J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Six Books on Two Battles, part 1

Back in September, Ed Roche of the Charlestown Militia Company passed this question to NEREV, the email list for New England Revolutionary War reenactors:

What are the six books you would recommend to the public regarding Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill? Not scholars—the public.
So, in my unceasing wish to find easy material for blogging, I’m going back to the answer I posted then and offering a little more detail on each title.

But first, a couple of caveats. This is a narrow question, focused on two action-filled days of a long conflict. Which means I ruled out good books on political ideas and conflicts (Pauline Maier’s From Resistance to Revolution, John Tyler’s Smugglers and Patriots), social history (Gary Nash’s The Urban Crucible, Robert Gross’s The Minutemen and Their World), and even other dramatic events (Hiller Zobel’s The Boston Massacre, Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), not to mention books about the whole war or even the whole siege of Boston. And the books had to be fun to read as well as enlightening. (Sorry, Dirk Hoerder’s Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765-1780.)

Second, on another day I might come up with a slightly different list.

So here we go with the first three titles. Click on the covers or titles to go straight to that page at Powell’s Books.

Ray Raphael, The First American Revolution (2002). This book describes the year of political, and occasionally armed, conflict in the New England countryside preceding April 1775. Okay, I’m cheating a little on the question’s timeframe, but I don’t think one can understand the mass mobilization on that day without understanding what the rural militiamen’s motivation and how they had organized themselves under the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. There was a political side to the Revolution, after all. Ray argues that British government had been overturned in most of Massachusetts before the first battle (which I agree with) and a new republican government launched (which I’m not so sure about). Ignore the two pages of John Howe myth and enjoy the argument for Worcester as the real center of the rebellion.

John R. Galvin, The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution (1989). Too many colons in the title aside, this book digs up the roots of the Massachusetts militia system before providing a detailed analysis of the military maneuvers of 19 Apr 1775. Alarm riders and minuteman companies had a history almost as old as English settlement in America, and the militiamen’s training was well adapted to their circumstances. Does Galvin know his tactics, strategy, and logistics? He was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe before becoming Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. (An equivalent book on the British forces? Maybe John Shy’s Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution, no longer in print.)

Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942). This book has an old-fashioned emphasis on a heroic narrative and a quaint past. The dark side of American history isn’t much in evidence here, and a number of poorly sourced legends got through the research Forbes and her mother did. But there’s a reason this book won the Pulitzer Prize and remains popular and respected today: it creates a vibrant, 360° portrait of mid-1700s Boston and of Revere, the hard-striving silversmith who put himself at the center of the Patriot alarm network. Forbes went on to write a certain “novel for all ages” called Johnny Tremain.

TOMORROW: The next three titles, of course.


Anonymous said...

Hi, J.L., two things:

John Galvin's book is great when he sticks to things he can document, such as the history of the militia. That part of his work is solid.

His narrative breaks down when he starts getting into conjecture, though, a sort of, "Well, here's what I, a modern US Military commander, would have done..." Then it's guesswork. Maybe his guesswork is better than anybody else's, but we are trying to understand history as it is, not as we wish it had been.

Secondly, John Shy's work on the British Army is back in print and available on amazon.com, among other places.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that Galvin’s conjecture is no more certain than anyone else’s—and maybe more risky since non-experts like me are inclined to trust him. But he seems to give enough signals about when he’s leaving one level for another.

On Amazon, the only new edition of Shy’s Toward Lexington that I found was a $47 e-book. Not that I have anything against e-books, but that did seem a little steep. Is there another edition I’ve missed?