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As Long as We Remember...

June 15, 2011

Bunker Hill: History and Myth

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last week I picked-up a copy of “The Whites of Their Eyes,” by Dr. Paul Lockhart, a highly readable and entertaining socio-political – and military – study of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first American army, and the emergence of George Washington.


Although I am behind in my summer reading, my first selection was well worth the wait.


To add to my anticipation of diving into new insights, research and scholarship on the first major political–military engagement of the American Revolution, last week I was fortunate to be able to attend a presentation on the topic by the author.


Dr. Lockhart, a noted historian, discussed his just-released book in Williamsburg, VA, in which the author debunks much of the folklore and legendary mythology over this episode of the American experience.


His evening presentation came on the heels of a long week of record hot temperatures in the muggy tidewater environs of colonial Williamsburg, setting the stage perfectly as he took his audience back to one hot afternoon on June 17, 1775, on a hill in Charlestown, near Boston.


He then explained that what is arguably “the first honest-to-goodness battle of the revolution” did not take place on Bunker’s Hill, but on a nearby redoubt called Breed’s Hill.


The battle, in the chaotic aftermath of the unplanned skirmishes of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, took place in the larger context of the siege of Boston and has since reserved its place in American history as the “truly iconic battle of the American Revolution,” Dr. Lockhart noted.


In his book, he observes that the Battle of Bunker Hill two months later “simply would not be forgotten. And that is very curious. Bunker Hill … doesn’t enjoy any special tactical or strategic significance.”


The battle on the Charlestown peninsula, “was not decisive, nor was it an American victory. We often forget that Bunker Hill was, in fact, a British victory and a significant one at that.”


“It was small even when compared to other battles of the Revolutionary War and laughably puny when compared to lesser-known battles in Europe… There is no earthly reason, no logical reason at least, that Bunker Hill should be so famous, and yet it is…”


It was at that juncture that Dr. Lockhart’s talking points reminded me of the conversation on the topic of American Exceptionalism which Steve Berryman, Pattee Brown, and I had with WFMD listeners just the other weekend.


“But there is more behind the battle,” writes Dr. Lockhart. “(M)ore than the details of its place in the story of America’s miraculous and violent birth. Bunker Hill captures the essence of American mythology – the stories we tell ourselves about how America came to be, what it means to be American, why it is that America is so very distinctive, so different from the European roots from which it sprang.”


Dr. Lockhart’s approach to the non-military social, political, and economic underpinnings, subtle nuances, and context of the Battle of Bunker Hill took me back to a similar, yet global authoritative treatise on such matters, written by Victor David Hanson, “Carnage and Culture.”


Dr. Hanson inspects, in his 2001 book, nine “landmark battles in the rise of western power” which represent essential military campaigns in world history that examined why history is not always understood or predictable in the purely algorithmic military analyses of numbers or battles won or lost.


And why ‘civic militarism’ with civilian overview, democratic ideals, political freedom, open debate, rugged individualism, and individualistic endeavor expended for a higher community good will always eventually prevail even over overwhelming military odds.


The book and Dr. Lockhart’s lecture brought to mind a refrain that history is the inaccurate repetition of events that ought not to have happened in the first place.


Dr. Lockhart observes: “Just as the story of Bunker Hill has shaped our national mythology, that mythology in turn has shaped our image of what happened at Bunker Hill. The battle is, and always has been, so central to the grand narrative of our revolutionary beginnings that what the battle stood for has eclipsed the demonstrable facts. We Americans, after all, like our history big and our heroes bigger…


“The danger of this approach is that it confuses history with heritage, it conflates fantasy with patriotic sentiment. The truly wonderful stories from America’s past can drown thereby in a sea of false absolutes and hyperbole…”


Dr. Lockhart also carefully crafts a more complete picture of historic characters like Dr. Joseph Warren, John Thomas, Israel Putnam, and Artemas Ward, who have either been hyped beyond fact or obscured beyond recognition over time.


However, he succeeds whether you wish to enjoy a reassessment of the beginnings of the American Revolution with fresh research put forth in a highly readable narrative, or perhaps you would like to reacquaint yourself with the early significant personalities, heroes, and anti-heroes of the war of independence – “about ordinary people who, when put to the test, did extraordinary things.”


You will especially appreciate Dr. Lockhart’s work if you would like to add fuel to the fire in a discussion of the merits set forth in Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” discussion of history and contemporary foreign relationship dynamics.


Or the pros and cons of Dr. Hanson’s “Carnage and Culture,” explanation of world events; Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” or Francis Fukuyama's “The End of History and the Last Man.”


Or maybe you would just like to read a good drama about the Battle of Bunker Hill and the fascinating personalities of the nascent months of the American army in 1775 – “The Whites of Their Eyes” is a great edition for any historian's library.


. . . . I’m just saying…


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