Assessing the Battle of Bunker Hill

Sometimes, a victory is more of a defeat and a loss is more of a victory. That’s the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution.

To be as historically accurate as possible, most of the fighting actually took place on Breed’s Hill, but that’s not what’s important here. The chief significance of this battle is that an untrained, makeshift militia took on the disciplined British army and came away with greater confidence.

After the skirmish at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Massachusetts militia surrounded Boston, intent on never allowing the British troops out again to ravage the countryside. British General Howe was just as determined to break the siege. Thus, on 17 June, Howe finally made repeated attempts to dislodge the colonial militia from the aforementioned hills.

Every time the British troops charged up the hill, they were met with a strong volley from those militia; they would retreat and charge again.

One of the weaknesses on the colonial side was a shortage of ammunition. The story handed down (hard to document) is that militia colonel William Prescott gave the following command in order to conserve ammunition: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” That command has become legendary, so much so that Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson gave us this classic, one that I like to use in my course on the American Revolution:

I love historical humor.

Due to the lack of ammunition, the British eventually took both hills, but the battle was a significant morale-booster for the inexperienced Americans. They continued to maintain the siege of Boston despite the loss.

Overall, in this battle, the British suffered 200 deaths and another 800 soldiers wounded; the colonists lost only 100, with 300 wounded. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, a type named after a Greek general who experienced “disastrous successes.” Gen. Howe lamented that his victory had been “too dearly bought.” Conversely, Nathaniel Greene, who would become one of the American heroes of the war, wished that his side could “sell them another hill at the same price.”

Today, there is a monument on Breed’s Hill that commemorates the battle. I’ve climbed to the top. In front of it is a statue of Joseph Warren, an ardent patriot leader who died in that battle.

It was shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill that George Washington arrived to take over command of what he hoped would develop into the Continental Army. But that’s a post for another day.

Preserving Freedom: Lexington & Concord

Among the innumerable examples of bravery in American history, the events surrounding the first battle of the American Revolution are prominent. Massachusetts was under martial law; Boston was ruled by a British general. A shadow government of sorts had been set up by those who were opposed to how the Mother Country was tightening her screws of control.

The two leaders of the resistance, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, were in the small village of Lexington, planning their passage to Philadelphia to be part of the Continental Congress. On the night of 19 April 1775, British regulars were dispatched from Boston with two purposes: capture Adams and Hancock for trial (and execution) in Britain; remove all the colony’s store of guns and ammunition in Concord.

Neither objective was achieved.

paul-reveres-rideRiders went out from Boston to alert the countryside. The best-known one, of course, was Paul Revere. No, he didn’t shout “The British are coming!” That would have been a redundancy—they were all still British. His message was that the “regulars” were coming out, which was a fearful matter. These were highly disciplined troops.

What did the colonists have to stand against them? Only farmers and shopkeepers, the local militia that had recently taken the name of Minutemen, since they had to be ready at a minute’s notice should an attack come.

Stand Your GroundAdams and Hancock escaped from Lexington just in time. The 700 regulars arrived to face a small contingent of Minutemen on Lexington green. There was never an intent on either side to have a pitched battle. Seventy townsmen facing 700 regulars would have been folly. They were simply making a statement. When ordered to leave the field, they were in the process of doing so.

Then a shot rang out. Accounts differ as to the source of that shot. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a poem, later referred to it as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Eight Lexington men were killed. And the troops marched on to Concord.

minuteman-statueConcord was ready. All the stores of munitions were removed to safety before the troops arrived. Nervous Concord Minutemen stood by a bridge outside of town. When they saw smoke coming up from the town, they feared the troops were setting fire to their homes. That brought on a battle on the bridge.

Seeing that their goals were not achieved, the regular troops were ordered back to Boston, but now the entire countryside was up in arms—literally. That march back to Boston turned into a rout, as colonists, fighting in Indian manner, would shoot at them from behind hedges, trees, and fences, then run ahead to do the same again when the troops reached them in their new location.

Once the troops were back in Boston, 15,000 Massachusetts militia formed a ring around the city, to ensure they would not be attacked again.

Lexington and Concord signaled the opening of the war for independence.

john-adamsJohn Adams, writing to wife Abigail about what had occurred, penned some memorable words:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

What of Adams’s words today? Have we done a good job of preserving what he and others of that Founding generation did to deliver freedom to us? Time will tell.

Three Revolutions

Three revolutions: American, French, Russian.  A world of difference when you compare them.

