Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution, a compelling, dramatic and extraordinarily well written narrative of Boston 1773-1775. The book caused a major media stir recently with news that Ben Affleck and Warner Bros. purchased the film rights. We asked the New York Times bestselling author a few questions about his trip through the Revolutionary War.
1 // Why Bunker Hill? You are not primarily a Revolutionary War scholar – what prompted you to write Bunker Hill?
I’m interested in American history as a whole, and each book flows organically from what I’ve already written. After finishing Mayflower (2006) I knew I wanted to continue the story, so to speak, with a book about Revolutionary Boston. But I also wanted to explore how the cultural forces that ignited King Philip’s War contributed to America’s push west. Three years later, after completing a book about the Battle of the Little Bighorn (The Last Stand 2010), I began to immerse myself in the historiography and primary sources associated with what became Bunker Hill, which is as much about a city and its inhabitants as it is about a battle. I must say, however, that it was extremely helpful to have had the experience of writing about the Little Bighorn before tackling the equally iconic Battle of Bunker Hill.
2 // What was your research and writing process on this book, and how did it differ – if at all – from your other works like Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea?
This book had a longer gestation period than most, but it came down to the same three-year pattern of research and writing that I’ve adhered to with all my books. I spent more time investigating historic sites than I did with most of my books. Maps proved to be tremendously important to my research process.
3 // Do you have other Revolutionary War period books planned?
I need some more time to think about it, but I find the period absolutely fascinating. Even before I’d finished Bunker Hill I found myself wanting to know more about what the future had in store for Washington and Howe and all the others. It’d be great to have a chance to trace the war south into New York and beyond.
4 // Are there any questions of fact about people/events in Bunker Hill that your research has not been able to resolve to your satisfaction?
Any time you try to recount a past event—particularly one as complicated and chaotic as a battle—there are questions of fact that cannot be completely resolved. For example, we’ll probably never know for sure which officer was responsible for deciding to build the redoubt on Breed’s instead of Bunker Hill. The series of events that led Joseph Warren to send out Dawes and Revere to alarm the countryside is also frustratingly unclear. The list goes on and on.
5 // The book’s trailer mentions that you made several trips to Boston to explore its historic sites. Which sites were your favorites and what did you experience firsthand that helped formulate your narrative?
Ever since I lived in the North End of Boston, I’ve loved the graveyard on Copp’s Hill, which was the site of a battery during the Siege. The Old State House is a magnificent building as are the Old South Meeting House and King’s Chapel. Once again the list goes on and on. I profited immensely from visits to the outlying areas—to Roxbury, Castle Island, and Dorchester Heights. I spent a fabulous day getting a tour of East Boston and Chelsea Creek—where the British schooner Diana was burned by the provincials. I made repeated trips to Lexington, Concord, and the Old North Bridge, but it was during a visit to the Jason Russell House in Arlington (then known as Menotomy), where a dozen militiamen were killed, that I began to appreciate just how brutal the fighting was along the Battle Road.
6 // What can you tell us about the cover artwork and how/why it was chosen?
It’s my understanding that the cover features a photograph taken during a Revolutionary War reenactment. Given the importance of artillery to the Siege of Boston, I think it’s a fitting scene for the cover.
7 // Do you think General Gage could have done anything to avoid hostilities? Or was he in a no-win situation?
If Gage had been left with only the Boston Port Act to enforce in the summer of 1774, I think he might have had a chance of avoiding hostilities. It was having to enforce the Massachusetts Government Act along with all the other Coercive Acts in August that made Gage’s already difficult situation virtually impossible.
8 // If you could visit the Boston area for a few days in the Revolutionary period what day(s) would you choose and why?
I’d like to be in an invisible helicopter on April 19-20, 1775, and watch the unfolding of Lexington and Concord, the regulars’ march back to Charlestown, and the arrival of thousands of militiamen from towns surrounding Boston. For me, what happened during those two days, the foray of the British into the countryside and the way Boston was so quickly surrounded by the patriot forces are fascinating to contemplate. I’d also like to have been in an invisible Goodyear blimp during the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 19 to witness the spectacle of the Charlestown peninsula surrounded by the British navy, of the march of the regulars toward the provincial entrenchments, and of the thousands of spectators watching from the roofs of Boston and the surrounding hills.
9 // If you could speak to a real character (Sam Adams, Revere, Gage, Warren, Sally Edwards, etc.) who appears in Bunker Hill, who would it be and what information would you want to get from that person(s)?
I’d like to get Sam Adams and Joseph Warren in the same room, perhaps with a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and find out what really happened during the uptick of tensions that resulted in the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. How much of it was scripted; how much of it just happened?
I am in the middle of the book right now and I am so proud to know that at least two of my ancestors were involved. One, named Samuel Adams, was a member of the Dedham Militia and entered the battle at Menotomy along with two Felt men from Dedham and Lynn who were his future brothers-in-law. He saw virtually the entire war (3rd Mass until summer of 1777 (part of the Lake Champlain campaign), then the 2nd New Hampshire under Col. Scammel 1781-1783), marching to Yorktown. In between he married Sarah Felt and began his farm in what is now Nelson, NH. Your book has very much brought his life alive.