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In 1775, Boston was a city of 15,000 people packed into a one-mile island. King George was tightening his grip on the colony with new taxes and blockades. British soldiers occupied the city, angering the colonists. And vigilantes roamed the streets, exacting their own justice. In June, the tension exploded at Bunker Hill, one of several unoccupied peaks outside the city. In the bloodiest clash of the Revolutionary War, an unlikely group of citizen soldiers wiped out half the British forces. Their courageous stand changed the course of the American Revolution. From the bestselling author of “Mayflower,” a new book on the battle of Bunker Hill.
- Nathaniel Philbrick historian and bestselling author of "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mayflower," which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Read An Excerpt
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “Bunker Hill.” Copyright © Nathaniel Philbrick, 2013
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Most Americans know about the Battle of Bunker Hill as a pivotal clash in the Revolutionary War. But less is known about the merchants, farmers and sailors outside Boston and the doctor who led them in rebellion. Author Nathaniel Philbrick reconstructs the months leading up the war and uncovers the unlikely heroes behind one of the most important battles in our nation's history. His new book is titled "Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution."
MS. DIANE REHMIt will soon be made into a movie starring Ben Affleck. Nathaniel Philbrick joins me in the studio. I look forward to hearing your questions, comments. Join us 800-433-8850. Send your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir.
MR. NATHANIEL PHILBRICKGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood to have you here. You know, even before we went on the air, we've received a tweet and something on the website. The tweet says: "We seem to have forgotten that Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam are someone else's Bunker Hill." Would you agree with that?
PHILBRICKWell, that's interesting. You know, it's dangerous to draw parallels from the past, but I have to say Bunker Hill was the battle with which America realized a rebellion was going to be something more than something that was happening in a city. It was going to become a war that would take over the entire country.
PHILBRICKAnd I think, you know, countries around the world are experiencing revolutions and I think what we've tended to forget is how traumatic and violent a revolution is and it wasn't all ideology. There was a lot of fear and terror and resolve involved in our own revolution.
REHMTell me why you decided to focus this book on Bunker Hill?
PHILBRICKYeah, Bunker Hill is the turning point. My real focus is Boston. If there's a hero in this book, it's the community of that city and a city that began as the center of patriot defiance and then it would be turned inside out by an army of occupation.
PHILBRICKThe British soldiers would arrive and Boston would be transformed and it would then become a city under siege as patriot forces on the outside surrounded the city. And so Boston would go through this incredible two-year turnaround and, for me, that was the story I wanted to get at. What did a community experience amid a revolution that burst into this terrible war?
REHMAnd the book goes into extraordinary detail. Talk a bit about your research.
PHILBRICKYeah, well, I had been working on this book for three years, but actually it goes back farther than that. I wrote a book "Mayflower," that ends with King Philip's war in 1676 and with that, I realized that I wanted to take the story to the next level.
PHILBRICKI wanted to go 100 years after that and see what happened because I could see that there were some deep issues in the colonies that were expressed 100 years later with the revolution and so, for me, it was a three-year process of not only going into the archives, but exploring Boston today.
PHILBRICKIt's changed beyond recognition. But there are buildings like the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House that are still there and a lot of my time was trying to reconstruct the topography of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Boston.
REHMAnd of course, Boston has been so much sadly in the news recently.
PHILBRICKYeah, it's been a terrible thing for the city and, for me, it's, you know, one thing came through loud and clear in those three years of research is that resilience is a part of Boston. It's gone through amazing things in the past and come back and I think we're seeing that today. It's just a tough town and it's a town where things happen that have repercussions all over the country and if not the world.
REHMBut one thing is different from back then in 1775 and what happened recently is that in 1775, you had kind of a divided population about those who wanted to remain loyal to the king and those who were patriots.
PHILBRICKAbsolutely, you know, I think a lot of us come out of elementary school thinking it was the...
PHILBRICK...right. It was the patriots versus the Brits.