The American Revolution, in my view, was not a revolution in the popular understanding of that term, whereas the other two were. In fact, my students know that I famously (infamously?) rename the American Revolution as The American War for Continued Self-Government.

Not very catchy, I know, but more accurate. I point to the fact that this perceived revolution was for the maintenance of the rights and liberties that were already granted. When the British government refused to acknowledge those rights and liberties, the colonists, in self-defense, were forced to take up arms.

The result was a government that certainly had some new and improved features, but it was hardly anything that overturned the basics of representative government that Britain supposedly upheld.

I like a couple of the memes making the rounds after the Brexit vote, as Britain decided to leave the European Union:
Learned Your Lesson

Before It Was Cool

The French Revolution may have been inspired, to some degree, by what happened in America, but the nature of it was altogether different. Whereas Americans fought for self-government, the protection of property, and liberty of conscience with a reliance upon Christian faith, the French divorced themselves from that faith and a bloodbath ensued. What did they achieve? They replaced an insensitive king with Napoleon Bonaparte, an unaccountable dictator.

The Russian Revolution also is known as the Bolshevik Revolution, led by the bloodthirsty tyrant Vladimir Lenin. He, and his successor, Josef Stalin, set up a socialist/communist state that attempted to destroy all religion and constitutional limitations, and became one of the most genocidal nations in the history of man. Stalin alone murdered 30 million of his own citizens.

So, no, I don’t link these three revolutions.

That’s why I love to teach American history and point to what the Founders sought to accomplish. The Fourth of July—the day the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved—should be a time for celebration.

I have to admit, though, that these last two Independence Days have been muted celebrations for me. The Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage occurred just prior to Independence Day 2015 and we have devolved since then.

Religious liberty is under greater attack than ever in our nation’s history. The Democrat party has given itself over completely to an anti-Christian philosophy. The Republican party, which is supposed to be the counterweight politically to the radicalism of the Democrats, has tied its future to a man totally unworthy of the presidential office.

Safe and Sane

Yes, my outlook is somewhat subdued today. The bright side of all this is a reminder that this world is not our final home and that no nation or government is our salvation. Our final home is in the presence of God and He is our hope and our salvation. Let’s keep our priorities straight and He still may have mercy on us.

America, bless God, and then He may have a reason to bless us.

A Historian’s Perspective on Bad Times in American History

I don’t think there’s really any disagreement about how pessimistic the majority of Americans are about the future. Currently, all the polls reveal that pessimism.  As I survey the scene—the spiritual/moral, political, and cultural aspects [what does that leave?]—I have grave concerns as well. I’d like to offer a historian’s perspective.

Since I teach American history, I have a more in-depth knowledge of what has transpired previously. I can imagine myself transported back into earlier eras and think about how I might have felt about current events at those times. Bad moral climates, disunity, and devastating government policies have cropped up throughout our history.

If my life had spanned the late colonial and revolutionary era, for instance, I would probably have been quite distressed over the state of affairs. The colonies had declared independence, and it was a thrilling prospect, but the progress of the war was anything but thrilling.

George Washington was often near despair over the inability of the Congress to pay his troops or provide for their needs. Thousands deserted during events such as Valley Forge. There was talk of meekly bowing to the British because all hopes for the future now appeared to be delusional. Even after achieving independence, the new states didn’t seem to want to work together; the entire national governmental structure was on the verge of collapse.

If I had experienced the 1790s, I would have been shocked by the vitriol that spewed forth daily in some of the newspapers, particularly those that accused Washington of wanting to set himself up as king. The French Revolution, which took place at that time, was one of the bloodiest episodes in all of history, and many in America were hailing it as a magnificent development. I would begin to question the wisdom of the electorate and wonder if this fledgling country could survive its first decade after the Constitution.

Later, during the War of 1812, our military defenses were so disorganized that the British actually burned Washington, DC, including the president’s house and the Capitol. Their troops were ravaging the countryside, destroying everything in their path without any effective countermeasures. What a low point for a nation.

Then there’s the Civil War and the decade that led to it. Passions were so heated in Congress that representatives started bringing their weapons with them into the House and Senate for protection. Slavery, by this time, had become entrenched. The Founding Fathers had hoped to eliminate it, but now the South was proclaiming it to be a positive good from God.

The nation split; more than 620,000 died in the war that followed, the highest tally for any American war. Bitterness remained for years afterward [you can still see its remnants today].

