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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Friday, December 19, 2008

Six Books on Two Battles, part 2

This posting continues my expanded response to a question Ed Roche of the Charlestown Militia Company asked in September:

What are the six books you would recommend to the public regarding Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill? Not scholars—the public.
For my caveats and commentary on the first three books, go back one day. And here are the second three titles. Clicking on the links and images will take you to Powell’s Books.

Allen French, General Gage’s Informers: New Material Upon Lexington and Concord, Benjamin Thompson as Loyalist, and the Treachery of Benjamin Church, Jr. (1932). This is an unusual title for this sort of list. It doesn’t provide a start-to-finish overview of a battle, a man’s life, or a political process. But it’s neat. French was a novelist and author of a once-over-lightly popular history of the siege of Boston. And then he got the research bit in his teeth. The Clements Library in Michigan had made Gen. Thomas Gage’s papers and other Revolutionary material available to scholars. French dug into that archive and others, and came out with documents showing:
  • Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., was definitely a spy early in 1775.
  • So was Benjamin Thompson, later Count Rumford; until then, the standard line on Thompson was that he would have been an asset to the American forces if only some people hadn’t been so suspicious and driven him away.
  • Gage had another, still unidentified spy near Concord feeding him detailed information about the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s arms.
  • Gage’s orders, including his draft orders, never mentioned arresting Samuel Adams, John Hancock, or other Patriot leaders—a long-held American misconception.
  • The whole day looked quite different through the eyes of Lt. William Sutherland, Ens. Jeremy Lister, Lt. Frederick Mackenzie, and Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie, all junior British officers. American historians hadn’t found or used those men’s reports before, which naturally produced one-sided analyses.
Just as interesting as those stories, I think, is watching a historian at work, tossing out and remolding established ideas in front of your eyes. And French knew how to turn that process into a story. (I don’t have a cover image because I’ve linked to the Scholar’s Bookshelf print-on-demand paperback, the only edition available today; it’s not pretty, but it’s fully functional.)

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (1994). This was one of the books that got me intrigued about Revolutionary War history, though I also came away believing that scholars had already found everything significant about the Battle of Lexington and Concord that there was to be found. I know better now, but Fischer’s book is such a thorough and well constructed overview that it’s still the title to choose if you read only one on the topic. As Fischer notes, the story of 18-19 Apr 1775 is a rarity among events of historical significance: Revere’s ride easily fits the mold of a heroic narrative, and the whole episode has a dramatic unity. At the same time, the book covers more ground than Revere on his horse. Fischer and his research team pull out the stories of the many towns that mobilized, the experiences of the British soldiers, and the spread of the news down the coast and across the Atlantic. Finally, don’t skip the appendix on the tale’s historiography—i.e., how the story of Paul Revere’s ride got into history books, became part of the American legend, and has been treated by historians and popular commentators over the years.

Richard M. Ketchum, Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill (1974). Compared to the battle on the 19th of April, there are fewer books, especially scholarly-level books, to choose from about the 17th of June. It wasn’t always that way. In the nineteenth century, books about Bunker Hill seem to have been just as numerous, and a lot longer. Of the books now in print, Ketchum’s strikes me as having the best combination of dramatic narrative and sourcing (not notes for each statement or quotation, alas, but at least commentaries on sources). A book and magazine editor, Ketchum describes the struggles of both sides with an eye for drama and detail, and generally avoids the myths that have built up along the sides of Bunker Hill—though he can’t avoid including a lot of traditions that go back only to the early 1800s but seem reliable.

My runner-up for that last slot was John R. Elting’s The Battle of Bunker’s Hill (1975). I think it dug deeper into primary sources and military questions, challenging common beliefs about the battle, but at the expense of drama and scope. In any case, it’s no longer in print.

1 comment:

Trip said...

Just ordered the General Gage book, looking forward to leafing through it and learning more of the British role and point of view.

Another recommendation (which isn't Boston focused) is Drillmaster at Valley Forge. Finding it to be a fantastic book on Steuben and how the army was formed.