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Bunker Hill's significance surprised author; `Now We Are Enemies' reissued after 50 years.

Byline: Richard Duckett

When Thomas Fleming received an assignment in 1957 from a magazine to write a one-page article on the Battle of Bunker Hill for a "The Day It Happened" series, he knew his editor wasn't particularly absorbed by the topic. "Nor was I," Fleming recalled.

He was an aspiring novelist trying to make a living as a journalist. Interest in the American Revolution at the time was overshadowed by the Civil War and World War II, Fleming said.

Fleming's attitude would undergo a revolutionary change when he started researching the battle.

In 1960, his first book wasn't a novel, it was "Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill." It was published to considerable acclaim and interest. "A great battle has been given new life and glory," said a review in the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Fifty years later, the book has been re-released by American History Press (hardcover $23-$26;, and Fleming, who lives in New York City, is a distinguished historian making a number of timely appearances in the Boston area this week. Timely because tomorrow is Bunker Hill Day - the 325th anniversary of the battle.

The battle is considered a defining event on several levels.

Boston was under siege by Colonial forces, many of whom were still hoping for a redress of grievances by the British rather than an all-out war of independence. The British army was considered the finest in the world. With considerable confidence, if not arrogance and complacency, British forces in Boston were planning a breakout maneuver to occupy hills surrounding Boston. Word of the plans were leaked, and the colonial troops audaciously constructed a redoubt - an earthen fort - on Breed's Hill in the early hours of June 17 and moved soldiers into lines along the Charlestown peninsula. The British would attack the lines, and the colonists eventually fled over Bunker Hill to Cambridge after running out of ammunition. But it took the British three assaults - including direct attacks on the redoubt - and the casualties were heavy - 226 killed, 828 wounded, almost 50 percent of the attacking force and 92 out of 250 officers. So heavy, as Fleming observes in his book, it was a "Pyrrhic" victory. "They hadn't taken any casualties like that in a long time," he said.

After the battle any hopes of British and Colonial reconciliation were pretty much undone.

Fleming writes, "The fighting that broke out at Lexington on April 19, 1775, and was rendered at Boston and along the road during the British return to Boston, was an outburst of anger that could have been dismissed as a misunderstanding. Bunker Hill was a deliberate and conscious effort to prove that the Americans could meet their supposedly unbeatable red-coated opponents in a formal battle."

Hearts were hardened on both sides. Benjamin Franklin wrote to an English friend that there was no longer any hope of reconciliation, concluding: "You are now my enemy and I am /Yours/B. Franklin."

As Fleming illustrates, the relations between the respective parties had often been very close for a long time. They had been friends; they had fought together; often people in different camps were members of the same family. Gen. Thomas Gage, governor of Massachusetts, was married to the former Margaret Kemble, a member of a prominent New Jersey family. There were rumors that Mrs. Gage had helped leak the information of the British planned breakout. Fleming discounts that notion, but "There's no doubt she was sympathetic (to the revolutionaries)." Meanwhile, "There were leaks like sieves."

The various emotions in play were striking. Colonial Col. Israel Putnam had shouted at his men as they took aim at a British officer in the height of the battle, "For God's sake spare that man. I love him as a brother."

"I never realized there was that emotion," Fleming said. "It had gone right by me ... No one had written about the relationships on both sides of the battle lines."

In fact, no one had written a book about the battle of Bunker Hill in nearly 100 years.

Fleming's book describes in engrossing detail the unfolding of the battle itself - a very human event with many individual mistakes, acts of courage and tragedy. Fleming's research and the discovery of such stories was often a matter of serendipity, he said. At the New York Historical Society he came across the papers of Gen. Horatio Gates. While one of the principal American commanders during the revolution, Gates had not fought at Bunker Hill. However, many of his soldiers had, and they left their letters and reminiscences to Gates, who lived into the 1800s, to "quite an old age."

Fleming, 82, has gone on to have a prolific career as a historian and novelist and won many awards.

He didn't foresee it. When the Literary Guild named "Now We Are Enemies" a main selection, "I was shocked," he said.

Reader's Digest condensed the book, at the time a very big deal, almost guaranteeing the book would sell well.

Still, seeing the book radically pared down could well have been a shock after all that work. Fleming was advised to digest the digest with a smile on his face.

"Tom, here's what you're going to do. You're going to reach for the phone and say `keep your money.' But don't do it," he was told.

"In the morning you'll say `My God, I'm amazed at how much you got in.'"

Thomas Fleming's schedule includes the following appearances:

1 p.m. today, Borders Books, 10-24 School Street, Boston.

7 p.m. today, Battle of Bunker Hill Museum, 43 Monument Square, Charlestown.

Tomorrow, 10 a.m. - Fleming will be a special guest at the Official Ceremony Commemorating the 235th Anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Bunker Hill Monument, Boston National Historical Park, Monument Square, Charlestown.


CUTLINE: Author Thomas Fleming will be making appearances in Boston this week.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 16, 2010
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