The point of no return

Breed’s Hill wasn’t a key strategic battle but new history says it marked watershed as ‘triumphant defeat’ made turning back inconceivable

(Edel Rodriguez for The Boston Globe)
By David Shribman
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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When did the American Revolution begin? When the first British settler stepped off the boat and strode onto an American shore? At the Boston Massacre? The battles at Lexington and Concord? Here’s one vote for a dark horse: the battle at Bunker Hill, which every American schoolchild knows wasn’t really fought at Bunker Hill at all.

That vote comes from Paul Lockhart, whose “The Whites of their Eyes’’ is a persuasive argument that the fighting at Breed’s Hill — the true location of the conflict — is the real watershed of the period, the place where, he argues, “the sons of Massachusetts and New Hampshire and Connecticut fought and died for the cause of American liberty.’’

Maybe so. Bunker Hill was one of those historical markers that were important but not decisive. It wasn’t even an American victory. But it was a turning point, mostly because, unlike Lexington and Concord, there was no turning back from Bunker Hill. And while it is a stretch to argue that, as Lockhart puts it, “Bunker Hill strikes at the very heart of what it means to be an American,’’ there is no denying that from June 17, 1775 forward, the American Colonies started to become an American country. Those at Bunker Hill did more than stand their ground. They claimed it as their own.

As much as anything else, this is a story about Boston — a Boston far different from the one that would emerge in the time of the Transcendentalists, abolitionists, Irish and Eastern European immigrants, the George Apley ascendancy or the eds-and-meds modern city. It was tidy and intimate, staid but bustling. But there breathed in Boston a rebellious spirit, and a militaristic one, too.

And while American unity, at least at the start, was a myth, so too was the notion, still taught in our schools, that the British Army was an inflexible force unsuited to wilderness warfare. Demolishing that myth is one of Lockhart’s signal achievements. He points out that the British Army fought and succeeded in woods warfare in Scotland as well as in America during the French and Indian War.

Indeed, if the British had a disadvantage at this stage of the war it was that it was, as Lockhart puts it, “too small to defend Boston and attack the rebel camps simultaneously, too raw to be trusted in an open battle against superior numbers.’’

At the center of this volume is Lockhart’s conviction that the making of an independent American army was perhaps the most important aspect of the period — more so than any battle and rivaled perhaps only by the American survival of the ordeal at Valley Forge. Otherwise, he argues, “George Washington would have found no army to command, and the Cause would have died at Boston.’’

For that reason, one of the heroes of this story is Artemas Ward — “serious, imperturbable, patient, and conservative’’ — who understood how to build an army and who, more importantly, understood the peculiarities of this army, an army of free men determined, when they weren’t wandering back home, to win freedom, but also an army with no shortage of shortages, including shelter, clothing, munitions, gunpowder — and unity.

The site of the battle was Charlestown peninsula, possessed of three hills. At first, the rebels fortified Bunker Hill. But Breed’s Hill had strategic value Bunker Hill lacked: Its location endangered British ships. The British made adjustments, too. They originally planned an attack on Dorchester.

And so the battle occurred on Breed’s Hill. British sloops covered an amphibious landing, but the barrage was of little utility. The “long red lines’’ moved forward. But the light infantry and grenadiers couldn’t break the American lines.

There was, however, confusion in the American lines and a new British assault breached the breastworks, forcing the Americans to retreat in what Lockhart describes as a “jarring contrast of discipline and panic.’’

This was a costly victory for the British — a casualty rate of about 40 percent. The result was, for the Americans, what Lockhart calls a “triumphant defeat.’’ For the British, there grew a sense of paralysis, due in large part to the realization that the American fighting force was formidable and, as they would discover, resilient.

Lockhart is right about this: Bunker Hill was a dividing line. Before the battle, reconciliation was possible. Afterward it was inconceivable — and independence was all but inevitable. But there was danger in the American delirium. It lulled the rebels into believing that a patriot militia could defeat Britain and that a standing army, the tool of tyrants, wasn’t necessary.

George Washington knew otherwise, and the secondary dividing line created by Bunker Hill was the eventual emergence of a real army. “The army that fought at Bunker Hill kept the Cause alive until Americans could decide just what the Cause was,’’ Lockhart writes, “and precisely what it was they were fighting for.’’ Few military victories accomplish half that much.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at

THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES: Bunker Hill, the First American Army and the Emergence of George Washington
By Paul Lockhart
Harper, 432 pp., $27.99