A school library book on the Civil War whetted his appetite at age 6. A painting he saw at age 7 in a Boston museum depicting a Revolutionary War battle clinched it. Paul Lockhart was hooked on American history.
Today, the Wright State University professor has just finished writing his sixth history book—an account of the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill called The Whites of Their Eyes (HarperCollins Publishers).
“I wanted to do a battle book for a long time, and Bunker Hill sucked me in when I was a kid,” said Lockhart, adding that Bunker Hill is often mentioned in the same breath with the historic Civil War battle at Gettysburg and the D-Day invasion of World War II. “Bunker Hill is mythic. It’s a major integral part of American historical mythology.”
The 48-year-old Lockhart, a history professor specializing in European military history, spent 18 months researching Bunker Hill, the battle in Boston that marked the beginning of the American Revolution against the British. He combed the Commonwealth of Massachusetts archives and records at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
What Lockhart found shattered a commonly held belief that Bunker Hill pitted a resourceful group of Americans against an experienced, battle-seasoned Redcoat army that was simply ignorant of the rebels’ unconventional fighting tactics.
“Those images in many cases are seriously flawed, and yet even very careful historians have clung to them,” he said.
Instead, Lockhart found evidence that the British were well aware of the Americans’ wilderness-warfare techniques, but that both rebel and British forces were inexperienced and that the battle amounted to a clumsy engagement fought by two raw armies.
“We almost forget that Bunker Hill was an American defeat,” Lockhart said. “And it’s not even close to being one of the more important battles of the American Revolution. The most you can say about Bunker Hill is that it gives the Americans a boost in confidence and it convinces King George III and Britain that this is something serious.”
Lockhart’s interest in Bunker Hill followed a childhood in New York’s Hudson Valley, which is filled with reminders of the American Revolution such as homes built in the 1700s and gravestones dating back to the 1600s. Lockhart was encouraged by his parents—who both worked for IBM—to pursue a career in something about which he was passionate. (Lockhart’s brother, Keith, is conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra.)
Lockhart obtained his master’s and doctoral degrees in history at Purdue University before coming to teach at Wright State. A string of history books followed—four on early modern Scandinavia and then a biography of Prussian Revolutionary War hero Baron de Steuben called The Drillmaster of Valley Forge.
Then came Bunker Hill—and Lockhart was able to use his experience, knowledge, and writing skill to bring the battle to life.
“Writing about battles is easy because they are inherently dramatic,” he said. “You have to be able to imagine it and then write what you see.”
Lockhart was helped by his knowledge of muskets, 18th century tailoring, and close-order drill.
“I know what it’s like to have sweat running from a fur-felt hat in your eyes when you’re trying to march elbow to elbow while carrying fairly heavy equipment and having burrs and thistles ripping at your hands and your knees,” he said.
In the book, Lockhart writes about how the American army was extremely well fed, with soldiers receiving generous rations of bread and fresh meat daily. He writes about how cannon fire from the British would only kill a few American soldiers, but had a crippling psychological effect because of how it would destroy bodies. He writes about how the British were able to burn down the sniper-filled Charlestown neighborhood by firing red-hot cannonballs from harbor gunships into the tinder-like wooden structures.
And he crafts a fascinating passage describing a British bayonet charge.
“The Americans watched in awe as the long red lines—about five hundred yards away—moved slowly in their direction. …No matter how they hit the American line, the Redcoats were going to be marching straight into enemy fire. To modern eyes, these tactics appear costly, even suicidal. But 18th-century tacticians knew a different truth, a truth that had been proven again and again on European battlefields: bayonet charges worked, even in a frontal assault, even against an entrenched and determined enemy.”
Lockhart said one reason he wrote the book was to pay tribute to the common, unsung American soldiers who fought at Bunker Hill.
“Although it’s right to remember George Washington, John Adams, and the conventional cast of characters, for every Washington there were hundreds if not thousands of people who contributed just as much and sacrificed just as much and got nothing out of it and didn’t ask for anything,” he said.
Lockhart took his message and insights on the road. He embarked on a lecture-and-book-signing tour with stops in Williamsburg, Va., and Boston, including an appearance at the Bunker Hill monument. He also gave the Fourth of July Oration at Faneuil Hall in Boston. The Oration has been a regular event since 1783 and has featured orators such as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and John F. Kennedy.
Lockhart says the most significant historical impact of Bunker Hill is that it condemned the colonies and Britain to a long war.
“There was no turning back, and those who had hoped to appeal to the king’s sympathy would soon find themselves without a shred of hope,” he wrote in Whites of Their Eyes. “There could be no olive branch now that the rebels had taken such a fearsome toll on the king’s soldiers.”