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, May 02, 2013

Q. & A. on Bunker Hill with Nathaniel Philbrick, part 2

Today Boston 1775 concludes a colloquy with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution.

Q. What could the American commanders have done differently to win the battle? What could the British commanders have done differently to avoid such heavy losses? And how would a different outcome on 17 June 1775 have affected the siege of Boston or the war?

A. The most obvious failing of the American commanders had to do with the artillery regiment under Colonel Richard Gridley, who had the unfortunate habit of picking officers to whom he was related. With only one or two exceptions, the officers under Gridley’s command were both cowardly and ineffectual, and several of them were seen running scared from the scene of the battle.

Since most of the American troops were already terrified of the British cannons, it was especially unnerving to see their own artillery officers proving so pathetically incompetent. This led large numbers of soldiers to linger back on Bunker Hill, where they could avoid the battle to the south. For those fighting in the redoubt and along the breastworks and rail fence, it was infuriating to realize that hundreds, if not thousands of their own men were on the Charlestown peninsula but were providing them with no help.

Both Colonels William Prescott and John Stark were highly critical of Israel Putnam, who had stationed himself on Bunker Hill. Putnam seems to have chiefly occupied himself trying to build a fortification that might serve as a fallback position for those on the front line, but this was hardly a priority at this point in the battle when Prescott and Stark needed every soldier and musket they could get. According to Stark, if Putnam had done what he should have and gotten those lollygaggers to join the fighting, “he would have decided the fate of his country in the first action.”

On the British side, it might have all gone very differently if they had followed Henry Clinton’s advice and landed some soldiers to the north at Charlestown Neck, where they would have cut off the American retreat.

If the American army had been routed at Bunker Hill and the British had then pursued them into Cambridge, the war might have been effectively over before it even got started. If the Americans had decisively won the battle, it might have convinced the British ministry to agree to a compromise. The ironic thing is that both alternative outcomes would have meant that America remained a part of the British Empire.

Q. A movie studio has bought the dramatic rights to Bunker Hill. While acknowledging that authors have zero influence on casting, let’s imagine that you’re making that movie. You’ve spent a lot of mental time with several of the characters involved in the start of the Revolution. Cast a couple of those leading roles with well-known actors or actresses, past or present, and explain why they would be good choices.

A. I’m terrible at this kind of thing, but I’ll give it a try, limiting myself to actors/actresses from the past.

Errol Flynn as Joseph Warren. He’d bring a swashbuckling, action-hero charisma to the role that would be great, particularly when it comes to Warren delivering his Massacre-Day Oration in a toga and when he fights to the death at the redoubt on Breed’s Hill.

Katharine Hepburn as Mercy Scollay, Warren’s fiancée. Scollay was apparently very bright and high strung and Kate would be perfect; while we’re at it, let’s cast an older Spencer Tracy as her father John Scollay, chair of the Boston Selectmen.

Let’s go with a young Ernest Borgnine as Israel Putnam since you need a big athletic loveable guy with a wild streak.

I’d pick Laurence Olivier to be Thomas Gage and tell him to bring out his inner Hamlet.

I picture both Colonels Prescott and Stark as being thin and wiry and fairly humorless—maybe a dour Jimmy Stewart for Prescott and Max von Sydow as Stark?

See, I told you I was lousy at this kind of thing.

Hey, I don’t think that was so bad! At top: Olivier tries to channel Gen. John Burgoyne in The Devil’s Disciple. Below: Young Errol Flynn as Fletcher Christian in In the Wake of the Bounty.

TOMORROW: The Bunker Hill giveway. Answers accepted until midnight!


John L Smith Jr said...

A VERY REFRESHING blog today, J.L.! Very very neat stuff! Love the classic casting!

Jim Padian said...

Thomas Fleming and Richard Ketchum need not fear. Their accounts are by far written and more to the story. Philbrick ghosts over many unsubstantiated detail, interjects flaws when there was no need. Based on his reputation, I expected a much better effort.

Jim Padian

J. L. Bell said...

Fleming and Ketchum's books focus more closely on the battle itself than Philbrick's, which is really about the siege with the battle as the fulcrum. Fleming uses some sources which aren't reliable (such as the account of the British deserters being hanged, from American newspaper propaganda). Ketchum is quite thorough, but he doesn't provide speciic citations for his statements as Philbrick does. There's also a good study from John Elting and solid recent works by Paul Lockhart and James T. Nelson.