PHILBRICKAnd it didn't begin like that at all. Boston was a deeply divided city. Some people were what we would call patriots that were pushing, pushing, pushing and would become revolutionaries. Others, many of the merchants who had ties to London commercially, really valued that relationship and were loyal to the king.
PHILBRICKAnd then there was probably the largest group that really didn't know what they thought about all this and really just hoped everything would blow over and life would remain the way it was. And so Boston, at this time, was a city divided and often it would break out in terrible violence in the streets.
PHILBRICKYes, tar and feathering, my first chapter of my book there is a customs commissioner, John Malcom, who angers some townsfolk and it becomes this horrible, largely, politically motivated expression of community anger and...
REHMWhy does he anger them?
PHILBRICKWell, he was a combustible personality and one of the things you find out is, yes, there were ideological differences, differences of politics, but it also came down to who you were related to, what your personality was like. And this was a guy who loved to taunt the other side, to push, push, push. And he pushed too far and he found himself a victim of being tarred and feathered.
PHILBRICKAnd that's the -- but he had a brother who was on the other side and so this was a civil war in many ways. It was dividing families right down the middle.
REHMI'm sure you are the person to ask. Talk about the process of tarring and feathering.
PHILBRICKWell, this particular tarring and feathering happened in January. It was probably one of the coldest days of the winter and they dragged him from his house, stripped his clothes off him and you take turpentine -- it was tar, turpentine-based and heat it up until it would become this hot, black sludge, pour it on the naked flesh, effectively parboiling the skin and then taking feathers and smearing the feathers on the person.
PHILBRICKAnd this was not designed to kill the person. It was designed to humiliate them.
REHMBut could they survive?
PHILBRICKWell, Malcom had this occur to him basically where the Boston Massacre had happened a couple of years before, right in the center of town and then they put him in a cart and took him up and down the streets of Boston for a number of hours at night.
PHILBRICKAnd after hours of this, he was finally rolled out of the cart into his house. And by one description, the flesh came off his back in steaks. It was that gruesome. But after six years in bed, excuse me, six weeks in bed, he would survive and actually take a bit of his tarred and feathered flesh in a box back to London with him to present to the king.
PHILBRICKAnd so, you know, this was a guy who was one of a kind and a rabble-rouser in his own way and you see these revolutions often, you know, become those kinds of personalities.
REHMAnd that's just the first chapter. Your second chapter is titled "Poor Unhappy Boston."
PHILBRICKYes, because what happened was my book basically begins with the Tea Party and then this tar and feathering and London had decided that Boston must pay for its sins. And so they shut down the Port of Boston...
REHMAnd what had Boston done that London decided it was going to pay for its sins?
PHILBRICKWell, it there was a tea tax and they decided to hurl boxes of tea, the famous Boston Tea Party, hurl the tea into the harbor.
REHMThat had come from London?
PHILBRICKThat had come from London and there were certain tea consignees, all of them loyalists, who were given the right to sell this, what was cheap tea. And this infuriated the patriots and so the tea was dumped in Boston Harbor rather than be delivered.
PHILBRICKAnd so the king and parliament reacted by instituting the Boston Port Act which closed Boston as a harbor and...
REHMReally isolating Boston.
PHILBRICKIsolating Boston and sent some troops, four regiments of soldiers, in to occupy the city.
REHMFour regiments would be how many troops?
PHILBRICKApproaching 1,000, you know, more than 1,000 and so they began to fill up Boston and Boston became the city of occupation.
REHMHow long after the Tea Party did those troops arrive?
PHILBRICKIt happened relatively quickly. The Tea Party was in December of 1773 and by June of 1774, the soldiers were arriving. By that time, General Thomas Gage had come in and instituted the new royal governor. So there was a military governor and they had moved the general court, the legislative body from Boston to Salem, and so Boston was basically being stripped of its identity and a way to make a life.
