Interview With Historian Nathaniel Philbrick About His Book ‘Bunker Hill’
Nathaniel Philbrick is interviewed here by his US publisher, Viking (Penguin), about his narrative non-fiction history book, Bunker Hill, about Boston during the American Revolution. Bunker Hill is also published in the UK by Transworld (Random House).
You are the author of In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower, among other books. Each takes a piece of history we all think we know about and brings to life aspects that aren’t part of common lore. In Bunker Hill you do the same. What piqued your interest in Bunker Hill?
By writing Bunker Hill, I’ve actually returned to the subject and the place where my love of history began. When I was in the fifth grade in Pittsburgh I was captivated by Esther Forbes’s historical novel Johnny Tremain. Even after I’d studied American history in high school, college, and beyond, I still found myself longing to know more about what unfolded in and around Boston during the early years of the Revolution. Before settling on Nantucket, my wife and I lived for a year in Boston, and it was while pushing my daughter’s stroller through the crooked streets of the North End that I first began to think seriously about writing about the past. As has been true with all my previous books, once I started researching, I quickly realized that the truth about what happened to the inhabitants of Boston during the two and a half years between the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 and the evacuation of the British troops in March 1776 was much more complex, disturbing, inspiring, and just plain interesting than I could have ever imagined.
How have your past books informed your research and writing for Bunker Hill?
My book Mayflower ends with the horrendous Native-English conflict known as King Philip’s War, which was fought a century before the events described in Bunker Hill. Almost as soon as I started my research on this book, I began to understand that the American Revolution was as much about the unfinished business associated with that earlier era as it was about issues like liberty, freedom, and taxation without representation. For the farmers in the outlying towns of New England – the ones who fought and died at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill – the Revolution wasn’t about their frustrations with Parliament; it was about keeping what their forefathers had fought and died for during not only King Philip’s War but the subsequent series of brutal wars against the French and Indians to the north. We like to think of the Revolution as a conflict based on high-minded ideals, but there was a darker aspect to the colonists’ resentment of the British soldiers that reached back all the way to the settlement of this ancient and blood-soaked land.
Bunker Hill is also informed by The Last Stand, my book about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The research and writing of that book, which involved what were in essence three battles in one, was enormously helpful when it came to bringing the grim reality of revolutionary-era warfare to life. I didn’t want this to read like a costume drama; I wanted the reader to viscerally experience a bayonet charge and the smoky chaos of defending a fortress made of dirt on a hot, almost windless day in June.
Finally, there is a decidedly maritime aspect to Bunker Hill that relates to my research into the whaling worlds of In the Heart of the Sea and my history of Nantucket, Away Off Shore. Two of the ships that were targets in the Boston Tea Party were from Nantucket, and at least fifty of the whaleboats the provincials used to battle the British in Boston Harbor were confiscated from the largely loyalist whaling port. There is also the historic race between the British ship
Sukey and the American schooner Quero to deliver the news of Lexington and Concord to London. The sea is, in fact, one of the main characters in Bunker Hill, for it was the 3,000-mile-wide Atlantic – and the more than three-month communication lag it created between Great Britain and the America colonies – that ultimately made it impossible for the two sides to resolve their differences.
How did you go about your research for Bunker Hill?
First, I wanted to establish, as best I could, a sense of what Boston was like during the revolutionary period – a difficult thing to do since the city has changed almost beyond recognition since the days when Boston was a hilly island of approximately one square mile with only a thin neck of land connecting it to the adjoining town of Roxbury. I purchased about half a dozen historic maps of Boston and Boston Harbor and blew them up to poster size and positioned them around my desk, and for the last three years I’ve been making notes on them with a pencil and pen. The archives are particularly rich when it comes to revolutionary Boston, and I have spent countless hours at historical societies in the city and beyond, including the Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which has the papers of General Thomas Gage and other important documents. In addition to diaries, letters, and newspapers, the visual record is quite good, and many portraits by John S. Copley and others, as well as sketches and paintings of Boston, are included in my book. I was also able to meet with the descendants of two key players in this drama. Lord Nicholas Gage spoke with me over a glass of sherry at his ancestral home of Firle in Sussex, England, and a few months later I had lunch with Paul Revere Jr. at a clam shack on Cape Cod.
What did you discover in your research that surprised you?
