Water Closet for January 6, 2017

[pullquote]”Philbrick takes no sides; as a good historian he just tells us what happened month to month and day to day as the two sides uttered often unwise words on both sides of the Atlantic and then stumbled into war.”[/pullquote] In his new book Bunker Hill, Nathaniel Philbrick has proven once again that “the devils are in the details.” He did so for the Pilgrims a decade ago in his wonderful history and bestseller, Mayflower. Bunker Hill is about the beginning of the revolution by our New England ancestors. An Arlington friend gave this book of 300 well written pages and 100 pages of notes to the old Closeteer after a discussion about Philbrick’s Mayflower.   Bunker Hill, a “masterpiece” according to a Boston Globe review, is about far more than the battle that actually took place on Breeds Hill just down the pike from Middleton by horse or by sloop from Salem. Now commuters from here can get to downtown Boston in half an hour.
Let’s set the scene and compare the Boston and neighboring towns we know with the places there when the nation was so chaotically and bloodily born.
Boston, a small city perched on Beacon Hill, was an island with an umbilical cord to Dorchester called a neck. Its vast harbor sprinkled with islands, many now connected, was a place of salt marshes, flats, sandbars and tidal waters diluted by the Neponset, Mystic and Charles Rivers. Only forty thousand or so people occupied its islands and peninsula hills.   Stretching south, west and north on the mainland were farms, the source of the food and fighters for the patriots. In the two centuries since our beginning as a nation, the marshes and flats once crossed by causeways and necks have been filled and the city we know built upon them. Philbrick’s book with maps, old drawings and clear descriptions bring the old Boston mostly of water with ships and boats alive. He obviously has been to all the sites. Readers are urged to visit today’s tall buildings with early maps and try to flood with their imaginations the places filled. If the ocean rises as melting polar ice foretells, future generations may not have to imagine how it was.

Compare a 21st century map of Boston Harbor with this 18th century map when in 1775 the British army and navy occupied most of the islands, peninsulas and waters in between. The shallows have been filled since the British left after the famous battle above burning Charleston. – from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society,  Marshall’s “Life of Washington” published by P. Philips

In well-researched particulars Bunker Hill tells us of the interactions and communications of two peoples speaking the same language, sharing the same ancestors, and worshiping the same God. Both were Englishmen, one group, the British army and navy, a month or more away by ship from home where aristocratic officers bought their commissions and then proved themselves (or didn’t) in battles; and the other, Americans, also Englishmen, with the same king. The latter, called patriots, rebels, countrymen, and many more names by the Redcoats, had democratic governmental bodies called Town Meetings; their military leaders were determined by merit based on how many neighbors and kin the aspiring officer could convince to follow him. Many senior officers including Israel Putnam, William Prescott, John Stark, and George Washington, to mention a few, were veterans of the French and Indian War. They had fought alongside many of the older British officers. Philbrick also includes the actions and words of fighters and spectators without ranks on both sides.
From our high school history books we learned too much of the boring, relatively petty squabbles about taxes that led to a bloody war neither side, except for a few zealots, wanted. The Americans were relatively free compared with the homeland British who remained directly under the thumbs of an aristocracy. Bostonians Sam Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren and other firebrands convinced their countrymen they needed more freedom for white men but not for their slaves. Black poet Phillis Wheatley at the time wrote of their pronouncements about freedom as “strange absurdity.” Philbrick takes no sides; as a good historian he just tells us what happened month to month and day to day as the two sides uttered often unwise words on both sides of the Atlantic and then stumbled into war. On the gentle hayfields of Breeds Hill in smoke up from burning Charleston the regulars and rebels shot and bayoneted each other face to face. Over one thousand brave, obedient Redcoats died from musket balls shot down at them from crude fortifications manned by patriots in homespun. Only about one hundred and seventeen of the latter died before retreating back to the continental army’s camp and headquarters in Cambridge. The British won the tactical battle, but lost strategically. The same could be said of the skirmishes on the way back from Concord and Lexington a few weeks earlier. Within a few months long suffering General Thomas Gage was recalled. General William Howe, miraculously alive after leading his men up Breeds Hill, took over and in 1776 abandoned Boston with Britain’s fleet and army for Halifax. Washington’s rag tag army moved in without destroying the city. Philbrick withdraws at this point from what was to be an eight year long war from Quebec to the Carolinas. He leaves us with an interesting epilogue featuring John Quincy Adams who watched the battle as a seven year old boy with his famous mother Abigail. It is a fine ending with a lesson about character which we’ll leave to you dear reader.
Despite our knowledge about who ultimately won, Philbrick’s lively stories arising from careful readings of letters, notes and reports are well worth hearing in the participants voices. The shenanigans of the ambitious, some brilliant and very brave patriots and loyalists, remind the Closeteer of the horrors of civil wars such as those now terrorizing civilians in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria, and southern Sudan. The big difference other than religion is that the participants in our revolution fired single shot muskets not machine guns and no bombs and missiles came from flying machines.
An important unstated lesson of Philbrick’s account is to beware of careless communications that might result in civil strife such as famously happened here on the edge of Massachusetts Bay, just a four hour gallop or a half day sail away from Middleton via Salem. Facebook messages and tweets without time for thought between sending and receipt could well be the next sources of rumors resulting in lost lives.        _______________________________________________________________________________


Precipitation Data* for Month of: Sep Oct Nov Dec
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 3.77 4.40 4.55 4.12
   2016 Central Watershed Actual 1.85 6.81 2.68 4.8**as of Dec 30

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Dec 30, 2016  Normal . . . 57 CFS     Current Rate . . .70 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Nov.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Dec.

Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or         <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584