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Sat, Aug. 17

Column: Forging the American Spirit

It's glorious to be an American, isn't it? Independence Day is a great time to contemplate who we are as Americans and where we are going, as a people and as a country. Thankfully, our remarkable past provides all the answers we need to understand what it means to be an American, and how best to go about moving forward.

America was founded exactly 235 years ago (plus 17 days) on a couple of hills overlooking Boston harbor. Contrary to popular belief, the Boston Tea Party, which took place about a year and a half earlier, was not the pivotal moment that forged the American Spirit. Rebellion, sans force and fortitude, is meaningless. It can provide a spark toward freedom, but real freedom can be attained only through perspiration and perseverance.

What happened on those two hills in June of 1775 led to the eventual defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War and to our independence from the crown's unfair rule. The most interesting aspect of the Battle of Bunker Hill is that America lost. In the end, the Redcoats kicked us off those hills, and we were forced to regroup off the peninsula. Nevertheless, the American Spirit was born on Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill 235 years ago, forming our American character which has survived in one form or another to this day.

Big surprise, the Americans were seriously outnumbered on June 17, 1775, when the British, in their ploddingly slow fashion, finally decided to do something about the fortifications the Americans were constructing overlooking Boston. That afternoon, the Brits, hampered by sniper fire, were forced to assault the left flank of the Americans with little support. British General William Howe thought the Americans were weak there. Standing behind fence rails, which not only served as protection but also were used to steady guns for precision firing, the Americans repulsed the attack, mowing down several hundred Redcoats while sustaining few casualties.

The Brits reformed and tried again, with pretty much the same result. Unfortunately, after the second "victory," the Americans found themselves out of ammo. The British were able to take the hills on their third attempt, but our soldiers that day did not run away in a panic. They worked their way off the hills slowly, taking most their injured with them. The Brits had the hills, but the Americans had the confidence. We would fight another day, many more days in fact, and General George Washington, who was in New York at the time on his way to Boston to take command of the army, would remark that there was now hope in an American victory.

The British suffered more than 800 killed in the action, while the Americans lost around 150. What mystified the Brits and led to Gen. Thomas Gage's eventual dismissal was that a disproportionate amount of casualties were officers. Many more victories like this would surely lose the war for the Brits, as one British general wrote in his diary. In the loss, the Americans gained an understanding that they could stand toe to toe with the most powerful country on earth. That confidence would be severely tested over the next eight years, but, of course, America would prevail in the end, and we would gain our independence, which we celebrate on the Fourth of July every year.

The American Spirit was realized at the Battle of Bunker Hill. That no-quit grit that makes us Americans began with the soldiers who refused to cower in the face of British superiority. It's that determination that has gotten us this far as a country and as a people, and it's that same determination that will see us through the next 235 years.

Independence Day is more about what it means to be an American than it is about the founding of our country. If a rag-tag group of patriots could overcome a monarchy and form a nation based on individual freedom, then there's no obstacle today we as Americans can't overcome.

It's from a different war, but the following line from the movie "Gettysburg," originally from the book "The Killer Angels," explains the path we must continue to follow:

"This is a different kind of army. If you look at history, you'll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we're here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it's not the land. There's always more land. It's the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we're fighting for, in the end ... we're fighting for each other."

And the fight continues.

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