PHILBRICKAnd Bostonians were outraged by this, but not only Bostonians. All of the American colonies saw this as an example of what might be in store for them and so, as happened so many times, Boston became an example for what would become the entire country.
REHMHow did the news travel to the other colonies?
PHILBRICKWell, by this time, Samuel Adams, who was really in a way the mastermind of much of what had happened in Boston, had created the committee, the Boston Committees of Correspondence and it was really a brilliant ploy by which he created an independent communication network by which he could communicate with towns throughout Massachusetts and eventually the colonies.
REHMNathaniel Philbrick, historian and author of "Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution."
REHMAnd welcome back. We have Nathaniel Philbrick with us. He won the National Book Award for his book "In the Heart of the Sea." He wrote "Mayflower." That as a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Now he's written "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. And you write that even though Boston was, as you describe it, unhappy, the war for independence was not a sure thing.
PHILBRICKNo. In the beginning independence really wasn't what they were talking about. In fact, yeah, every -- even the staunch patriots regarded England as home. It was what they called it. What they were looking for was the way it had been before, what's been called salutary neglect where they were allowed to pretty much do it as they had without taxation, doing it the way they were used to doing it.
PHILBRICKBut now the British Empire was modernizing itself and expected the colonies to pay for the privilege of being part of the empire. And this became the issue, how would that happen. And what the patriots wanted was that their own legislatures be able to determine this kind of issue.
REHMHow did the Brits see the people in Boston as opposed, for example, to how they saw the people in Virginia?
PHILBRICKWell, the Bostonians were regarded as rebel rousers. You know, they had a -- they went back to the puritan days when, you know, they had gone over to worship on their own. And they had a reputation as fighters throughout the French and Indian war. And so they had this reputation for stirring up a storm. It began with the Stamp Act. The Boston Tea Party reaffirmed it. And so it was their judgment that Boston must learn to live within the rules of the empire.
PHILBRICKAnd so this brought the Boston Port Act. And after that the Massachusetts Government Act, which basically stripped Bostonians of their -- and all of Massachusetts of their -- what they viewed as their treasured rights.
REHMSo tell us now about Thomas Gage who was appointed by the crown to be the governor of Massachusetts. What was he like and how did he approach his position?
PHILBRICKWell, yeah, I ended up having a lot of sympathy for Thomas Gage. He was put in what turned out to be an impossible situation.
PHILBRICKYou know, he, like everyone, underestimated the furor that had been unleashed by the port act and later the government act. And so he -- it was his job to put the screws down. And what he began to realize is he didn't have enough troops. He couldn't handle Boston but there was Massachusetts. And there were 250 towns in Massachusetts, 300,000 people. And what quickly became apparent, the true radicals were out there in those country towns, as they were called.
PHILBRICKAnd so as the colony became more and more divided and the patriots gained more and more of a following, Boston, this British-occupied city, became a city under siege with the militiamen, because every town in Massachusetts had its militia that dated back to the Indian wars of the previous century. So they had a tradition of taking up arms. And this meant that this was a place like -- not like back in England where the army could come in and pretty much be a force to be reckoned with by the local populace. In Massachusetts, this was a group of people who had the means to take arms against the regulars.
REHMAnd think about the Second Amendment.
PHILBRICKYes. And this -- it's part of our country's past and it's a part of our country's present. And, you know, it's there.
REHMAnd comes right out of there.
PHILBRICKYeah, yeah, and this was -- because America -- in Massachusetts they had a tradition of literally defending hearth and home from attack. And it went back to 1620 when the pilgrims arrived. And it was a part of the colony. And so, you know, if you look back at the revolution in Boston, this is, of course, a part of the mindset that brought this revolution around, yeah.
REHMThere were some other very influential people that we may not necessarily know about. Talk about Dr. Joseph Warren.
