Wednesday, July 03, 2013

What We're Reading: More about Independence

In Revolutionary Summer (previously reviewed), Joseph Ellis looked at the political and military crisis in the American Colonies that took place from May to October of 1776, a period of important political and military actions that was marked most notably by a declaration of independence from Great Britain in July of that year and a formal commitment by the American colonies to armed conflict to achieve that end. Nathaniel Philbrick’s book examines the major events of the preceding year, in particular what happened in Boston and its environs in 1775, the first year of armed engagement between colonists and the British troops that had been sent to quell the growing rebellion. Philbrick explains why Boston became the flashpoint of the Revolution. The major purpose of this book, however, is not to rehearse the long list of causes that were prelude to the Revolution but rather to give us a detailed narrative of the major political and military activities that took place in Boston in 1775, one that sorts the myths from fact. And yet, it seems nearly impossible to tell this story without reference to the embellishments and familiar tropes that have so enveloped the American Revolution in our national memory. It’s our national creation myth.  In an era of poor communication and partisan journalism, in a season of passion and alarm, surprise and rumor, the record of much of our received knowledge is an amalgam of gossip, anecdote, and the apocryphal. This license tends to endure not only because it enlivens the story but because it also serves the instructive and self-defining purposes of the tale. Philbrick is not wholly immune to this, and sometimes uses sources that seem unreliable or that assert the improbable. It seems in the nature of myths that they not focus too much on the bloodshed or the emotional costs of the battle or episodic trauma.  We are interested in the glorious, the heroic and the magically providential moments. We have less of a notion of the brutality of battles or the number of casualties in the American Revolution than we have of any other major conflict in our history.  Philbrick seems to sense that and to feel that correcting this is important both factually and dramatically to what he is trying to do in his narrative, but often his imagined battlefield reconstructions, elaborate and overwrought, impress us as inauthentic. His narrative sometimes indulges in the salacious speculations about private life that enliven “popular history.” He comments on patriot leader Joseph Warren’s romantic affairs, asides that are inconclusive and seem to serve little purpose. He mentions that Washington at the siege of Boston relied on General Nathanael Greene, who walked with a limp, and on another officer, Henry Knox, who had lost a couple of fingers earlier in life from a gun that exploded. Both of them apparently had beautiful wives. Philbrick concludes from this, absurdly, that “Washington, it seems, had a weakness for charismatic but physically damaged officers, particularly ones with beautiful spouses.”
Those caveats aside, Philbrick delivers here a carefully constructed and very detailed account of the seminal moments of the American Revolution in which colonists and British troops first came into armed conflict at Lexington and Concord, and of Bunker Hill, the first set battle of the revolution---which turned out to be its bloodiest---where it was established that the Americans would openly stand and fight an army of British regulars. What happened at Bunker Hill seems to have influenced military decisions that British General William Howe made in evacuating Boston and also decisions he made during the subsequent battle in New York. He had become wary about again suffering the kinds of losses he had sustained in the Pyrrhic British victory at Bunker Hill. The Americans had lost 115 killed and had 305 wounded, the British losses were 226 killed and 800 wounded with a large number of casualties in the officer corps.

Like Joseph Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer, Philbrick notes the confusion, disarray, and misjudgment that was prevalent in the effort of the Americans to organize an army and conduct an effective military resistance to hardened and professional British forces. The colonies’ political traditions of decentralized democracy, of deciding matters by the votes of citizens in town councils, informed cherished American notions about freedom and rights, and they were the experiential foundation of resistance to British incursions of liberties, but they made citizens not especially formed to address the necessary task of aggregating local militias into a hierarchical, coordinated and centrally commanded force. An effective army, it took too long to discover, is not a democracy, and decisions cannot be made by pausing to take a vote. The American debacle at Bunker Hill proved to be a case in point. Famously, the “Battle of Bunker Hill” is a misnomer. Bunker Hill was the redoubt overlooking Boston that the colonials at their headquarters in Cambridge had agreed would be occupied and if necessary defended, but when the loose amalgam of militias marched out, their leaders for some reason agreed to fortify Breed’s Hill.  Breed’s Hill was a little distance forward of Bunker Hill and had a closer command of the heights over Boston. The occupation of Bunker Hill alone might have been an act that the British troops under General Howe in Boston could have ignored, but the more strategic American occupation of Breed’s Hill was a threat and provocation that the British commander felt he could not let pass. The Americans took a military action that provoked a British engagement with American forces that at this time, given the state of colonial political organization, troop strength, and armaments was ill-advised. When after the Battle of Bunker Hill George Washington came to take command of American forces and organize a siege of Boston, he was appalled at what he judged to be the poor caliber of the troops and the organizational chaos of the “Continental Army.” Writing to a cousin in Virginia he described the New Englanders under his command as “an exceeding dirty and nasty people,” and he detected “an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people, which believe me prevails but too generally among the officers of the Massachusetts part of the army, who are nearly of the same kidney with the privates.” And yet the defects in the character of his army were only one part of the problem. It is perhaps fortunate for the fate of the cause that Washington, desirous of mounting a direct attack on Boston that would have destroyed the city (and which very well might have resulted in a defeat that would have destroyed his army), was eventually convinced by cooler heads that the most effective strategic move would be an American occupation and fortification of Dorchester Heights. And yet as Ellis tells us, Washington was still bent on the same kind of aggressive action and risk-taking at the battle for New York the following year. He had not yet come to an understanding of how the war must be fought.   
Philbrick’s account of the military ineptitude and misjudgment that characterized the American effort in the early engagements of the conflict may present a view of things that is new to us, but Washington’s aristocratic sneers at the New Englanders allude to a larger and perhaps more important theme in Bunker Hill. The American Revolution was the work of a diverse spectrum of patriots, including those of differing classes and interests. It was inspired by ideals and ideas that were not always shared in common, and that engendered in its protagonists varying depths of political passion and divergent notions of what course of action should be followed. We have been brought up to think of the American Revolution as the project of men with temperaments like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, a reasoned cause founded on Enlightenment ideas about the nature and purpose of government that was shared by those who lead and by those who fought. But the American Revolution, as Philbrick’s colorful account of the role of Boston patriot leader Joseph Warren makes clear, was made in large measure by citizens of a radical and populist stripe, men who were agitators and even demagogues, men for whom the feeling of offense and the commitment to the cause was personal, passionate and visceral. It was a commitment often alloyed with ambitions for personal glory and public honor. Bunker Hill was a decisive moment, the engagement that marked the point of no return for the Americans. Philbrick’s topography of the Boston political landscape  in 1775 shows us the tumultuous origin of the American Revolution and  reminds us of the colonists’ impulsive and frequently precarious path to independence.

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