuvering that led up to the shooting war, are not as strong. Perhaps this is because it puts Philbrick out of his element. He first catapulted to popular acclaim with a gripping account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, he’s at its best when he describes the experiences of men in deadly and dramatic circumstances. Or perhaps this is simply due to the nature of popular narrative history itself, a genre in which character and action often take precedence over analysis.
Philbrick’s bibliography is extensive; he has read widely in the secondary literature on the Revolution in New England. One of his contributions is to emphasize the role of Dr. Joseph Warren, whose critical place in the colonial protest movement is familiar to historians but less so to average readers. Philbrick suggests that Warren’s death at Bunker Hill—he arrived on the battleground to fight as a common soldier even though the Provincial Congress had appointed him a major general—cost the Patriots one of their more able leaders, and he notes several points at which they might have benefited from his presence had he survived.
Ultimately, this is a good work of popular history. If you’re new to the Revolution, or if you’re a more seasoned history buff looking for a refresher before setting off on a summer trip to Boston’s Freedom Trail, you’ll find Philbrick an informed and engaging guide.
INSP, the cable network specializing in family programming, is going to air a colonial-themed miniseries starting at 7:00 P.M. on Memorial Day. The show is called Courage, New Hampshire, and it’s set in the late eighteenth century.
It apparently originated as a direct-to-DVD production put together by a couple of guys who met through a Tea Party rally. The guy who financed the first episode is into living history, so it might be worth a look. You can find a few short clips on YouTube.
Here’s some interesting news out of Georgia for all of us Rev War aficionados.
Oh, and speaking of Rev War buffs, don’t forget about the Bunker Hill book giveaway. Just pick a number between 1 and 1,775 and send it to me at email@example.com by 10:00 P.M. on May 5. I won’t use your e-mail address for any purpose other than contacting the winner to get shipping info for the prize, so don’t be shy. Entries have been coming in since the first day, but the more the merrier.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution hits bookstores in a week. Thanks to the fine folks at Viking Press, one lucky reader of this blog will win a free copy.
Pay attention, kids. Here’s how this works.
- If you want to enter, pick a number between 1 and 1,775. Then e-mail it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than 10:00 P.M. EST on May 5. Use “Bunker Hill Giveaway” as the subject line.
- When the deadline passes, I’ll use Random.org to generate a completely random number. The reader whose number comes closest to the one selected by the website wins the book. If two or more readers pick the same winning number, I’ll have them each select new numbers, and the website will then generate another figure for the tie-breaker.
- Only one entry per person, please. Last thing I want is my inbox getting swamped by a zillion e-mails from the same person.
- Once a winner is selected, I’ll contact him or her via e-mail to get a shipping address so the publisher can send the book.
That’s it. Good luck, folks. You may submit your entries startiiiiiiinnnnnggggg…now.
Resilient folks, those Bay Staters.
The city of New Rochelle, NY has confiscated a Gadsden flag that flew outside a local armory due to “unspecified complaints” to the city manager and a request by the city council. This happened just after the city manager told a group of veterans the flag could remain in place. The situation is reminiscent of last year’s brouhaha over the Gadsden flags at Gettysburg.
As many commentators have pointed out, the Confederate battle flag is a symbol with multiple meanings because of the various groups that have appropriated it over the years. Depending on the context, it can stand the Confederacy, the South in general, rebelliousness, racism, segregation, or the “redneck” stereotype. If you’re going to display the CBF, you have to keep this multiplicity of meanings in mind; the meaning you intend to convey might not be the same one understood by the people who exposed to it.
In the case of the Gadsden flag, though, I think the case is a little different. The Tea Party adopted the Gadsden flag, but unlike the CBF, the Gadsden flag hasn’t been stewing in its more modern political connotations for decades. It remains primarily a symbol of the Revolution and America’s commitment to liberty and self-defense, and for that reason I don’t see anything wrong with flying it outside an armory. But that’s just my opinion.
They’re building some sort of retail/entertainment complex on top of it. Not much to see at the actual spot, but there’s a pretty cool mural at the Missouri State Capitol.
The most dynamic visual representation of tomahawk combat in modern times is probably the electrifying rescue sequence in The Patriot, in which Mel Gibson turns a detachment of British soldiers into hamburger.
This portrayal of tomahawk fighting is as elegant as it is ugly, equal parts martial art and straightforward butchery. I suspect the reality was a lot more grab-and-hack and less Jackie Chan.
One account of a tomahawk in action—or about to be put into action—comes from the pension application of Charles Bowen, who fought at King’s Mountain. During the battle, Bowen somehow heard that his brother Reese had been killed in action. As he tried to find him, he came across his own captain, dead or dying from a shot to the head. At that point, something in Bowen apparently snapped.
Making his way to a spot “within fifteen or twenty paces of the enemy” and taking cover behind a tree, Bowen shot down a Tory who was attempting to raise a flag of surrender. He was reloading when Col. Benjamin Cleveland approached him and demanded he give the countersign, which was “Buford” (after the commander of a Virginia unit defeated by British dragoons earlier that year). Bowen couldn’t come up with the word, perhaps because he was still in some kind of a berserk rage, so Cleveland assumed he was a Tory. Here’s Bowen’s recollection of what happened next, as transcribed and amended at revwarapps.org:
Col Cleveland instantly leveled his rifle at Declarant’s breast and attempted to fire, but the Gun snapped. Declarant jumped at Cleveland seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head if his arm had not been arrested by a soldier by the name of Beanhannon [sic, Buchanan?], who knew the parties. Declarant immediately recollected the countersign which was “Blueford,” [sic, Buford] named it and Cleveland dropped his gun and clasped Declarant in his arms.
There’s nothing fancy about what Bowen was about to do; he simply “seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head.” If this was typical of tomahawk combat, then that scene from The Patriot is probably too elaborate on the choreography, even though it gets the raw brutality exactly right.
David Barton recently responded to Gregg Frazer’s critique of his Jefferson book in WORLD Magazine:
Throckmorton’s original assault on my book managed to avoid its major points and instead criticize minor and even obscure facts, and this new attack by Frazer seems to suggest that this “debate” may become a never-ending discussion over less and less. With so many important cultural battles that desperately need our focused attention, it seems a misuse of time and energy to continue arguing over relatively inconsequential points with those who profess to hold the same common Christian values, so I will now resume my efforts attempting to beat back the secularist progressive movement that wrongly invokes Jefferson in their efforts to expunge any presence of faith from the public square.
I found this response interesting for two reasons. First, I think Barton is understating both the number and the seriousness of the issues his critics have raised. There comes a point where so many errors and misinterpretations accumulate that it’s not a matter of a few tiny nicks, but something more like the old Chinese punishment of death by a thousand cuts.
Second, what to make of Barton’s statement that defending his work against fellow believers is a misuse of time and energy? Does this mean he’ll only be responding to “secularist” critiques from now on? It almost comes across as a tacit admission that his historical writing is merely ammo for the culture war, and that he’s not really interested in teaching history for its own sake.
I just ran across a news story on some pretty nifty animated maps of the Rev War in Pennsylvania. You can overlay the troop movements and positions on modern maps and aerial photos to get a sense of how things played out in relation to today’s landscapes. Check it out.