PHILBRICKYeah, Dr. Joseph Warren really became the focus of my book. I think, you know, most of us think of the Continental Congress where John Hancock, John Adams, Samuel Adams were delivering eloquent speeches and eventually coming up with the Declaration of Independence. What I was focusing on was the on-the-ground revolution. And it was this doctor, Dr. Joseph Warren, just 33 years old, with these other leaders gone at Philadelphia, he took over what was basically happening in Massachusetts.
PHILBRICKHe was young, charismatic, a wonderful speaker and a great writer. And he had this ability to convince people that what he wanted to do was what they wanted to do. And he had an element of swashbuckling dynamic activity that just was endearing. And so he became -- he was the one who gave Paul Revere the order to send out the alarm that the British were headed to Concord. He would become the president of provincial congress. And so that he was the one leading the government in the tense 60 days after Lexington and Concord.
PHILBRICKAnd then at the Battle of Bunker Hill, by that point he had been appointed a major general. And he would tragically die on the last British charge in that battle. And there were some loyalists who made the claim -- you never know if it's true or not, but that if Joseph Warren had not died, Washington would have been an obscurity, one said. And so he was a man of that stature that -- he was mourned. Citizens of Massachusetts did not know how they would go on without him. And he's been pretty much lost to history.
REHMAnd if you go to our website drshow.org, you will see a picture of Joseph Warren dying in battle. Talk about the battle of Bunker Hill. How it began and how many people were involved.
PHILBRICKYeah, the Battle of Bunker Hill really began as a mistake. What the Americans were trying to do was to delay, if not stop altogether a planned British assault on their army, which was stationed in Cambridge and Roxbury. And the hope was to build a fort -- earthen fort on Bunker Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula just across the river from Boston where the soldiers were stationed.
PHILBRICKBut for reasons that no one to this day knows quite why, William Prescott, the colonel who was in charge, built his redoubt, this earthen fort not on Bunker Hill but on Breed's Hill which was a half mile to the south right in the figurative face of the British army in Boston. And this meant that when dawn arrived and General Gage looked across and saw this fort within a cannon shot of his men stationed in Boston, he had to do something about it.
PHILBRICKAnd so with this fort so close he decided he must attack. And so under General Howe they would send over 2,000 British regulars to the southern tip of the Charlestown Peninsula where they would march on this little redoubt on Breed's Hill. But by this time other soldiers -- American soldiers had come onto the peninsula to reinforce Prescott's men. And they extended the defenses across the peninsula. But it became the bloodiest battle of the entire revolution.
REHMSo did the battle take place on Breed's Hill or on Bunker Hill?
PHILBRICKI think it's kind of appropriate that this battle that began with a mistake is named for the wrong hill because it occurred on Breed's Hill.
REHMOn Breed's Hill.
PHILBRICKAnd when you go to the Bunker Hill Monument today it's a beautiful monument, very much like the Washington monument. You can see, there's a sign, this is Breed's Hill. It's confusing and it's confusing because there was an element of confusion at the very beginning of the battle.
REHMNow tell me, is it true that there is going to be a film made of this book starring Ben Affleck?
PHILBRICKI can't tell you for certain. Warner Brothers and Ben Affleck have purchased the option. And, you know, you never know until it happens, but it's a very exciting possibility to contemplate.
REHMAnd we have no idea what role Ben Affleck would play?
PHILBRICKNo. No, I -- you know as much as I do at this point. You know, for me the Battle of Bunker Hill was highly cinematic. It occurred right across the Charles River from Boston. And so you had all of the roofs, steeples, cupolas of Boston crowded with people watching this Battle occur. And it was a dramatic spectacle like none other. These, you know, 2,000 Red Coats going up this hill towards this little earthen redoubt. We'll never know for sure if William Prescott said, hold your fire 'til we see the whites of their eyes.
PHILBRICKBut the moral equivalent of that was going on and it was just a terrible bloody battle. And the British would finally win. They would take the redoubt and flush the patriots out of Charlestown Peninsula. But they lost casualties of 50 percent. William Howe who led his troops in battle said, you know, the success is too dearly bought. As Nathaniel Green, an American general from Rhode Island would say, you know, if we could sell another hill to the patriots -- to the British for the price of Bunker Hill, we'd be happy to do it.
