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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Thursday, February 21, 2008

New Books on Washington and Knox

Earlier this week, the Boston Globe’s unofficial Revolutionary War correspondent, Michael Kenney, reviewed two new books about American generals. One was This Glorious Struggle, the collection of George Washington’s wartime correspondence by Edward G. Lengel that I commented on back here.

The other book was new to me: Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, by Mark Puls. Knox holds a lot of interest for me, as a Boston teenager of the 1760s, a Boston Massacre witness, an artillerist, a possible confidential source, and a man who made the jump from trade apprentice to the genteel ranks. The last major biography of him, by North Callahan, came out in 1958, and was more popular than scholarly. (The postwar Knox was also a big figure in Alan Taylor’s Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, but by that time of his life he was a big figure in all ways.)

Kenney’s review calls Knox

the Boston bookseller who had studied the artillery texts that arrived in shipments of books from London and devised the audacious plan to haul cannon captured at Fort Ticonderoga through the New England winter to Boston. In “Henry Knox,” this visionary general has now received an admirable and long-needed biography by independent historian Mark Puls.

Knox’s self-taught tactical skills proved valuable again at the crossing of the Delaware to engage the British at Trenton in December 1776 and again when he served as artillery commander at Yorktown.
Knox was also at Washington’s side at some of the Continental Army’s worst defeats, of course. I believe he was almost captured when the British army took New York.

I was a little surprised at the word “visionary” in this book’s subtitle since I had the impression that Knox’s major strength was personality, not strategy. Kenney explains:
While Knox had made his name as an artilleryman, he had grown up on Boston’s waterfront and as Washington’s secretary of war after 1789 saw the need to build a navy able to compete with those of England and France. Realizing that the new nation “could not afford [their] large, expensive battleships,” writes Puls, he backed the controversial designs by Joshua Humphreys that produced the legendary six frigates led by the USS Constitution.
Some modern histories of the Revolution present the 1775-76 winter as Knox’s main obstacle in transporting heavy cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to the Boston siege lines. But the newly appointed colonel and his contemporaries understood that winter was often the best time to move heavy goods across land. Sleds could travel faster over roads covered with snow and ice than wooden wagons could travel those same roads in other parts of the year. Winter was when lumbermen brought their heavy logs to the coast and farmers took their crops and goods to town. Another example of how eighteenth-century life adapted to the natural environment.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think Knox's actions bringing the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston is more a feat of divine intervention than knowledge of transportations systems and logistics (which is important for any General).

you said:But the newly appointed colonel and his contemporaries understood that winter was often the best time to move heavy goods across land. Sleds could travel faster over roads covered with snow and ice than wooden wagons could travel those same roads in other parts of the year. Winter was when lumbermen brought their heavy logs to the coast and farmers took their crops and goods to town. Another example of how eighteenth-century life adapted to the natural environment.

After studying the New York stretch of the trail... the trip was amazing... in December of 1775 on his way up to Ticonderoga - Knox ordered these sleds to be made in Stillwater NY... when General Schuyler heard of the sleds being made - he cancelled the Colonel's order but the sleds were still made. Knox needed wagon in Ticonderoga so there could not be much in the way of snow ... then he need Lake George clear of ice so that he could use boats to move the cannons... then he needed a good snow to move the cannons on sleds the rest of the journey through the Berkshires to Cambridge. He crossed the Hudson three times and he needed the Hudson to be frozen for that to happen (including an area near Albany which today (and I would assume then) was tidal... so it was an amazing feat and that was all before he crossed the mountains.

It was an amazing feat and it is good to see that a new book has been written on the truely amazing man...

Sean Kelleher
Historian - Saratoga, NY

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, moving the cannons from Fort Ti was an impressive logistical feat. But the winter offered Knox and his men help (e.g., the frozen Hudson) as well as hindrances.

I think we forget that aspect of winter, especially on days like today when it’s snowing heavily and none of us have big sleds to hitch to the horses.