With Fire and Sword

The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution

By James L. Nelson

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press.

384 pp. $27.99

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Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis

The whole operation was chaotic and amateurish.

Henry Dearborn, a 24-year-old captain in the New Hampshire militia who took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, said the nascent American army's effort smacked of an "imperfect state of discipline," a "want of knowledge in military science," and a "deficiency of materials of war."

John Pitts, a member of the Provincial Congress, echoed Dearborn. "To be plain it appears to me there never was more confusion and less command," he complained.

Despite these grievous problems, the determined American force, made up of the several colonial militias, fought a savage major battle - their first - that left more than 1,000 troops of the vaunted British army killed or wounded. The Americans sustained 400 casualties. Although the British managed to reclaim Charlestown Heights, thereby regaining complete control over besieged Boston, the world, especially the British Parliament, now knew that the American patriots not only would but could fight.

James L. Nelson, author of 15 works of historical fiction and nonfiction, including Thieves of Mercy and Benedict Arnold's Navy, and winner of the prestigious American Library Association/William Young Boyd Award, has written a dramatic and assiduously researched history, With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution.

Nelson does not confine his work to the Battle of Bunker Hill but gives us a penetrating description of the political, social, and military milieu of the immediate pre-Revolution era, from 1760 to 1775. In a manner much more sharply revealing than most other historians, he portrays a more independent-minded colonial America being overtaxed, in the colonials' eyes, by an increasingly controlling Great Britain.

The Stamp Act (1765), the Tea Act (1773), and the Intolerable Acts (1774), which gave the Crown greater power over local governments, all pressured the more politically active colonists toward radicalism, Nelson writes.

And with the mounting tensions from the British occupation of Boston beginning in 1768, and the infamous Boston Massacre of 1770, figures such as Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, Israel Putnam, and the firebrand Joseph Warren leaped to the radical forefront. Nelson renders excellent character portraits of these men but maintains that "there was no one more responsible for guiding the colonies . . . from organized resistance to outright war for independence than Dr. Joseph Warren."

Handsome and respected, considered the finest physician in Boston, and adept at military command, he was 33 years old when he stood with the minutemen at Lexington on April 19, 1775. Politically active before Lexington, he soon became a thoroughly radicalized incendiary with a specific, all-consuming mission: to raise a proficient, organized American army.

Like a martial Thomas Paine, Warren wrote circulars to that purpose: "The barbarous murders committed on our innocent brethren [at Lexington] have made it absolutely necessary that we immediately raise an army to defend our wives and our children from the butchering hands of an inhuman soldiery. . . . An hour lost may deluge your country in blood . . . ."

On June 13, 1775, when news arrived that the British were about to fortify the heights overlooking Charlestown (near Boston), rebel leaders ordered a redoubt, a dirt fort, hastily constructed overnight (June 16-17) on Bunker Hill, virtually the same site that the British intended to occupy. On the morning of June 17, 1775, British ships sighted the redoubt and, by afternoon, attacked.

The naval bombardment was deafening. British ships "were shooting a relentless barrage. . . . Round shot, bar shot, and chain shot screamed low over the road," Nelson writes. The navy even burned the town of Charlestown with special shells called "carcasses," inflammable iron balls designed to set targets aflame.

As swarms of Redcoats charged the heights with their long bayonets, American muskets "roared out as one. A great wall of lead blasted across a short distance, slammed into British troops. . . . The front ranks were mowed down as if the hand of God had swept them away," the author writes.

Nelson further details how the redoubt, now almost surrounded, became the scene of a melee of crazed, bloodied men: bayonet-thrusting British troops and musket-swinging Americans. Warren, the pamphleteering soldier-incendiary, was killed, but his hope for an organized, smartly commanded army came closer to a reality within a year at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776.

James L. Nelson's With Fire and Sword is packed with incisive information on how the new American government and army were formed. And its sharply rendered battle scenes, sometimes taken straight from participants' diaries, project a vicious, gritty reality more reminiscent of World War II and Vietnam reportage than of a war which has so often been romanticized. Readers will surely find Nelson's objective history exciting and bracing.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.