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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Monday, May 12, 2008

One-Page Review: Mark Puls, Henry Knox

Henry Knox was the commander of the U.S. army artillery from late 1775 through the end of the Revolutionary War, and then Secretary of War under the Continental Congress and President George Washington—a significant figure in American military and political history.

Knox was also one of the definite “winners” of the Revolution, coming out significantly ahead of how he went in. In 1770 he was a fatherless apprentice bookseller with charm, intelligence, ambition, and very few assets. Twenty years later, he was a popular army commander, a powerful national figure, and a major landowner in Maine. Knox succeeded through both hard work and good fortune: the Revolution opened up paths to the top of society for him, and he also inherited a lot of property from his wife Lucy’s Loyalist father.

I’m very intrigued by Henry Knox, and I was eager to see Mark Puls’s Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution, published this year by Palgrave Macmillan. It’s the first full biography of Knox in decades. After examining the book, however, I decided not to write a full review. Instead, I’m going to sum up my thoughts by discussing a single page.

A sentence near the top of page 31 says:

After Colonel William Prescott was found guilty of “threatening and abusing a number of persons,” a court-martial sentenced him to the humiliation of riding “the wooden Horse, fifteen minutes.”
Prescott was the commander in the provincial redoubt on Breed’s Hill. Was he really sentenced to this painful humiliation? This sentence comes with a citation to Washington’s general orders for 10 July 1775, but what that document actually says is:
The General Court Martial of which Col. William Prescott was president having tried William Pattin of Col. [Richard] Gridley’s [artillery] regiment, and found him guilty of “threatening and abusing a number of persons, when prisoner in the Quarter Guard.” The Court sentence the prisoner to ride the wooden Horse, fifteen minutes.
Prescott was thus the chief judge in this case, not the defendant. The man punished for threatening and insulting his guards was William Pattin. (Pattin had been in Capt. Samuel Gridley’s artillery company early in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and was compensated 18s. by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for personal property he lost there. Col. Jonathan Ward had ordered him confined on the charge of “leaving his post on guard.” Pattin’s court-martial was scheduled for early July, but no one showed up to provide evidence against him. Nevertheless, Washington decided not to free him “untill farther consideration.” So Pattin might have felt that “threatening and abusing” words were justified by the situation. But I digress.)

The next paragraph on page 31 contains a sentence that spells Gen. Nathanael Greene’s last name two different ways; that’s a proofreading lapse. But it gives me just enough of an excuse to discuss how earlier, on page 21, the book states that Knox and Greene had met in Boston before the war. I suspect that information came from a footnote in Noah Brooks’s Henry Knox, a Soldier of the Revolution, published in 1900. Unfortunately, Brooks was relying on (and quoting) the fictional diary of Dorothy Dudley, composed and published in 1876. Knox and Greene probably didn’t meet until they were both on the provincial siege lines in the summer of 1775.

The final paragraph on page 31 starts:
The next day, Knox was relieved that she [his wife Lucy] had left the camp when the British artillery opened a cannonade on the American position. Henry was not impressed with these grenadiers, who were not as skilled as the gunners aboard the battleships who leveled Charlestown.
Here the author is obviously under the impression that the British soldiers behind that cannonade were “grenadiers.” Grenadiers were specialized infantry troops, not artillerists. This wouldn’t be a big problem except that this book is about an artillery commander.

The citation for this passage quotes Henry’s letter to his younger brother William, dated 25 Sept 1775:
Last Friday Lucy dined at General Washington’s. Last Saturday, let it be remembered to the honor and skill of the British troops, that they fired 104 cannon-shot at [our] works, at not a greater distance than half point blank shot,—and did what? Why, scratched a man’s face with the splinters of a rail-fence!
That letter says nothing about Knox feeling “relieved” about his wife’s safety. For one thing, Washington’s headquarters, where Lucy had dined, was the Cambridge mansion now known as Longfellow House [open for tours this month every Thursday through Saturday]. That was miles away from the fortified “works” that Knox described the British guns reaching. Lucy had never been in danger from a cannonade.

A more systematic lapse of this book, I think, is that this is far from the only time it puts an emotion into Henry Knox’s head not justified by his own words. It often states what he was thinking or what he saw when there’s little or no evidence for those statements. Yes, we can make a logical case that Knox was “was relieved” when his wife was far out of firing range, or that he “often watched the British soldiers drill” in Boston in 1774. But without letters, journals, or other documents as evidence, a historian or biographer should be clear what are suppositions and what are facts.

It’s a shame that the early part of Henry Knox’s life is poorly documented. I’d love to know more about his growing up, when and how he got out of Boston during the war, and how he jumped from being an unranked volunteer to commanding the Continental Artillery. But we don’t have definite answers. Most of Knox’s biographers have been popular writers, not scholars, and have filled in the gaps in the record with legends and speculation. This new book is part of that tradition.


Anonymous said...

At p. 242 of Mark Pul's Henry Knox, Mr. Puls states, "Fortunately for Jefferson, the leading Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, could not run for president because he was foreign born."
I do not believe the statement is accurate. I am under the impression that Hamilton was eligible. Article II of the Consitution states: "No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President . . ." I believe Hamilton was a citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that statement about Alexander Hamilton being ineligible for the Presidency is an error, and not an uncommon one.

Technically, no President was born in the United States until Martin Van Buren (1782-1862).

Wooster said...

comments above, not withstanding, I think that journalist Puls has done a fine job in presenting to the lay reader Knox's mostly overlooked contribution from the earliest events through to the Constitutional Convention. I found his "Legacy" chapter somewhat presumptuous, but given the obvious dedication to his subject, I am inclined to support the tenor of his conclusions.