PHILBRICKIt was -- and so to add to the confusion, this battle was actually a British victory. However, it proved...
REHM...because they lost so many men in the process.
PHILBRICK...because they lost so many men they now realized that this rebellion was now a full-scale war, that they had bit off a lot more than they had hoped to chew back with the Boston Port Act. And in a way everything changed for the Battle of Bunker Hill.
REHMTell me how it was that the Americans themselves, the patriots lost only 115 men whereas the Brits lost more than 1,000. How did that happen?
PHILBRICKWhat the patriots had managed to do was dig themselves in. And it began with William Prescott at night. He had a little over 1,000 men and they spent the night digging furiously this redoubt, which was about 138' long. It was a quadrangle, no roof to it. And when dawn came he realized that his fort was wide open to the British on his left. So he began building, once again furiously. And by this time cannonballs are sizzling through the...
REHMI'm wondering about cannonballs.
PHILBRICK...coming at them and with third, fourth ball one of his soldiers is decapitated. In order to inspire them Prescott jumps up onto his battlements and waves his sword and says, you know, get me next, inspired his men to continue on. They build what was called the breastwork to the east. And then another general sees a gap on the -- all the way to the edge of the Mystic River. And they formed the rail fence. And then finally John Stark of New Hampshire arrives just as the battle is about to break out and he realizes that the British could get behind their lines along the beach on the Mystic River.
PHILBRICKAnd he really saved the day because he -- at the last minute he ordered his men to build a stone wall. And it was there that Howe had hoped to sneak in his infantry men, come around and attack the patriots in flank. But instead of having the door wide open, it had been shut by Stark and more than 100 people would die -- British soldiers die in a matter of minutes.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I must say, one has to wonder about the communication both before and after the battle going on between London and Boston. What was that like? How quickly did those messages transmit and what were they?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, in this digital age I think it's amazing to discover that to get word back to England took at least a month. And -- at least a month. And then it usually took parliament and the ministry some time to come up with a response. Let's say another month. And then it was another month to get it back. And so a three-month lag was typical. And this meant that once relations between the colonies and Britain started to go downhill, it was the Atlantic Ocean that almost ensured that Britain was going to lose these colonies.
PHILBRICKThere are 3,000 miles between them. And with this kind of communication gap there was no way that the British ministry was going to be able to coordinate its forces in a way that could keep up with the speed of which things were unfolding in the colonies.
REHMHow many British soldiers were left after the battle was over?
PHILBRICKBy this time they had -- their army was approaching 8,000 people.
PHILBRICKAnd so they still had a very large force.
REHMYeah, I should say.
PHILBRICKAnd they would -- and by this point, after the battle, then moves into a siege. And they would continue to reinforce their army until it approached about 9,000. And so here you had Boston. Most of the patriots had left, only about 3,000 loyalists and refugees, but 9,000 soldiers. And so this city had been turned inside out. It was now a city under siege surrounded by patriots. And, you know, so it makes for a fascinating kind of microcosm of what can happen when people in a revolution, you know, have to contend with the army that comes into set things right.
REHMHow did they carry on their lives?
PHILBRICKIt was completely disruptive. In fact, what you saw -- and it's really amazing to see how quickly the provincial congress, which was what the patriots came up with to just manage themselves, responded. And they would assign certain number of refugees per town outside Boston. And so you saw all of Massachusetts cooperating on a grand scale in terms of dealing with this incredible turmoil created by what was going on at Lexington and Concord and then Bunker Hill.
REHMHow did those residents get food, for example? Where was it coming from?
