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 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.
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.
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.