The Progressive Movement, after the turn of the twentieth century, introduced more government involvement in people’s lives and decided that the Constitution was an outdated document that had to be reinterpreted. Woodrow Wilson, a racist and a eugenicist, took the presidency. The eugenics movement sought to limit who could have children; only the “best” should reproduce. This movement formed the cornerstone of Nazi policies in Germany later.

Wilson moved the country down the path that led to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s—the fulfillment of progressive dreams as the government took charge of getting the nation out of the Great Depression. FDR’s policies were so dismally foolish that the Depression continued until WWII. If I had lived during those decades, I would have mourned the loss of Biblical principles and constitutional limitations. The reigning ideology tossed out the concept of the rule of law. Now, anything could happen.

I did live during the 1960s and 1970s. It was not pleasant. First was LBJ’s Great Society, which could be described as the New Deal on steroids, followed by the rancor of the Vietnam War, then Nixon’s Watergate fiasco, and finally, the debilitated presidencies of Ford and Carter. The economy was in the tank, the worst since the Great Depression. Along the way, we also concluded that innocent children in the womb could be murdered.

I say all of this to make this point: there have always been bad times. Quite often, those who believe in Biblical morality and constitutionalism have come to the edge of despair. Yet we are still here. There is still hope to turn things around. We survived the disunity of the Revolution and the Civil War. We overcame the disgrace of the burning of the nation’s capital. Calvin Coolidge reversed Woodrow Wilson’s policies and Jimmy Carter brought forth Ronald Reagan.

Will the disaster that is the Obama administration become a footnote in our history that will bring forth another resurgence of sanity, or have we turned a corner and lost our way forever? That page in our history has yet to be written. We are the ones who will write it. If we take our responsibility seriously, hope remains.

Was the American Revolution Revolutionary?

In my ongoing analysis of American history (which has been interrupted by all the crucial current events that needed commentary), I am up to the point of the American Revolution. I have to use that term so people will know what I’m talking about, but I let my students know I don’t fully agree that it was all that revolutionary. What do I mean?

Declaration of Independence Read in BostonRevolutions, by nature, try to upend the existing establishment. However, in the case of the American Revolution, what we see is colonists who desperately want to maintain the status quo, but who are constantly barraged with bad policies that tend to undermine the stability they had achieved.

After the French and Indian War, and the threat of France removed from the New World, the American colonists were quite happy to be part of the greatest empire on earth. They were pleased with their ability to make their own laws and conduct most of their affairs independently of the Mother Country.

That would soon change, and the altered relationship between Mother Country and colonies began with a changed attitude on the part of Britain’s government.

Colonists saw that some basic principles were being threatened. They were:

  • Self-government: They had their own colonial legislatures that had, in some instances, been passing laws for more than a century. As the Constitutional Debate period (1761-1776) progressed, more and more intrusions were made upon this privilege/right. Eventually, Massachusetts saw its government shut down and a military government established. Virginia’s colonial governor dismissed the legislature and refused to allow it to meet again.
  • Property: Most people recall the “no taxation without representation” cry of this era. For the first time, direct taxes were being levied on the colonies by Parliament. The colonies had absolutely no representation in that Parliament. This meant that, conceivably, Parliament had absolute control of their financial lives, and when a government has that kind of control over the economic realm, it actually controls all of one’s life.
  • Liberty of Conscience: This one is rarely mentioned, but John Adams considered it the key. The Anglican establishment actively considered sending over a bishop to make the colonies conform to the Anglican church. That was anathema to all those who had migrated to the colonies for religious liberty. A contemporary political cartoon shows what it would have been like if the landing of a bishop had been attempted:

Anglican Bishop

The rationale for the changed policies was that the colonies had to pay their fair share for the recently concluded war. It wasn’t that they disagreed with that premise, but they certainly disagreed with the manner in which it was carried out.

If we’re looking for the true revolutionaries, we need to look 3,000 miles to the east, across the Atlantic, back in Britain. All the colonists sought was continuation of what they already had.

Therefore, I don’t prefer to call this the American Revolution. I think a better name would be The American War for Continued Self-Government.

Not as catchy, I know, but it is more accurate.

First Great Awakening: Results

Great AwakeningIn my ongoing American history series, I’ve completed three posts on the First Great Awakening. They have highlighted the people whom God used to bring an awakening to colonial America. William and Gilbert Tennant established the Log College to train ministers; Jonathan Edwards was the theologian of God’s love best known for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; George Whitefield, an itinerant evangelist from Britain, pulled it all together with a series of trips to America, and was as popular in his day as another George—Washington—was later.