PHILBRICKWell, the -- a lot of it was coming from the farms in surrounding Massachusetts but also Connecticut. You see all of the colonies kicking in. Even before violence broke out, you had Charleston, S.C. sending up rice. You had future General Putnam coming up with more than 100 sheep from his farm in Connecticut. It really brought out the best in what would become America.
REHMBut weren't the British sort of making sure that they controlled how it got doled out?
PHILBRICKYeah, it's interesting. What happened was, as the patriots were flushed from Boston, the Brits there in the city were surrounded. And so they were without access to all of this food. But likely they had the British Navy. And it was -- that was their lifeline.
REHM"Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution." Nathaniel Philbrick is the author. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, historian and author Nathaniel Philbrick is with me. He's written a book about Bunker Hill. He titles it exactly that, subtitled, "A City, A Siege, A Revolution." He says Boston is really the hero of this book. And when you think about these people in Boston watching this battle from the rooftops, you see the same thing playing out today on television after this horrendous explosion.
PHILBRICKOh, I mean, it reminded me that, you know, the horror of a spectator event that is just so terrifying and unknowable, and yet we're all watching it, was something that was unfolding in 1775, where people were up there with their kids beside them watching the fate of the English-speaking world be determined. And you know a community under stress is something that forges bonds that create memories that will never be lost.
REHMIndeed. All right. Let's go open the phones to Dan in Leesburg, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.
DANGood morning, Diane.
DANThank you for accepting the call.
DANNo, but in teaching history for 33 years it's Breed's Hill.
REHMYeah, he's already said exactly that.
REHMYou didn't hear the earlier part of the program.
DANNo, I did not.
PHILBRICKNo. It's the confusion that will always be attached to this battle and it began with confusion and it will always cause confusion, I think, among people learning history.
REHMSo how did that confusion actually begin and take hold?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, it was compounded by the fact that the British would then make a map that got that confused. It was supposed to be Bunker Hill and they would stick with the name, even though that did not really reflect the reality.
REHMIt's a little more resonant, isn't it, Bunker Hill, rather than Breed's Hill?
PHILBRICKYeah, you know, and it's interesting how that might have something to do with it, yeah.
REHMYeah, all right. And let's go now to Milton, Fla. Good morning, Kirk.
KIRKGood morning. Thank you.
KIRKI had a couple of questions. One having to do with how well John Stark followed orders and the other one had to do with Samuel Herrick and what was his involvement in the battle?
PHILBRICKYeah, well, I don't know if I can help you with the Herrick question, but John Stark was an irascible leader of men, that his men loved him, but he refused to play the political game. And so the legislature in New Hampshire was frustrated by the fact that, you know, he wouldn't cow-tow in the way that they felt was required to get a commission. And so he was always kind of embattled with the higher ups.
PHILBRICKBut when it came to actually on-the-field getting-it-done, there was probably no one in the American army that was a better fighter.
REHMKirk, what's your understanding of Samuel Herrick?
KIRKI believe he was second in command to John Stark. And when John Stark would become so enraged with the orders coming from above, perhaps it was Samuel Herrick that would take command.
PHILBRICKYou know, I can't vouch for that. There are a lot of people on the record describing Stark's emotions. And clearly he brought a lot into it, but, you know, what's interesting about the Battle of Bunker Hill is it was not just one person. William Prescott was there at the redoubt. There was Stark at the stone wall and there were others at the rail fence. And it was a collaborative effort. And it was spontaneous and that's what made it so hard for the British. Just when they thought they knew what they were up against, another fence or breastwork would be built.
PHILBRICKAnd I think it's a wonderful metaphor for kind of America, where, you know, we don't necessarily have a plan going into it, but with a little cooperative panic things can happen. And that's really I think what made the Battle of Bunker Hill go as well as it did for the Americans.
REHMHere's an email from Peter, who says, "We're calling them patriots today. Wouldn't it be more correct to call them rebels who became patriots after they won our independence?"
