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Bunker Hill

Nathaniel Philbrick retells the story of the bloodiest battle of the American Revolution, after which there was no turning back.

By David Holahan / April 29, 2013

Bunker Hill By Nathaniel Philbrick Viking Adult 416 pp.

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Nantucket-based historian and skilled helmsman Nathaniel Philbrick has sailed yet again into the headwinds of an oft-told tale with Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. Earlier, Philbrick had set his compass for "Custer’s Last Stand" and the "Mayflower."

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It was not always thus. A dozen years ago, Philbrick's breakout book, “In the Heart of the Sea,” resurrected the long-forgotten tragedy of the Essex, whose demise at the hands of a leviathan served as the inspiration for Melville’s “Moby Dick.” The doomed Nantucket whaler was as renowned in its century as the Titanic would be in the one to follow.

But absent such obscure yet compelling historical breezes, the more reliable trade winds of the past must suffice.  Besides, a good yarn is worth retelling. How many of us, after all, truly appreciate what happened at Bunker Hill? It was the bloodiest of all the battles of the Revolutionary War, which like so many American conflicts had yet to be declared when the colonists and the British clashed on June 17 of 1775. The Red Coats captured Bunker Hill from the Patriot militias on their third assault, but at a terrible cost and to no long-term advantage. They would abandon Boston and the hornets’ nest that was Massachusetts in March of the following year.

After the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, there were still Patriots who believed that reconciliation with Great Britain was possible. But after Bunker Hill, the Americans had crossed the Rubicon. British casualties exceeded 1,000. There was no more middle road. It was liberty or death time.

In retelling the incendiary tale of a city and a battle that sparked our revolution, the author introduces the reader to some famous, infamous, and not-so-famous characters. Future President John Quincy Adams was just seven when he and his mother Abigail watched and listened to the battle some miles distant. The moment would have a profound impact on Adams for the rest of his life. His father John was away in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress, while others, such as Dr. Joseph Warren, manned the front lines. George Washington would not appear to lead the New England fighters for more than two weeks after Bunker Hill.

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