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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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nat Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: Talks, Reviews, and a Giveaway

Today is the publication date of Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. He’s speaking about it three times this week in Massachusetts:

For upcoming events in other parts of the country, visit Nat’s website.

Bunker Hill has been garnering some very good reviews. David M. Shribman wrote in the Boston Globe:
Everyone in these precincts knows this story, or apocryphal strains of it: that the Battle of Bunker Hill really was fought on Breed’s Hill, that June 17 forevermore would be a red date on local calendars, that the heroic Joseph Warren died in battle as a nation was being born. Yet this is but the skeleton of the story Nathaniel Philbrick tells in Bunker Hill, a masterpiece of narrative and perspective by an author who has helped us look anew at the voyage of the Mayflower and the passage of George Armstrong Custer.
Thomas Fleming, who began his own career writing about the Revolution with a book on this battle, Now We Are Enemies, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Philbrick tells the complex story superbly, from the American and British points of view…[with an] emphasis on the flaws that afflicted both sides.” Tony Horwitz walked the battlefield with Nat Philbrick for Smithsonian magazine.

Walter Isaacson mused in the Washington Post:
The Committees of Correspondence conjured up comparisons to the role played in Tahrir Square by Facebook and other social networks. The affair of the purloined Hutchinson Letters reminded me of WikiLeaks, the rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes reminded me of Twitter, and the Tea Party reminded me of, well, the tea party. As Philbrick writes, “Samuel Adams and his compatriots had created what was, in essence, an extralegal, colony-wide network of communications that threatened to preempt old hierarchical form of government.”

But the most interesting lesson was that, even though the American Revolution might have been partly kindled by social networks, it was taken over and won by militias. Those who pamphleteer and blog, talk and tweet, cannot control the course of events as handily as those who are willing to put their lives on the line. The revolution will not be tweeted.
At All Things Liberty, Hugh T. Harrington focused on scope and sources:
Despite a title that suggests a narrow focus on a single battle, Bunker Hill does a superb job setting the stage for the Siege of Boston and the climatic action that took place on Breed’s Hill. Coverage of the Committees of Correspondence is outstanding. One may grumble that some other aspects such as the Tea Party and the raid on Fort William and Mary could have been treated more thoroughly but even in a book reaching 400 pages it is clear that not everything can be detailed in a single volume. What is presented is an outstanding overview.

Maps are essential to understanding the story and following the action. Fortunately excellent, clearly readable and simple maps are provided. The book provides outstanding coverage of the big picture of what was happening, who was doing it and why.

However, the strong reliance upon 19th century secondary sources to add details and color to the narrative is disappointing. Much of what was written in the 19th century falls into the category of legend, hearsay, or simply entertaining stories that do not always stand up well to historical scrutiny.
Harrington acknowledges that the endnotes in Bunker Hill explain the sources Nat Philbrick relied on and, in some cases, acknowledge that other historians (like myself) disagree on certain stories’ reliability. Readers can then make up their own minds. That makes Bunker Hill definitely a book in which one should read the notes.

Over the next couple of days, I’ll share a question-and-answer with Nat Philbrick about this book. But first, Boston 1775 has a copy of Bunker Hill to give away. As usual, I’m tying this giveaway to a question of historical knowledge:
What was George Washington doing during the Battle of Bunker Hill?
Put your answer in a comment on this blog entry. I’m looking for the most specific, best documented answer. I’ll keep those comments invisible until the arrival of Friday, 3 May. If there are two or more best answers, I’ll pick one correct respondent at random to receive a free copy of Bunker Hill.

25 comments:

Bob Deininger said...

George Washington was in New York City during the actual battle but was in the process of travelling to Boston to assume command of the newly formed Continental Army.

Randy Seaver said...

I think that George Washington was in Philadelphia on 17 June 1775. He accepted the commission as commander in Chief of the Continental Army on 19 June 1775, and left for Massachusetts soon after.

See http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/commission.html

and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington

Charles Bahne said...