PHILBRICKYes. That's absolutely correct. It's sort of like when I did Mayflower. What do you call the pilgrims? Well, the pilgrims is not necessarily the descriptor you'd like, but there's nothing really much better. The fact of the matter is the British referred to them as rebels and considered them rebels. And to become a patriot you have to be loyal to a cause. And the cause that wins ends up being the one that continues on.
REHMAnd you write that several weeks after the battle at Breed's Hill, George Washington arrives and you describe him in a rather interesting way, not sort of the George Washington we all think of as so elegant and commanding.
PHILBRICKWell, it was a great relief to me to realize that Washington did not step out of the womb as the, you know, the passive statute that stares at us from the dollar bill, that he was, you know, a man and a very passionate man, a very capable man who was put in a very difficult situation after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He arrives a couple of weeks later and he's from Virginia, grew up in a very different kind of environment. And here are a bunch of New Englanders, very dirty, undisciplined and he was appalled by them.
PHILBRICKAnd, you know, he didn't know what he was going to do with them. They had a fighting reputation, but he didn't necessarily think that they deserved it. And he had an appalling lack of gun powder. And so he was intent that he had to get this done quickly, otherwise he might lose the opportunity of dealing with the British. So he wanted to attack the city of Boston, which would have been probably a disaster because of the lack of gun powder and the fact that the British soldiers were so well dug into the city.
PHILBRICKAnd so what that would have done is basically reverse -- the advantage they had at Bunker Hill would work against them if they attacked the city.
REHMWho talked him out of it?
PHILBRICKHe had his Council of War, a group of generals. And the Continental Congress had made sure that if any major decision was made it had to be with the approval of his Council of War. And so, you know, they voted him down every time, but I think, you know, you have got to give Washington credit because he was injecting life into this. He made it clear that he wasn't going to just sit there and allow this to be a stalemate if he had his druthers. And I think it injected an element of drive that the army desperately needed after the trauma of Bunker Hill.
REHMSo what does he do next, after the Continental Congress turns him down?
PHILBRICKWell, it turns into this siege that goes on throughout the fall of 1775 into the winter of 1776. And by this time thoughts of independence are becoming rampant among the generals of his own army. Tom Paine's famous pamphlet is written and the ground begins to move underneath everyone's feet. And Washington is pushing, pushing, pushing to get the British out. And the irony is that after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British government had decided if we're going to fight this war, and we now know it's a war, Boston is not the place to do it. We need to pull the troops and launch an invasion somewhere else to the south. It would end up being New York.
PHILBRICKAnd so the British had already decided to evacuate. Washington had no way of knowing this. And his determination to attack, it's interesting. If you take the perspective of Boston, the biggest threat during the siege would come not from the British, but from Washington. And eventually, however, they would get the artillery they needed from Fort Ticonderoga. And a heroic adventure launched by Henry Knox, a former bookseller, who, with his brother and a lot of help, would drag tons of armaments down from Fort Ticonderoga over the snow. And with these cannons up on a fort on Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston, Washington's army would force Howe, who now had taken over from Gage, as the leader of the British forces, to evacuate Boston on April 17th.
PHILBRICKAnd so thus ended a siege that had been prepared for by the Battle of Bunker Hill. And Bostonians were once again allowed to return.
REHMHere's what I don't understand. The British were actually characterizing Bostonians as thugs. He may have thought they were the worst of the worst and undisciplined and dirty and all the rest. How did the people of Boston become so different from what we think of as the elegant, gentile people of Virginia? Didn't they all come from the same place?
PHILBRICKThey all came from England, but they came with very different cultural ways. The Puritans, when they originally arrived in the 1620s and '30s, instilled town meetings, which were basically democratic. Where, you know, everyone could contribute to the conversation. And so these New Englanders were used to having a say in what was going on. And you saw it in the Provincial army, where their officer would tell them, well, this is what we're going to do and they said, no, we're not. We're going to talk about this. And you see it time and time again. And this was the source of a lot of Washington's frustrations.
