June 17 is the anniversary of the first major military engagement of the American Revolution, the Battle of Bunker Hill. On a clear day in Boston in 1775, British forces made a third and successful attempt to dislodge Patriot militia holding Breed’s Hill.
The British victory came at a cost. The heavy casualties alarmed the administration of King George III and encouraged the rebels. Coming just two months after the skirmishes in Lexington and Concord, the battle convinced many that this was indeed a war. But the colonies would have to band together for it to be winnable.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution is new in paperback and a worthy addition to the summer reading list of any fan of early American history. But what does the fight in Boston have to do with Virginia or Colonial Williamsburg?
Well, as it turns out, a couple of things.
“I call myself Curator of the Mundane”
While Philbrick was researching Bunker Hill at the Massachusetts Historical Society, an unheralded librarian called his attention to an article published by Erik Goldstein, curator of Mechanical Arts and Numismatics for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “I wrote a piece about the topography of the Bunker Hill battlefield and the location of mass graves, the graves of the slain from the battle,” says Goldstein.
“I’m more of a blue-sky guy rather than a nuts-and-bolts guy,” says Philbrick. “I was looking for someone with that kind of hands-on perspective.” The author asked the curator to review his book manuscript and call his attention to any errors or omissions. It’s the kind of expertise Williamsburg’s specialists often provide to researchers and other museums.
“I call myself Curator of the Mundane,” says Goldstein. “I have coins, paper money, metals, military material culture, weapons, tools, kitchen equipment –everyday stuff. Not all of the everyday stuff, but a lot of the everyday stuff.”
I was tweaking things, making sure the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed as far as military terminology, military practice and material culture. It was fine-tuning,” says Goldstein.
“I was skeptical at first. I tend not to be impressed with popular history that doesn’t have the kind of detail I like. But I liked Nat’s Bunker Hill manuscript a lot. He really wanted to get it right. He was never interested in expediency.”
“Erik was the perfect person to read my manuscript,” says Philbrick. “He knows what the uniforms looked like from one month to the next and how they changed. Those kinds of details were very helpful in making sure that I didn’t make some really terrible mistakes.”
The true heroes of the story
In Bunker Hill, Philbrick tries to peel back the layers two centuries of development to help readers imagine the “long-lost topography” of 1775 Boston. Goldstein, whose research was also directed toward the landscape, points out the way it can alter understanding of events.
“Go to the Bunker Hill monument and stand on the spot, which is accurately marked by the obelisk that is the south-facing bastion,” says Goldstein. “If you picture everything gone and you move back into the center of the fort, you’re invisible to the British fleet. You’re on the back side of the hill. They were smart. They put their cannons right above the crest so they could prey on the British landing while having everybody protected on the other side of the hill. No historian has ever mentioned that.”
Philbrick writes, “The city of Boston is the true hero of this story,” but a few personalities stand out in his telling. “The guy who I found really amazing was Josiah Quincy, Jr., who was tubercular. He knew he was dying. But even John Adams said he was the most eloquent lawyer in Boston. He dies tragically on the ship on his way back from England with news for Ben Franklin.”
Another is Dr. Joseph Warren. “When we think of Boston in the Revolution, it’s the top three: John Adams, Sam Adams and John Hancock. Here’s this guy [Warren] who died at Bunker Hill, who was the one who gave Paul Revere his orders, who was the [main] guy when it came to creating an army after Lexington and Concord. I think it would be great in the Boston Freedom Trail if there was a statue [in his honor].
“A bunch of dogmatic crazy people”
Readers may be surprised by some of what they discover. “I had a lot more sympathy for the British than I ever thought I would,” says Philbrick.
“England said, ‘Hey, we’re $20 billion in debt and we need the colonies to pay their fair share.’” They did not see it as tyranny. Americans did.
Philbrick sees local politics contributing to New England’s lighting of the spark of revolution.
“New Englanders had the unique institution of the town meeting. We still have town meetings on Nantucket, so I get to see it. It’s where people talk it out — Everyone sits in [one] room, and you’re voting on something, and you see the personalities of the people. It’s combative, and yet through a process of give and take and discussion you reach a consensus and so everyone is involved.”
“For the New Englanders this was essential. If they were going to do something they had to first have the chance to talk it out. For them, that was the essential part of citizenship that England was threatening. For New Englanders it was all about process, and it was an element of their citizenship.”