On June 17, 1775, while the Battle of Bunker Hill was being fought near Boston, George Washington was in Philadelphia. According to his diary, he "Dined at Burns's in the Fields" and "spent the Evening at my lodgings."
[Source: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mgw1&fileName=mgw1b/gwpage751.db&recNum=58]

Washington had been appointed Commander in Chief of the Army by the Continental Congress two days earlier, on June 15.
["Journals of the Continental Congress", 1905 ed., Volume II, page 91, at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=lljc&fileName=002/lljc002.db&recNum=90&itemLink=r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00236))%230020091&linkText=1]

On Saturday, June 17 -- the day of the Bunker Hill battle -- the Congress formally approved the text of Washington's commission, and approved the appointments of Artemus Ward, Horatio Gates, and Charles Lee under the Commander in Chief. ["Journals" II:95-96] A National Park Service website says that on June 17, "George Washington accepts his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army." [http://www.nps.gov/revwar/revolution_day_by_day/1775_main.html]

Washington's own diary ends with a last entry on June 19 and is not resumed again until 1781.

Congress did not give Washington his formal instructions until Tuesday, June 20 ["Journals" II:100].

On June 22 Washington was still in Philadelphia and purchased a carriage ("phaeton"), a double harness, sadlery, maps, and other items. ["Accounts, G. Washington with the United States...", page 1]

Washington departed Philadelphia on June 23 and arrived in Cambridge on July 2. [http://www.nps.gov/revwar/revolution_day_by_day/1775_main.html]. He learned of the Battle of Bunker Hill upon his arrival in New York on June 25.

Zach said...

Washington received news of the battle while en route to Boston. He had recently, within the previous week, been appointed by the Second Continental Congress, to take charge of the Continental Army.

He was in New York City and travelling towards Boston to take control of the army. He arrived 2 1/2 to 3 weeks after the battle.

John L Smith Jr said...

I think when Bunker Hill was being fought, General George was in Philadelphia, en route from NYC to Cambridge to take command of the "New-England Army".

Liberty Bison said...

On June 17, 1775 when the Battle of Bunker Hill was being fought, George Washington was in Philadelphia making preparations in order to take command of the Continental Army and also trying to settle some personal and home affairs and debts before he left.

He had been selected by Congress on June 15th to be the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

June 17th is when Congress actually drafted the text of his commission.

According to a letter written to his wife on June 18th, Washington had a new will drafted in case he died. The will has never been found, so we don't know it's exact date but it's distinctly possible that he could have drafted it on the 17th as well.

Miss Emily said...

George Washington was in New York on his way to assume command of the Continental Army.

Joe Bauman said...

Here's what he says he did that day, according to his diary:

"17. Dined at Burns's in the Fields. Spent the Evening at my Lodgings."

Lee Wright said...

Thanks for the write up on the book and the appearances.

A quick question--perhaps I missed this years ago--but if everyone knew it was fought on Breed's Hill, why did the "battle of Bunker Hill" gain currency?

I can understand school children being confused today, but why did this even start?

Alan J. Bellomo said...

George Washington was on his way to take command of the new Continental Army located at Boston. He was a little east of New York City when the battle was fought. Alan J. Bellomo (alanbellomo@hotmail.com)

La Petite Gallery said...

Glad to hear about Maps..
Would that be a signed copy?
Will have to get that book.

J. L. Bell said...

The giveaway copy is not autographed.

J. L. Bell said...

As for the name of the battle, the term “Breed’s Hill” was not common in 1775, as I found back here.

Don N. Hagist said...

What was Washington doing during the battle of Bunker Hill? He was in Philadelphia that day, and had just learned of his appointment to command the army, but the battle occurred in the afternoon,starting around three o'clock. So I think Washington's diary gives the best indication of what he was doing during the battle; he wrote: "Dined at Barne's [not sure if I'm reading that name right] in the Fields. spent the Evening at my Lodgings."

Unknown said...

On Bunker Hill day, Washington was in Philly having been named that day as general and commander-in-chief. Of course, we all know that as soon as the discussion came up, he ran from the room where Congress met, thinking it was improper for him to listen to the discussion, although as a congressman, he was entitled to remain. Of course, modesty only went so far: You got a hint of his political canny---he was by far the best political general we ever had, rivaled only by Eisenhower---by the fact that he wore his military uniform. (Hint. Hint.)

Don Glickstein, Seattle

P. M. Hines said...

George Washington was accepting his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

Brian Kelley said...

Well, I don't know how specific you are looking for but since he was appointed just two days prior he was on route to Boston I would assume.

Mark Jacobson said...

He had already been appointed as Commander by Congress and was on his way to Boston to assume commnad but had not yet arrived.

Phillip said...

