J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Washington's Asymmetric Generals

Yesterday's posting about John Crane put me in mind of some other important Continental Army officers who had what we now term physical disabilities—even before they went to war. In both cases, those disabilities made them stand out while marching with their prewar militia companies.

Henry Knox blew off two fingers of his left hand in a hunting accident on an island in Boston harbor in July 1772. William Sullivan wrote of the general later in life:

When engaged in conversation he used to unwind and replace the black silk handkerchief which he wrapped around his mutilated hand, but not so as to show its disfigurement.
In his portrait of the general (shown here, courtesy of Montpelier in Maine), Gilbert Stuart posed that hand to conceal the injury.

Knox's bandage actually helped him enter genteel ranks after he paraded as a lieutenant of Boston's new militia grenadier company in late 1772. His bandage and his bearing caught the eye of Lucy Flucker, oldest (legitimate) daughter of the province's Secretary. They married in 1774 and slipped out of Boston together after the war began. Lucy Knox never saw her Loyalist family again, but the couple settled on the extensive lands in Maine that she inherited from her father.

Another of the Continental Army's top generals, Nathanael Greene, limped through most of his life. John Howland recalled watching a Rhode Island militia company parade before the war:
I viewed the company as they marched up the street, and observed Nathanael Greene with his musket on his shoulder, in the ranks as a private. I distinguished Mr. Greene, whom I had frequently seen, by the motion of his shoulders in the march, as one of his legs was shorter than the other.
Other writers say that Greene's legs were of equal length, but his right knee was chronically stiff.

There's also disagreement on how this condition arose. Some sources favor the theory that young Greene injured his leg while sneaking out of his Quaker household to attend a dance. Others suggest that he suffered a repetitive-strain injury from pumping the bellows at the family forge. I can picture young Nathanael telling his dad that he'd hurt himself at work in order to conceal his nocturnal entertainment. But I can also picture Greene or his genteel family later emphasizing the romantic explanation instead of the one that involved manual labor.

1 comment:

bill greene said...

Re Nathanael Greene's limp, an explanation in my family documents is that a work related accident was the culprit. Nat worked as a boy at the family forge casting those large anchors common at the time on ships. An anchor fell or tipped over on his leg, giving him the permanent injury.