I was surprised at the level of sympathy I had for the plight of General Thomas Gage, the decent, law-abiding British officer who was given the impossible task of enforcing his government’s unnecessarily punitive response to the Boston Tea Party. It was Gage’s respect for the Bostonians’ liberties that gave the city’s patriots the opportunity to prepare so effectively for a revolution. The patriots’ complained about what they called British “tyranny,” but never before (and perhaps since) have the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much freedom as the patriots of Boston.
Ambivalence is a natural human emotion, but I was struck by how much it had been written out of the story of our revolution. We’ve all been taught to believe that the choice between being a patriot and a loyalist was tantamount to choosing between good and evil, but many New Englanders, at least in the beginning, weren’t sure where they stood. The patriots didn’t originally want to invent a new society; they were intent on keeping their society the way it had been since their ancestors arrived in the New World a century and a half before. It was the British who were trying to move in a more modern direction by increasing the efficiency of their empire, and the patriots often opposed what they disparagingly called Parliament’s “innovations” with intimidation and outright physical violence. It’s true that the American Revolution was much less bloody than most insurgencies, but I think many Americans do not fully appreciated the level of brutality that existed on the streets of Boston, and I focus the first chapter of Bunker Hill on the tarring and feathering of the customs official John Malcom just a month after the Boston Tea Party.
I was also struck by how the Revolution literally turned the city of Boston inside out – the siege in my subtitle is a siege by patriots (or colonists) of a British-occupied city. We all think of revolutionary Boston as the hotbed of patriot resistance, but I think fewer of us realize that after the fighting at Lexington and Concord, most of the patriots fled the city, leaving Boston to a few thousand loyalists and close to 9,000 British soldiers as more than twice that number of patriot militiamen from the outlying towns of New England surrounded the city. Boston, once the center of American defiance, became a British-occupied garrison gripped by an American siege. But there were no clear lines of battle or encampments – citizens and soldiers were intermingled to such an extent, that the Battle of Bunker Hill on the Charlestown peninsula made for a terrifying kind of spectator event as thousands watched the fighting from the hills, roofs, and steeples of Boston, Cambridge, and Roxbury.
George Washington also surprised me. We think of him as this cool, confident, and stoic icon, but when he arrived on the scene in Cambridge shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he was filled with a passionate need to prove himself. Even though his army did not have the gunpowder required to mount a proper offensive, he wanted desperately to attack the British, which would have surely destroyed Boston and might have also destroyed his own army. For the next six months Washington kept pushing to attack while the generals in his council of war insisted on restraint. This meant that the greatest threat to Boston’s survival came not from the British army but from its supposed savior, George Washington.
When many of us think about the Revolution we think of John Adams and Paul Revere, among others, but not of Joseph Warren who plays quite a significant role in Bunker Hill. What did he do, why did he stand out, and why don’t we hear much about him in our history books? Who are some other noteworthy characters?
Dr. Joseph Warren is one of the great unsung heroes of the American Revolution. John Adams, John Hancock, and Sam Adams had gone to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, leaving Warren, just thirty-three, to lead the on-the-ground revolution in Massachusetts. As a member of the Committee of Safety, he ordered Paul Revere to alert the countryside that British troops were headed for Concord. As President of the Provincial Congress, he oversaw the creation of an army and was eventually named a major general. He was eloquent and charismatic, and if he hadn’t been killed during the last moments of the fighting at Bunker Hill, he might have been one of the Founding Fathers we revere today. One loyalist even claimed that had Joseph Warren lived, Washington would have been “an obscurity.” But Warren is only one in a cast of characters who have been virtually forgotten today. There’s Warren’s fiancé, Mercy Scollay, who cared for his four orphaned children after his death and whose father was the chair of the Boston Selectmen; there’s Josiah Quincy Jr., a young patriot lawyer who spent several months in London trying to set things right between Massachusetts and the mother country but died of tuberculosis just as his ship arrived on the New England coast only a few days after Lexington and Concord; there’s Dr. Benjamin Church, great-grandson of the Indian fighter who helped win King Philip’s War, who proved to be a spy for the British; there’s John Winthrop, Jr., who declared himself “chairman of the committee of tarring and feathering” and led gangs of vigilantes who harassed Boston loyalists; and there is the loyalist minister and noted punster Mather Byles, who after being placed under an armed guard by patriot officials referred to the sentinel as his “observe-a-Tory.” The list goes on and on.
There are many people interested in the revolutionary war and re-enactments. There are also many who are interested in the sites that make up the story. If one wanted to take a tour of some of the significant sites what are some that should be included on an itinerary and why?
