One of the reasons that myths creep into history is that the unvarnished truth makes for rather drab reading. Consider this candid admission from America’s greatest naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison:
“America was discovered accidentally by [Columbus], who was looking for something else, when discovered it was not wanted, and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy.”
Military history is even chancier. Many a battle has been determined not by who was cleverest, but by which side did marginally more stupid things with more unlucky results. Witness the legend of Bunker Hill, a battle of blunders on both sides that exercised a profound influence on the struggle for independence and the American imagination.
Even its name is erroneous; the battle was fought on Breed’s Hill, a neighboring eminence. Although often cited as the template for the entire Revolutionary War, the story line of rustic militiamen with superior marksmanship outfighting the finest European army of the day was one of the more pernicious myths to emerge from the American Revolution.
For starters, most militiamen at Bunker Hill were not crack marksmen. It was the discipline maintained by their commander, Col. William Prescott, who made them hold their fire until the British were so close that you could “see the whites of their eyes” that unleashed volley after lethal volley into the closely formed British line.
Second, compared with the Austrian, Prussian, Russian and even French armies of the day, the British army of 1775 to 1783 was a smaller, antiquated and indifferently led force. It was remarkable mainly for the courage and discipline of its enlisted men and noncommissioned officers, rather than for the brilliance of its brave but often incompetent officers whose commissions often were purchased for them while they were still in the cradle.
Also, while Bunker Hill helped rally Patriot sympathy outside the New England colonies and led to the providential appointment of George Washington as commander of what he would slowly, painstakingly forge into America’s first disciplined regular army, the outcome of the war ultimately would be determined by an entirely different factor. The entry of France into the struggle and the convergence of a regular French army under the Count de Rochambeau with Washington’s regulars at Yorktown in 1781 led to the capture of Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ army — and the decisive victory of the war — thanks to local naval superiority provided by a French fleet under Adm. Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse.
Still, Bunker Hill kicked it off, and historian Nathaniel Philbrick has done a splendid job of interweaving firsthand accounts to produce a dramatic, fast-paced narrative of the battle (the bloodiest of the entire war), the events leading up to it and its consequences. If there is one criticism, it is that Mr. Philbrick seems to sympathize more with some of the opportunists and incendiaries such as Samuel Adams, who deliberately inflamed the tensions leading to war, than with the sober citizens turned soldiers such as George Washington, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, who did the wartime heavy lifting.
“It is perhaps not surprising,” Mr. Philbrick breezily concludes, “that the new Continental Army was almost devoid of the Bostonians who had been at the forefront of the revolutionary movement. Men who had relished dumping tea into Boston Harbor and tarring and feathering loyalists apparently had trouble fitting into the army of His Excellency George Washington.”
The triumphant militia myth would be propagated by noncombatant ideologues such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the years afterward. Thus, the ultimate legacy of Bunker Hill was the absence of a credible, professional peacetime army that led to a series of near-fatal military defeats in the War of 1812. Among other fiascoes, a small British expeditionary corps burned the White House and the Capitol after routing a large but incompetent American militia force at the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. That defeat was so humiliating that locals — including some of this reviewer’s ancestors — referred to it as the “Bladensburg Races,” thanks to the speed with which most of the American militiamen fled the field.
Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.