Friday, April 29, 2011

"Proof of Yankey bravery"

We Americans like our myths as well as anybody - especially as they relate to the American Revolution. We like to think of the resourceful colonists as simple but determined farmers triumphing in the face of a highly trained professional foe who misunderstood the "American" way of fighting. We imagine the evil British soldiers attempting a foolish "European" style of warfare while arrogantly underestimating the scrappy and plucky rebels. While there's an element of truth to that view, there's also an element of myth as well.

The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George WashingtonThe Battle of Bunker Hill was the first pitched battle between the rebellious colonists and the British Redcoats (and happened on Breed's Hill, not Bunker Hill). It was actually a victory for the British - a very costly victory, but a victory nonetheless - and interestingly, spectators far outnumbered participants. In The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington by Paul Lockhart, the conflict is put into context by explaining that the British generals weren't so ignorant of frontier fighting as we think, since most of them had participated in earlier frontier wars. They also weren't so condescending towards Americans either; most were very comfortable with American ways and had great admiration for the colonists and their leaders (some of them had even been born in America or were married to Americans). Those who so fatally underestimated the Americans were the King and his Lords back in England, ignoring the information General Thomas Gage had been sending from Boston.

General Gage knew his troops were seriously undermanned to put down the growing rebellion - it was obvious in confrontations with the "minutemen" at Lexington and Concord. And during the battle it quickly became frighteningly apparent how green and inexperienced the Redcoat soldiers were, having never fought in battle before and reacting with fear instead of following their training. But the Americans were just as undisciplined and clumsy and made many mistakes - the greatest of which was setting up their fortification on the wrong hill, Breed's instead of Bunker Hill as had been ordered. But because of the bravery and wisdom of some of their leaders, like Artemius Ward, Joseph Warren, William Prescott, and many others who've since been forgotten to history and overshadowed by events that followed, the colonists made the British pay dearly for a lump of land they soon abandoned.

This is a good narrative that explains the real story of how the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought - the mistakes and the triumphs, the bravery and the cowardice - and it makes the accomplishments of the rebels all the more amazing. Lockhart also describes the arrival of George Washington, who was appointed commander of the Colonial Army after the battle, and the difficulties he faced in turning a mob of soldiers into a (somewhat) more disciplined fighting unit. But the greatest value here, other than telling a really good story, is in the clarification and analysis of the situation, giving a realistic perspective on the events and repercussions of that day. It sometimes sounds a little academic and textbookish, but still dishes out plenty of excitement and action without diminishing the bravery of the "Yankey" Patriots. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

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