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.