The best way to get a sense of historic Boston is to walk along Washington Street from the neighborhood known as the South End. As you approach the modern commercial heart of the city, you are walking over what was in the eighteenth century the narrow neck of land that connected the town of Roxbury to Boston. The gallows and town gate were at the corner of Washington and East Berkley Streets. A couple of blocks beyond that, at the corner of Washington and Essex Streets, you’ll see a memorial marking the former location of the Liberty Tree. A few blocks beyond that is the Old South Meetinghouse, the brick structure that accommodated gatherings of as many as 5,000 people during revolutionary times. A few blocks beyond that, at the head of State Street, is the Old State House, known as the Town House in the colonial era, and home to the province’s legislative body, the General Court. It was in the square in front of the Old State House that the Boston Massacre unfolded. You must also make sure to visit nearby King’s Chapel, the stone church frequented by loyalists, and a few blocks from that, Boston Common, which once bordered the waters of the Back Bay. The Golden-domed State House on Beacon Hill is near where John Hancock’s house once stood; a few blocks down Charles Street, which borders the Common, is where the painter John Singleton Copley’s house once stood. Other buildings that shouldn’t be missed are Faneuil Hall, where town meetings were traditionally held on the second floor; the Paul Revere House in the North End, as well as the Old North Church, and the Copp’s Hill Burial Ground. In Cambridge there is Washington’s Headquarters on Tory Row; in Arlington, there is the Jason Russell house where 12 militiamen were killed in brutal fighting with retreating British soldiers; in Lexington, there is the famous Green and a large number of historic houses, and in Concord there is Minute Man National Park and the famous North Bridge. Visits to Dorchester Heights (where in one night the Americans managed to build the fort that forced the evacuation of the British) and Castle Island (which served as a refuge for loyalists after the Tea Party and is now accessible by land) are also recommended, but perhaps the best seat in the house, especially when it comes to taking in all of Boston and Boston Harbor, is atop the 221-foot-high Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown.
The American Revolution resonates with what is going on today with recent revolutions/uprisings in the Middle East. Can you address some of the parallels?
Just as the rise of the internet helped make possible the recent uprisings in the Middle East, so was the outbreak of the American Revolution directly linked to the creation of what was in its day a new form of social networking: the Committees of Correspondence. The apparent brainchild of Sam Adams, the Boston Committee of Correspondence was made up of a group of patriots who began sending letters about the great political issues of the day to towns throughout Massachusetts, where other citizens quickly created their own local committees to give those issues a public hearing. This meant that town meetings, which had formerly been where only local concerns (like repairing roads or bridges) were discussed, suddenly became forums for the creation of public opinion. Before the royal governor had a chance to issue his latest official pronouncement, townspeople throughout Massachusetts were already talking among themselves, forming a consensus, and more often than not, cheering Boston on in its stand against British tyranny. With the Committee of Correspondence, Sam Adams had created an extra-legal, colony-wide network of communication that threatened the old established order, which is essentially what has been going on in countries throughout the Middle East. The American Revolution was not all about the Founding Fathers speaking eloquently on the floor of the Continental Congress; it was about ordinary Americans suddenly finding a new way to enter the political conversation.
June 17th is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. How would you like to spend that day?
I begin and end my book with John Quincy Adams, who as a seven-year-old boy watched the battle unfold from a hill near his house in Braintree. Adams was so traumatized by the battle and saddened by the death of Dr. John Warren, who had once mended his badly broken right hand, that for the rest of his life he refused to attend all anniversary celebrations of the battle, feeling that the pomp and circumstance were a violation of what were for him extremely poignant, even sacred memories of a conflict that changed not only the course of his own life, but of a nation. Although I sympathize with John Quincy Adams’s disdain for chest-thumping in the name of patriotism, I have also developed a huge respect for the men – both American and British – who fought and died in that battle, and I would very much like to visit the monument on June 17, 2013.
What do you want people to take away from reading Bunker Hill?
I hope readers will come away with a renewed sense of the importance of what happened in revolutionary Boston. But I also hope readers will come away with a sense of the past as a time very much like our own: a time when ordinary people were forced to do extraordinary things; a time when chaos and confusion reigned; a time when no one – not even George Washington – knew what was going to happen next. The people who experienced the American Revolution were no better or worse than we are in the 21st century. They achieved a great deal, but they by no means completed the job of forging a new American society – that is the ongoing challenge that every new generation must face; otherwise, all those hard-won battles of the past will have been fought in vain.
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