Philbrick: ‘We Americans are not done yet with our Revolution’

Belmont author Len Abram interviewed Nathaniel Philbrick, whose book “The Battle of Bunker Hill. A Siege, A City, a Revolution,” is this year’s One Book One Belmont selection.

Abram: Revolution patriots appear heroic in a Copley painting. Others, however, beat, scalded, tarred and feathered, and nearly killed loyalist John Malcom. Some patriots dumped British tea into the harbor. To the English, were  Americans thugs and savages, who only understood violence?

Philbrick: We have the impression that the American Revolution meant war, but not the climate of violence of so many other revolutions. Not true. In Boston, armed gangs fought each other in annual anti-papal  demonstrations; in protesting the Stamp Act, crowds broke windows and damaged furniture at the home of Governor Hutchinson; the patriots of the Boston Tea Party destroyed thousands of pounds of English property. By the way, civil unrest and violence were taking place in England too.

Boston in the 1770s had a civil war, loyalist against patriot. John Malcom was a loyalist, tarred and feathered and terrorized. He eventually left for England. His brother Daniel, however, was considered a true Son of Liberty, and is buried at Copp’s Hill. It is said that British regulars practiced their muskets with Daniel’s tombstone as a target.

Q. Liberty is the epic theme of your history. One Lexington veteran said his militia fought to keep British regulars from taking away their freedom.  Where did Americans, even Boston children sledding in winter, get this sense of autonomy ?

A. Children were sledding down School Street by the home of a British officer. They complained to the officer that throwing fireplace ash onto their path slowed down their run. The officer mentioned the apparent rudeness to General Gage. Subduing this colony was so difficult, Gage observed, because “even their children insist on their rights.”

The pursuit of liberty was not just the passion of high-minded political theorists, but shared by the general populace, including children, and those farmers with their muskets who rushed toward battle.

Q. Your  vivid description of the fighting in 1775 carries with it sorrow, the grievous costs, culminating in the battle at Bunker Hill. Could the two sides have avoided  bloodshed for the same political results?

A. If both sides knew that an eight-year struggle of such high costs in blood and treasure was ahead, they would have reconsidered. It is tragic that they found no other way to settle their disputes.  Not all the patriots were in favor of independence, while some English, even in the military, were sympathetic to the American cause. Against the French, the English and the colonists had once been allies.

Both sides, however, were entrenched. The British felt they had already backed down enough with repealing the Stamp Act. It was time to punish the colony, which acted like bullies, into submission.  Once the colonists had declared independence, it was too late. The Battle of Bunker Hill and the war did have lessons for the British to learn. They did. In the next century, Britain would keep Canada, and acquire one of the largest empires in history.

Q. Colonial marksmen could hit targets at 200 yards, you note, impressive for smooth bore muskets. The American sharpshooter  – Natty Bumppo and Sergeant York are examples — is legendary.  Why do you think Americans were good at it? Does this skill suggest anything about American national character?

A. Americans have a relationship with the wilderness and the sea, almost spiritual, in which handling violence is at the core of American experience. Every farmer had a gun and knew how to use it  for hunting and protection.  Like the whalers from Nantucket, Americans wrested a bounty from nature through skills in using tools, such as musket and lance.

No doubt, marksmanship from ordinary citizens helped devastate British professional soldiers taking the heights at Bunker Hill. When Americans moved westward, they brought those skills, which helped them conquer a continent.

Q. George Washington  praised the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley, the African-American woman slave freed by a Boston family. Other blacks fought and died under his command. Yet Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Did excluding  blacks from liberty undercut the American Revolution?

A. When the monument for  the Battle of Bunker Hill was commemorated in 1843, John Quincy Adams complained that the work of the American Revolution  was not complete, not until the emancipation of slaves in America.

Washington and Jefferson saw the inconsistency of proclaiming freedom for their citizens, but excluding blacks. If American patriots of 1776 or 1787 had settled the slavery issue, it could have avoided war in 1861.

Q. Henry Ford knew how to build automobiles, but considered history bunk, useless. Are there lessons from the Battle of Bunker Hill that apply to our times?

A. The Battle of Bunker Hill may teach us how messy and difficult life is. The people we meet in 1775 are full of petty jealousies, concerns, flaws and failings. Joseph Warren, a physician, volunteered to face the British regulars at Bunker Hill and was killed. Henry Knox, a bookseller, brought cannon 300 miles to force the British to evacuate.  In many ways , they were ordinary men, but they were moved to join in a great historical event, a milestone of human development.

The patriots of 1775 are not unlike who we are today. We Americans are not done yet with our Revolution. We keep trying, to realize its ideals and our purpose.

“Bunker Hill” Foretells Greater Struggles in America’s History

By Len Abram

The fact slips by you like a road sign at sixty miles-per-hour, hardly noticed because you are enjoying the ride. Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of one of America’s famous battles, “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,” (Penguin, 2013. 396 pages)  is not about an American victory, but an American  defeat.

Victory has many fathers, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, while defeat is an orphan. Massachusetts and the nation readily adopted this defeat. Bunker Hill was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, that is, much too costly. The British might still win the war, but not as easily as they anticipated.