Some, though, have pointed to what they call the bad effects of the Awakening. They single out some individuals who went too far in their enthusiasm and acted strangely. They also decry the split that occurred in some denominations over the Awakening.

To those criticisms I reply: first, there will always be some who go too far, and no movement should be judged solely by their actions; second, Jesus said He came to split families along lines of those who believed Him and those who rejected Him. The split that occurred in some of those churches was sometimes merely a difference of opinion in tactics for preaching the Gospel. Others who objected were beginning to edge toward Unitarianism, which is a denial of Jesus as divine. Therefore, I don’t put much stock in the negative results of churches splitting over the Awakening.

What did it accomplish? I see three definite, positive developments.

  • First, it re-emphasized the personal nature of salvation. Each person is responsible for his/her response to God’s offer of mercy. No one gets into His kingdom by going through all the external motions: baptism, communion, church attendance. Neither is salvation a “group” thing; each one of us must give an account of our lives individually.
  • Second, it started a round of college planting for the purpose of raising up even more ministers (and those who chose other professions) grounded in a Biblical way of thinking. Colleges started during that time included what we now call Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown. Note that they all began as Christian colleges. How the great have fallen.
  • Third, this Awakening created a common experience for all colonial Americans from Georgia to Massachusetts. Prior to this event, each colony saw itself as a separate entity with more connection to London than to each other. The spiritual experience of the Awakening also awakened them to their common interests, thereby helping to create greater unity of thought and purpose—something they would need as the crisis of the American Revolution approached.

In my view, this First Great Awakening was a genuine move of God to shake the people from their spiritual lethargy and stupor. It accomplished its purpose.

American Wars: A Retrospective

I could have just relaxed today, put up a photo of Memorial Day, and said nothing more. But I thought instead this might be a good opportunity to provide some ponderings on the various wars in which America got involved. Perhaps this is the best way to remember those who sacrificed the most for us all. From the American Revolution to the various manifestations of the War on Terror, here is an abbreviated attempt to offer some thoughts on the goals, meanings, and accomplishments of each major conflict.

