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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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Q. & A. on Bunker Hill with Nathaniel Philbrick, part 1

Here’s the first part of my blog interview with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the new book Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution.

Q. Your new book is titled Bunker Hill, but it describes the years before that battle on 17 June 1775 and continues to the end of the siege of Boston in 1776. How did you decide on the boundaries of your story? Did you start with the battle and expand, or did you set out to tell a story of the American Revolution and narrow in on that battle?

A. All of my books seem to be about communities under incredible stress and trauma, and from the first I wanted Bunker Hill to be about what the Revolution did to the inhabitants of Boston. I knew it had to end with the evacuation of the British, and it seemed natural that it begin after the Tea Party with the Boston Port Act and the arrival of General Gage and his army. Within those time constraints the Battle of Bunker Hill was the pivotal event—when a rebellion turned into a war.

Q. What aspect of the Battle of Bunker Hill did you find most surprising, or feel isn’t as well known as it should be? What misconceptions do you think people have about the battle, then or now?

A. I don’t think it’s generally understood what a confused and confusing event it was.

The Americans’ original plan was to postpone, if not stop altogether, an impending British attack by building a fort on Bunker Hill, which is on the north end of the Charlestown peninsula and would have commanded the approaches to Cambridge without directly threatening the British in Boston. But for reasons that are still not clear, William Prescott built his redoubt about a half mile to the south on Breed’s Hill, less than a cannon shot away from Boston. Instead of delaying a British attack, Prescott ended up provoking the bloodiest battle of the Revolution.

The amazing thing is that the battle went as well as it did for the Americans, and that’s led to another misconception. The British, not the Americans, actually won the battle, but they suffered casualties of almost fifty percent. As General Howe admitted, “The success is too dearly bought.”

So there you have it, a battle named for the wrong hill that was won by the war’s ultimate losers. No wonder people are confused.

Q. My favorite anecdote about the Battle of Bunker Hill revolves around Abijah Willard recognizing his in-law William Prescott on the edge of the redoubt. In The Whites of Their Eyes, Paul Lockhart raised doubts about that story, but you find it plausible. Would you please summarize the anecdote and the issues involved in judging its authenticity?

A. Early on in the battle a cannon ball decapitated one of Prescott’s men. Prescott could see that the rest of his soldiers, most of whom had no previous war experience, were badly shaken. In order to inspire them, he jumped up onto the fort’s parapet and began to strut back and forth, waving his sword and shouting at the British. Apparently Prescott was wearing a banyan—a long loose-fitting coat that must have been swirling about him like a cape.

Meanwhile, at that moment in Boston, General Thomas Gage was examining the American stronghold through his spyglass when he saw this maniac dressed in a banyan making a spectacle of himself. Standing beside Gage was a loyalist named Abijah Willard. Gage handed his spyglass over to Willard and asked if he knew who that crazy guy was. According to tradition, Willard recognized that it was none other than his brother-in-law William Prescott.

“Will he fight?” Gage asked.

“Yes, sir,” Willard replied. “He is an old soldier and will fight as long as a drop of blood remains in his veins.”

The story may seem too good to be true, but it comes from Prescott’s son, which is a pretty trustworthy source, I think. Paul Lockhart is justifiably skeptical of the anecdote, pointing out that given the distance and the fact that eighteenth-century spyglasses were pretty primitive compared to what we have today it would have been impossible for Willard to recognize any face that far away, especially with smoke in the air.

My theory is that given Prescott’s much-commented-on coat, a facial recognition was not required. I’ve played around a bit with eighteenth-century telescopes here on Nantucket and have come to believe that Willard recognized the coat, not the face, and said, “Aha, that’s my madman brother-in-law Bill.”

TOMORROW: More of this interview. And have you entered the contest for a copy of Bunker Hill?


John L Smith Jr said...

GREAT interview so far, Mr. Bell!

Anonymous said...

In regard to Howe's statement "the success is too dearly bought," repeated now in virtually every account of the battle, to show he realized just how pyrrhic a victory it was for the British --

If one reads what he wrote in full, I think a strong case can be made that what Howe was actually voicing was his horror at, not the overall number of British casualties (which as you will see he thought far less than the now generally-agreed-upon figure) but rather the toll it took on his officer corps. The full passage reads:

"But I now come to the fatal consequences of this action - 92 officers killed and wounded - a most dreadful account. I have lost my aide-de-camp Sherwin, who was shot thro' the body and died the next day . Our friend Abercrombie is also gone-he had only a flesh wound, but is said to have
been in a very bad habit of body . The General's returns will give you the particulars of what I call this unhappy day. I freely confess to you, when I
look to the consequences of it, in the loss of so many brave officers, I do it with horror. The success is too dearly bought . Our killed, serjeants and
rank and file, about 160; 300 wounded and in hospital, with as many more incapable of present duty."

I suppose it comes down to how one wants to parse the last two or three sentences but, to my eye, Howe is clearly speaking not of his overall losses, but of the loss of his officers.

R. Doctorow

{Mr. Bell, has any study ever been done of the casualty rates of British officers in this war? And did the Americans truly make an effort throughout the war to aim at them?}

J. L. Bell said...

That's an excellent point, Mr. Doctorow! It also fits a pattern I see in British accounts of both this battle and the preceding one in Middlesex County: commanders listed officers who were killed or wounded but merely numbered the soldiers. That makes it harder to track individual British soldiers. I'm contrast, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued a broadside listing every man who died on 19 Apr 1775 and kept track of the soldiers captured in the Breed's Hill redoubt and jailed in Boston. Not hard to see the contrast in values there.

As for a comparative study of casualties among British officers, I'm not aware of one. But American veterans definitely spoke (later at least) of aiming for officers. Their coats and gorgets made them recognizable at a distance.

EJWitek said...

Any discussion of casualty figures for British officers in the Revolutionary War needs to address the code of honor prevalent at the time. Officers were expected to lead from the front. Conspicuous bravery was a matter of honor, and honor was at the heart of the officer code. General Howe, addressing his men before Bunker Hill, told them that he didn't expect them to go a step farther than where he would go at their head. One account indicates that every member of his staff was shot during the assault and that may have influenced his decision not to push onto Cambridge.
While Patriot marksmen undoubtedly aimed for British officers, the British officers made themselves conspicuous targets on the battlefield.

John L Smith Jr said...

Speaking of casualties, I read in Paul Lockhart's book that Gage was under additional dislike from his surviving troops for not planning to receive any British casualties post-battle. It was written that many wounded British soldiers died in carts and streets in Boston because existing surgery centers were completely saturated. True?