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.
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 (email@example.com) 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.
According to an item brought to our attention by J. L. Bell at Boston 1775, Nathaniel Philbrick is working on a book entitled Bunker Hill, a look at Boston from 1768 to 1775.
This sounds reminiscent of Philbrick’s Mayflower. Rather than an examination of the Pilgrims’ actual voyage, it was a fairly straightforward narrative that began with the founding of Plymouth and ended with King Philip’s War.
Richard Ketchum wrote an accessible account of the battle and its background called Decisive Day, but I’m not aware of any full-dress, detailed tactical treatments. Of course, as I’ve noted before, there are a lot of gaping holes in the historiography of the Revolution, but this one in particular is a little surprising. Bunker Hill is one of the war’s better-known battles, and one that squares pretty well with some near-and-dear myths about the prowess of citizen soldiers.
I’ve posted before about some of the online gimmicks that allow you to virtually visit historic sites, whether via aerial photos or webcams. Lately I’ve been trying the same thing with Google Street View, which allows you to travel along roads and look around for a 360° view. The images come from car-mounted cameras, so it only works for locations located along public thoroughfares.
Take Gettysburg, for example. Emmitsburg Road cuts across the middle of the battlefield; the Confederates had to cross it during Pickett’s Charge. You can plop yourself down at street level across from the High Water Mark of the Confederacy and pan around to view the entire landscape, behind you and on both sides. It’s too bad that internal Park Service roads aren’t included, or you could tour the whole battlefield.
Urban sites work best, because public streets are more numerous around them. Here’s Lincoln’s law office and the Old State Capitol in Springfield, here’s Independence Hall in Philadelphia, here’s Fort Moultrie in Charleston, and here’s the site of the first shot of the Revolution in Lexington, MA. Bunker Hill appears to have an ice cream truck parked in front of it, which is just about the last thing you’d expect to see on a battlefield. The neat part is that you can use the arrows on the streets to “walk” around these sites and examine them from different angles.
If you’ve got a particular site you want to visit, just head over to Google Map, type in the address or name, and then zoom in as far as you can. Near the top left side of the map is a small, yellow icon shaped like a human figure. Grab that icon with your mouse and set it down on the nearest street. It’s not exactly being there, but for those of us who like history, it’s a fine way to make our workdays even less productive than they already are.
So I find an article on Wikipedia that lists the titles of upcoming films, and I decide to scroll through it:
Hey, are my eyes deceiving me, or do I see a movie called Bunker Hill on that list? Could it be that Hollywood is going to give us its first major treatment of the Revolutionary War since The Patriot?
I head over to Internet Movie Database, that oracle of all film-related knowledge, only to receive a crushing disappointment:
“When former Wall Street executive Peter Salem is released from prison, he heads for the small town of Bunker Hill, Kansas, where his ex-wife and their children have started a new life. Soon after he arrives in town, all power is lost – there is no electricity, and cars and computers suddenly shut down. Community leaders are at a loss to explain….”
Swing and a miss. Ah, but IMDB lists two projects titled Bunker Hill, one of which is being produced for television. Perhaps this is another of those fine history-based TNT projects, along the lines of Andersonville, The Rough Riders, or Into the West?
“A Charlestown native returns to his hometown from serving in Afghanistan to join the Boston Police force like his father and brother before him. Now he must confront his mysterious past which includes his dead brother’s widow with whom he has very strong feelings….”
Curses, foiled again. But at least they managed to set this one in Boston.