  • The American Revolution. My preferred name for this war is the American War for Continued Self-Government. Why? It’s a more accurate descriptor of what took place. This was no revolution in the ordinary usage of that word. The have-nots did not rise up against the haves. Class conflict played a small role. Rather, the colonists were backed into a corner, witnessing their age-old British rights being violated. They wanted to reestablish those rights, but met with stubborn resistance from the Crown and Parliament. Declared by their king to be in rebellion and fired upon by the King’s troops attempting to remove the colonists’ store of weapons for self-defense, they felt they had no choice but to fight back. The result? They founded a nation based on a combination of Biblical principles and British constitutionalism. That successful “revolution” would serve as an inspiration to many, although most who sought to follow in its wake lacked the Biblical basis for similar success.
  • The War of 1812. Another woefully misnamed war, which lasted until 1815. Americans were still being treated as a second-class nation by the British, who hadn’t left their posts in the Northwest as they had promised and who were continuing their policy of stopping American ships and “impressing” sailors into service into the British navy. This war featured a rather disorganized strategy, with too much reliance on militia than the regular army. It showcased some stunning victories at sea against the world’s greatest seapower, a humiliating loss of the nation’s capital, a resounding defense of Baltimore that gave birth to our national anthem, and a final battle at New Orleans that sealed the legitimacy of the Louisiana Purchase in the eyes of the European world. Although there was no declared winner, Americans, by virtue of that final battle, felt very much like they had won indeed.
  • The Mexican War. Next to Vietnam, this is the most controversial war in our history. Mexico was not a good neighbor and manifested constant political instability, but it cannot be denied that President Polk had his eyes on more territory from the very beginning of his term. Technically, it began as a border dispute, yet it was the idea of Manifest Destiny that inspired it. The Whig Party deplored it; Congressman Abraham Lincoln disputed Polk’s rationale for the war; the nation was split on its honorable nature. When the fighting ended, America received a vast new territory. Unfortunately, that acquisition led to an attempt to spread slavery in that new territory, to fiery rhetoric on the issue, and eventually to our next war.
  • The Civil War. Some prefer another name for this one, whether the War of Southern Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, or simply the War Between the States. Even the various preferred names reveal the divide that still haunts us today. While some insist slavery was not the cause, I believe there would have been no war without the existence of slavery. The Civil War was the most devastating of all our wars—700,000 [new estimate] died in the conflict. Over time, I have come to consider Lincoln as one of the greatest of presidents. His perspective on the war, as he tried to see it from God’s point of view, is probably accurate: the Lord allowed it due to the sins of both sides. Although devastating, it did bring an end to slavery and the country eventually united in action. And even though scars remain, we eventually became one people again.
  • Spanish-American War. This war began on a false premise—the Spanish blew up our ship in Havana harbor. However, it was the best-informed opinion at the time, and I don’t hold it against McKinley for concluding something had to be done. The Cubans had been calling for us to help them for decades. Next to WWII, this is probably the most altruistic war in American history. The citizenry rallied to free Cuba from Spanish control. It lasted only ten weeks and the goal was achieved. Unforeseen results were the acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines as the Spanish retreated from being an empire. This led to a guerrilla war in the Philippines for a few years, but eventually peace reigned there, the Filipinos received self-government under U.S. supervision, then finally their independence. The American “empire,” if that’s even the proper term, was one of the best in human history.
  • World War I. We were very reluctant to get involved in a European war. But when the Germans unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking more American ships, and when they tried to get Mexico to attack us in a strategy to keep us distracted, we finally declared war. American participation lasted only one and a half years, but the flood of American soldiers to the front turned the tide. The promises made by President Wilson were unfounded—The War to End All Wars—and disillusion with the results led to a strong sense that we should never do this again. Progressives used the war to put the federal government in control of most American businesses. Once the war ended, we reversed that policy, once again pledging we would never do it again.
  • World War II. No major controversy here—nearly all Americans agreed we had to respond to the attack at Pearl Harbor. Then when Hitler declared war on us, we had a two-front war without seeking it. The goal was to dismantle the regimes that sought world domination. That goal was achieved. The price was high, with over 400,000 dead. America also emerged from this war as the leader of the Free World, with new and heavy responsibilities. Those responsibilities became more onerous as the Soviet Union set up a rival empire with the stated goal of ushering in the age of universal communism. Our defense of freedom became known as the Cold War.
  • The Korean War. This conflict was the first to arise out of the new Cold War. While technically a United Nations action, the U.S. was clearly in command of the strategy, and we provided most of the troops. The Communist North invaded the South; we defended the South and pushed those troops back into the North. It ended with a truce, a stalemate actually, and we still have troops stationed at the border between the two nations. North Korea has become a major threat to stability and has been characterized as one of the Axis of Evil. We were right to defend the South; the decision to return to the status quo rather than win the war remains a source of controversy to this day.
  • The Vietnam War. Easily the most divisive war of the twentieth century, we had a reasonable rationale for getting involved: stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Fine goal, but questionable strategy. There are many ways to critique how this war was prosecuted, but suffice to say it led to the demise of the LBJ presidency. When Nixon took over, he eventually ended the active hostilities with a peace agreement, but the decision by Congress to cut off aid to South Vietnam and the problems of Watergate allowed the North to resume the war, this time with success as it overran the South. I consider this the saddest of all American wars. Our loss of life, over 55,000, ended with communism taking over the entire country. Our soldiers were not treated as heroes, as in other wars, and it took far too long for their sacrifices to be honored.
  • The Persian Gulf War. I have no problem with this war’s aims: get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and corral him so he wouldn’t be a threat to the entire region. The first President Bush cobbled together a coalition of nations that did just that. Yet we didn’t follow through and took on the immense task of overseeing Saddam’s compliance with U.N. resolutions. Iraq became a festering sore that had to be dealt with eventually.
  • The War on Terror. Iraq and Afghanistan are the centers of this conflict, but in reality it knows no boundaries. Neither can we know at the present time how winnable this war may be; controversy centers on whether we should be out there prosecuting it or hunkering down behind fortress America. Strategies and tactics are an ongoing debate, but one thing is certain: soldiers are still laying down their lives and should be honored for their commitment. This is a war that must be won; let there be no doubt on that score.

On this day, I honor those who have given their all. As a Christian, I don’t seek war with anyone, but there is nothing Biblical about allowing tyrants, terrorists, and ego-inflated dictators to run roughshod over those who want to live in peace. We have an obligation to defend ourselves and work for the greater good. There will be wars and rumors of wars until the end of this age. While they are being fought, let’s remember those on the front lines.