Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick was a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish. If you like historical non-fiction that reads like a novel, this is a great one to add to your library.
Aside from telling the fascinating story of the events leading up to the American Revolution, there was something near the end that really got my attention. It was how George Washington took command of the colonial army, and nearly destroyed it in his first engagement.
What he learned during this time set the stage for his future success as a commander. And from his actions, we can learn a great lesson about vision and wisdom that will make us all better leaders.
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Have you ever wanted something so bad you could taste it? But you couldn’t have it because everything kept getting in your way?
That was the situation George Washington found himself in. The battle of Bunker Hill was over. The British had won, barely, and at a cost of over 1,000 casualties. The Colonial forces had proven their ability to stand up to the most powerful military force in the world. Now, that force was locked up inside the city limits of Boston, surrounded by rebel militia.
In the wake of the battle, the Continental Congress called on George Washington to form the disparate forces of the colonies into a cohesive army. As a Virginian among these New England forces, Philbrick describes Washington as having, “A desperate need to prove himself.”
To cement his personal authority and focus the energies of the army, Washington wanted to attack the British in Boston. His vision was to re-take the city. His goal was to attack before the end of winter.
No Easy Task
There were just a few problems with this idea. Boston at the time was a city on an island. Only a single narrow causeway connected it to the mainland. Washington wanted to attack during the winter so that he could approach the city from any direction by moving across the ice. But the British would still see them coming from miles away and have plenty of time to react.
Even if they did make their way into the city, the house-to-house fighting was sure to be brutal. Casualties would be extremely high, and more than likely, Boston would burn to the ground in the process. The city he was trying to recapture would probably be destroyed.
For these and many more reasons, it took months of arguing to convince the Continental Congress that he should be allowed to attack. But finally at long last they begrudgingly gave him the green light.
Council of War
The next step was to convince his generals to go along with the idea. At a council of war, Washington outlined his idea, and again met immediate resistance. Most thought the attack would be too costly. In addition to destroying Boston, the heavy casualties might be more than the army could stand.
During this council, another general proposed that instead, the army should seize Dorchester Heights. This unoccupied hill mass loomed over the city, and from it they could fire cannon on the city at will.
If the colonial army occupied the Heights, the British would be left with two choices: either attack and try to force them off, or abandon the city. Letting the British come to them was certain to be a lot less costly than launching a frontal attack of their own.
No one disputed the vision of re-taking Boston. It was the “how” that was up for debate. Despite long argument, Washington couldn’t convince his generals to adopt his attack plan. Reluctantly, he decided to accept their idea to occupy Dorchester Heights instead.
Taking the Heights
Once the decision was made, Washington put his full energies into it. Aided by the ingenuity of his engineers, artillerymen and quartermaster, they formed a plan that would allow them to occupy the Heights in one night.
Soon after sunset, thousands of men armed with picks and shovels and supported by 350 oxen carts marched to the hilltops and attacked the frozen ground under the cover of night and a low-lying haze.
When dawn broke on the 5th of March, the British were astounded to discover Dorchester Heights manned with thousands of entrenched soldiers, armed with dozens of cannon, and dominated by two forts. Astonished, General Howe and his British officers met to discuss what to do.
To attack the hill would be enormously costly – the rebels were even better prepared than they were the last time they fought. The earth works were so high that the British cannon could not even be elevated enough to reach them. It would be worse than Bunker Hill. Howe didn’t have the stomach for it.
He delayed his attack, and then eventually called it off. Out gunned, out flanked, and not willing to attack, he had no recourse but to leave. Within eleven days, the British army had evacuated Boston.
It’s the Vision, not the Goal
Washington had won an enormous victory. His rag tag army had forced the world’s greatest military power to abandon a key city. More importantly, he had done it without incurring the cost of a major battle. Lives were spared, the city was saved, the British were gone, and his army was becoming more cohesive under his leadership.
But perhaps most significant is the lesson Washington learned that day. In his zeal to take command and prove himself, he had allowed his ego and emotion to come between him and the goals he sought. After all, what commander takes command by not attacking? As he saw it, an all-out frontal attack on Boston was the only way, regardless of cost.
When he was finally forced to listen to what his leaders were telling him, he saw that he could achieve the vision in another way. A much more effective, much less costly way.
In the years to come, Washington applied that lesson again and again – he retreated more than he attacked, and only fought when he knew he could win. When he stopped thinking about himself and his reputation, and focused on the vision, he became the leader the new nation needed. He had proven himself after all.
Bunker Hill – The Takeaway
Having a clear vision is crucial. As a leader, you have to be able to present a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve. But there may be more than one way to make that vision a reality. After all, what’s a Plan B for?
When we allow our ego and emotions to cloud our judgement, they can keep us from seeing some of those alternative paths.
As you lead your team, keeping that vision in mind is paramount, but don’t get stuck on the “how.” When you take ego and emotion out of the equation, new possibilities open up that can take you where you want to go.
Reading about the challenges, achievements, and even missteps of great leaders like George Washington is a great way for all of us to to become better leaders ourselves. Bunker Hill is filled with dozens of other leaders whose characters Philbrick brings masterfully to life, warts and all. And sometimes, when we look among the warts, that’s where we find the clues to greatness.
Be sure to check out my book notes on one of Philbrick’s other works, Sea of Glory – 7 Habits of the Highly Insecure Leader.