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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.

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The author presents Dr. Warren, 34 in 1775, as the precocious patriot who might have been president, or at least as famous as Founding Fathers John and Samuel Adams. It was Warren who overruled established protocols and decided that the movement of British troops toward Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 required a full-blown call up of the Massachusetts militias.

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A Harvard graduate, a widower with four children, and an accomplished physician, Warren was at the center of the resistance to the British on all fronts, whether it required negotiations, propaganda, or preparations for the final rupture. Massachusetts was viewed, and not unreasonably, by many other colonists as a hotbed of hotheads, and Warren and other local leaders had to be careful not to get too far ahead of the parade.

While Warren may not be a household name today, the author cannot and does not claim sole credit for shining a spotlight on him: He acknowledges his debt to a recently published biography of the good doctor. Philbrick’s view of Warren’s potential is confirmed by the British General William Howe, who was surprised upon learning of the doctor’s death at Bunker Hill, surprised that a leader of his caliber would have thrust himself into the very teeth of the fighting: “This victim was worth five hundred of their men.”

If the author is not striking new veins of historical gold, he is adept at presenting what already has been mined in a compelling, balanced and fresh narrative. The American reader, who may view our Revolution as unambiguously glorious from the hazy distance of centuries, is introduced to disturbing examples of gratuitous cruelty and tribal excess. For example, early in the book, a detailed account of the tar and feathering of a British customs officer is not for the squeamish. Long before American Independence was a gleam in the eyes of Massachusetts’ residents, riotous behavior was commonplace in the colony.

Revolutions are not often pretty. Take it from no less a source than General George Washington, who thought his northern cousins-in-arms to be “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people.” With such insights, Philbrick fuels his narrative and places a great American story in perspective. He makes a good case that the push for independence ultimately had little to do with the Stamp Act and other purported or real atrocities. It had been brewing since 1620.

The whole point of America was that it was a new world, a place separate from and superior to the old one. A hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, when New Englanders were fighting a region-wide Indian uprising, Massachusetts Governor John Leverett told a visiting representative of King Charles II that his Majesty’s laws held no sway in America.   

David Holahan is a Monitor contributor.


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