George Washington was en route to Boston to take control of the Continental Army when Bunker Hill battle occurred. He didn't take command of the forces until early July, about 2 weeks after the battle.

lizcovart said...

Congress voted to appoint Washington Commander in Chief on June 15, 1775. The date written on his commission is June 17, 1775. My guess is that Washington was still in Philadelphia waiting for his official commission. He would have wanted it in hand so that when he arrived in Massachusetts everyone would know that he had a legitimate (unless you were a loyalist or British soldier) commission to command.

kittycalash.com said...

He was in Philadelphia, angling for and receiving the congressional appointment to command the army. The next day he wrote to Martha W. describing the appointment, making suggestions about her residence, and ending with a postscript about suits of muslin. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/revolution/martha.html

Brian mack said...

He was in Philly lobbying to lead the army in MA

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for all the comments!

Cuttyhunk Island Schoolhouse said...

Dear Mr. Bell,

We enjoy reading your blog while we learn about the American Revolution and thought you might be interested in a letter we wrote to the Economist after their review of Mr. Philbrick's new book. We hope it will all fit here.

Sincerely,
Carter Basnight Lynch
Gwen MacKay Lynch
Cuttyhunk Island

May 15, 2013

Dear Editor of the Economist,

In the Books and Arts section of your April 27th - May 3rd issue you reviewed the new book “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution” by Nathaniel Philbrick. In the review it stated, “On the way they exchanged fire with the Patriots at Lexington, an incident that is celebrated in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous poem as “the shot heard ‘round the world”. Emerson’s poem is correctly titled, the “Concord Hymn”, not “the shot heard ‘round the world”. Your review also stated that the above battle at Lexington was the one celebrated in Emerson’s famous poem. As the first stanza of the Concord Hymn reads, “By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.” There is no river in Lexington and there is no bridge in Lexington! The poem is a memorial to the fight that took place at the Old North Bridge in the town of Concord, MA, and the poem is engraved at the base of the Minuteman monument right next to the bridge that spans the Concord River. We just visited here on our recent class field trip while studying about the American Revolution, and we have attached two photographs showing the North Bridge at Concord, MA and the Minuteman monument with Emerson’s engraved poem. We learned from our teacher, Ms. Dunn, to always tell the truth because as your famous English poet Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

We believe the author, Mr. Philbrick, once visited our island of Cuttyhunk , MA while researching another one of his books on the sinking of the ship the Essex, which leads to the novel “Moby Dick”. Cuttyhunk Island is part of the Elizabeth Islands chain and part of the town of Gosnold, MA. Our town was named after Bartholomew Gosnold an English entrepreneur who journeyed here in 1602 on the ship Concord to find the Sassafras plant and bring it back to England to cure a disease that many people had, and also to make money. Gosnold’s voyage of peace and commerce to Cuttyhunk Island introduced English culture, law, and fair trade to America. He later captained the ship Godspeed and helped establish the first piece of the British Empire in Jamestown, VA. We are very proud of our heritage here on Cuttyhunk Island, proud to be a free people, independent-thinking students, and to be a part of that entrepreneurial spirit introduced to us in 1602 and still present today.

Sincerely,

Carter Basnight Lynch
Gwen MacKay Lynch
Cuttyhunk Elementary School
PO Box 175
Cuttyhunk, MA 02713
United States of America

(the two photographs didn't copy but these were the captions on them)
Gwen MacKay Lynch and Carter Basnight Lynch of Cuttyhunk Island, Gosnold, MA, USA, visiting the Old North Bridge in Concord, MA by the Minuteman monument engraved with Emerson’s poem the “Concord Hymn”.

The Old North Bridge spans the Concord River in Concord, MA, USA. This is where the “shot heard ‘round the world” took place on April 19, 1775.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing your letter. You’re right that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired in Concord. Nowadays a lot of authors think that shot was the first shot of the Revolutionary War, which happened at Lexington. (Or at Portsmouth, according to some odd folks.) But that’s not what Emerson thought was important.

Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up in Concord and moved back there to live for many years. He wrote his hymn for a celebration in Concord. His grandfather had been the minister in Concord during the battle, and watched it closely. He knew that Concord was where Massachusetts militiamen made the first organized move against the British soldiers. It’s only natural that Emerson thought what happened in Concord was most important, just as I dare say folks on Cuttyhunk learn to value the history of their home.