REHMOkay. Now, tell me about the people of, say, Virginia. What were they like?
PHILBRICKWashington came from an entirely different background. you know, he had a plantation where he had hundreds of slaves, it was very organized in terms of it was his world. And there was just a whole different kind of approach to the class system. And…
REHMA different mentality at work.
PHILBRICKDifferent mentality. And you can see it in the accounts of officers who come up from Virginia and Maryland, saying, you know, they just cannot believe these New Englanders in terms of, there's just no sense of the proper way people should be ordered in terms of society.
REHMAnd here is John (sic) Adams among the people there in Massachusetts, beginning to send out these pamphlets, beginning to get the news out and spreading the word, perhaps against the rules of the British government.
PHILBRICKYeah and it was actually John's cousin, Samuel Adams, right.
REHMSamuel Adams, forgive me.
PHILBRICKWith the Committee of Correspondence. And it was this, I think, in many ways was the key to what would become a revolution. And it was finding a way to communicate, to finding a way to get your message out that was not being tampered with by the Royal government. And so it was with the Committee of Correspondence that Samuel Adams really laid the groundwork for a revolution.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Falls Church, Va. Good morning, Whitney.
WHITNEYYeah, I'm just so enjoying this conversation. I'd like to say I have dual citizenship because I was raised in Massachusetts and I live in Virginia. And so it's so funny you were just making those final comments. One thing, when you're in fourth grade, I think it is, wherever you are in the U.S., you learn about your state. And when I was growing up in Massachusetts it was all about U.S. history is one of the little guy taking over, it was guerilla warfare, it was scrappy revolutionaries. And then my kids now in Virginia are getting a very different view, like you were just describing.
WHITNEYSo my comment is, you know, in this very divided America of today, I'm just wondering how what you're describing as Breed's Hill, you know, how that would play in Peoria? When I went to UVA it was like I was butting heads constantly with people who thought in terms of might is right and America is big and we have to stay powerful. And my conscious was always like, no. That's not how revolutionaries are born. That's not how our country was born. And you have to look at the world differently where there are revolutions because, frankly, that's how we were born.
PHILBRICKYeah, you raise some great points. And, you know, how divided America was and how divided America is, is, I think, the essential part of being an American. And it's the amazing thing that we can contain this variety of sentiment and somehow operate on the same page. You know, the battle at Breed's Hill that became the Battle of Bunker Hill, was a wakeup call to everyone. Are we in this together or do we do it on our own? And suddenly you had Virginians and people from Maryland, you know, all up there in Boston. And people had to get out of their heads, their previous mindsets.
PHILBRICKBostonians had this tradition of Pope Night in November where it was basically an anti-Catholic ceremony, loosely based on Guy Fawkes Day. And George Washington, when he realized that many of his soldiers were going to celebrate this in November of 1775, passed a regulation that, no, we will not celebrate this because there were hopes at this point that they would get the French-Canadians in on their sides who were Catholics. And he said, you know, basically, we cannot have this kind of attitude, given the circumstances under which we are in. And I think that is the kernel of what will become America.
PHILBRICKAnd that there, you have to begin to see things out of your own little regional view and recognize that there are points of view, if it's going to happen in a constructive way.
REHMSo what parallels do you draw between what happened then and what's happening now in the Middle East?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, it was interesting. When I began working on this book, as Arab Spring was coming about and, you know, you're in the archives, you're writing at your desk, trying to channel the past, but the present is all around.
REHMI should say.
PHILBRICKAnd revolutions, there's a dynamic to a revolution that hasn't really changed all that much, in terms of how you bring a country down, how you use violence to get regime change. The problem is what do you do after the revolution and that's the rub.
REHMDid we do it right?
PHILBRICKI think we've done it about as well as anyone has.
REHMNathaniel Philbrick, historian, author. His new book is titled, "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution." How wonderful to talk with you.
PHILBRICKGreat to talk to you, Diane. Thank you.
REHMThank you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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