The colonists were prepared for war because they had practice in its blood-spattered school. First, they fought in the King Philip War against Native Americans, in which a third of the settlements in New England were torched. Secondly, as British allies in the French and Indian War, the colonists learned the arts of attack and siege, the predicament the English found themselves in Boston in 1775 with their backs to the sea.

Philbrick traces the painful separation between colony and mother country. The transition from colonist to patriot, from subject to citizen, happened with the colonists’ growing frustration over laws and taxes passed by a legislature three thousand miles away. The colonists were used to self-government and local militias. When the disputes between England and the colonies moved beyond negotiation, one side or the other would use force to compel compliance.

The fighting started in Lexington and Concord. British regulars left the safety of Boston to deny the colonists the ability to resist. Confiscating gunpowder, in short supply, was the surest way to end the fighting. The regulars never got that far as they met resistance, even if the militia had fortified their courage with visits to the neighborhood tavern. These were skirmishes where terrain, such as the long road back to Boston, nullified British strength. The first real battle, Philbrick shows, where British army discipline, equipment and skill were at their best, would take place at Breed’s Hill and at Bunker Hill in Charlestown.

Unless the British broke out of the siege in Boston, eventually they would have to evacuate. British strategy, in fact, favored the central part of the colonies, New York and New Jersey, as more important than New England. Control there split the colonies. Boston was not critical.

To stay in Boston, however, the British would have to keep their enemy off the heights overlooking the city. Cannon on hilly Charlestown or Dorchester threatened the occupation and the ships supplying it. When American forces fortified Breed’s Hill in Charlestown, they challenged the British to battle, which the British welcomed to put an end to the insurrection.

The British launched three attacks on the 110-foot rise of the Charlestown hills. With the third, the  British overwhelmed the Americans.  The oft-quoted command about not firing until the patriots saw the whites of British eyes was really the whites of the gaiters British troops wore.

British General Howe and his staff expected to face an American mob easily routed. Howe brought with him his valet and a bottle of wine to celebrate the victory. Both the wine and valet were hit. British forces suffered over a thousand dead or wounded, about 40 percent of the troops and officers. American losses were a third of the Regulars. The death of Dr. Joseph Warren, patriot leader, the hero of Philbrick’s history, was an irreplaceable loss.

Philbrick writes like a novelist. Historical figures, a traitor like Benjamin Church or a leader like George Washington, are complex. Church is disloyal to his own wife, but loyal to the British Crown. He spies on the patriots because he believes them to be the real traitors. As for Washington, Philbrick treats the legend as a man with well-known virtues but neglected flaws. Philbrick suggests that Dr. Joseph Warren, had he lived, would have replaced Washington as commander. Warren could have been our first President.

Another outstanding patriot is Henry Knox. Knox led the group, which took cannon by oxen from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston, forcing the British evacuation, still celebrated.

Philbrick frames his history with symmetry. In 1775, John Quincy Adams as a boy watches the Bunker Hill battle from Braintree. The book ends in 1843, as the distinguished Adams, former President, is invited to the dedication of the monument  in Charlestown. Adams refuses to take much joy in the event because he is so opposed to slavery, still lawful.

Slavery in America cast shadows on the American Revolution. Fighting for liberty means liberty for all men, Adams would suggest.  The Civil War was in the offing, where battles, far greater than what Adams witnessed at Bunker Hill, lay ahead.

The Week to Come: One Book One Belmont Author to Speak, Mother’s Day Flowers

• The Belmont Public Library welcomes author Nathaniel Philbrick for a talk on his award-winning book, “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution” on Tuesday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St. Winner of the 2013 New England Book Award for Nonfiction, “Bunker Hill” was selected as the 2014 One Book One Belmont selection. Philbrick’s presentation marks the conclusion of this year’s events. Refreshments will be served, and a book signing will be hosted at the end.

Belmont High’s Dr. Jeff Shea will be presented the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Award at an all-school assembly at the school on Tuesday, May 6 at 9 a.m.

• On Wednesday, May 7, the Daniel Butler Elementary School will be celebrating Bike & Walk to School Day by forming walking groups led by exemplary cyclists and walkers to travel by foot or pedal to the Butler. Co-sponsored by Sustainable Belmont and state and national Safe Routes to School organizations, walkers will depart from their various locations around Butler at 8:15 a.m. to arrive at school no later than 8:25 a.m.

• Beginning this Friday, May 9 and running through Sunday, May 11, the Friends of Belmont Softball will be hosting its annual Mother’s Day Flower Sale at the Lions Club at the MBTA commuter rail station at Common Street and Royal Road.

• It’s the annual Belmont Pops Concerts where the Belmont High School cafeteria is transformed into a “Pops”-style arrangement with table seating where audience members will be entertained by Belmont High musicians while having light snacks and other refreshments. There are two concerts, on Friday, May 9 and Saturday, May 10 both starting at 7 p.m. Sales from tickets benefit POMS, Parents of Music Students.

• The Chenery Middle School’s 7th and 8th Grade Band Concert will take place on Thursday, May 8 at 7 p.m. at the Chenery’s auditorium.

• Belmont Against Racism will discuss the book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson on Thursday, May 8 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

• Just back from their spring trip to Austria, the Madrigal Singers of Belmont High School will be giving a free concert on Tuesday, May 6 beginning at 3:30 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St. The concert is open to the community so swing on by.