Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When the Yankees Realized They Had Declared Independence

Nathaniel Philbrick's latest book Bunker Hill:a City, a Siege, a Revolution begins  with an seven-year-old John Quincy Adams standing with his mother Abigail on a hill near their home in Braintree. They were looking down at Boston where the British army and American militia were in battle. Boston was almost an island, with only a slender isthmus connecting to the mainland. The bay around the city was filled with British ships, their cannons bombarding the the hills where the militia had made their stand.

John Adams was in Philadelphia representing Massachusetts a the Continental Congress. His family were unprotected and feared the British would  reach their hamlet. But the worst memory for John Quincy was when he learned that their family friend and physician, John Warren, was killed in that battle.

The battle of Bunker Hill predated General Washington's command of the militia, before he made the local militias into an American army. New England was supported by other colonies,sending food and supplies, but the idea of a United States separate from Britain was not yet formulated. The leaders who opposed the Stamp Act and tea tax still believed that King George III was an okay guy. It was just his governors and bureaucracy that was at fault.

Philbrick does not present British rule as unduly harsh. They had sent armies to defend the colonies during the French and Indian War. They needed to pay off a war debt of over $800,000. Plus they had this little thing going on with Napoleon. They really needed the cash. That tea that was dumped into the big saltwater teapot? They had a surplus and were selling it at a deep discount, and thought, wrongly, that a few pence tax on the tea would not be objectionable seeing it was being sold so cheaply.

Those Yankees were headstrong and independent from the get-go. Philbrick's earlier book Mayflower was about the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. They wanted religious freedom. The colonists felt they had bought their freedom with their own sweat, toil, and blood. They didn't like anyone telling them what to do.

Almost a comedy of errors, misunderstandings, chance and bad decisions, the outcome of the battle of Bunker Hill changed the world when the British troops, and loyalist citizens, sailed out of Boston harbor.

The hero of Philbrick's story is the almost unknown John Warren. He had saved John Quincy Adam's forefinger when it was badly fractured. At that time the usual practice would have been amputation. John Quincy never forgot how Dr. Warren saved his finger. Warren was as important as Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and other leaders of his time. But Warren could not resist joining the fray, and lost his life at Bunker Hill.

Philbrick ends the book in 1843 with John Quincy Adams refusing to attend celebratory remembrances of Bunker Hill. He was seventy-five years old and serving in congress where he fought for abolition. The Adams family revered Warren so much that when Abigail first saw John Trumbull's painting Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill she wrote "...in looking at it, my whole frame contracted, my blood shivered, and I felt a faintness in my heart." She felt the painting would "transmit to posterity characters and actions which will command the admiration of future ages and prevent the period which gave birth to them from ever passing away into the dark abyss of time..."

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill
John Trumbull's Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill

Previously I have read Phlbrick's Mayflower, In the Heart of the Sea, and have Sea of Glory on my to read shelf. I have enjoyed his books. This book, being about a battle, was not as engrossing for me but his portrayal of the personages involved kept my interest.

Bunker Hill
Nathaniel Philbrick
Penguin

Thank you to Penguin and NetGalley for providing the -ebook for my review.