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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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

“Large promises had been held out to Knox…”

Yesterday I quoted the passage from Noah Brooks’s 1900 biography of Henry Knox in which he wrote, “Large promises were held out to young Knox to induce him to take a commission in the royal cause; he was regarded as too desirable a man to be lost from the military service of the King.”

Brooks didn’t cite a source or evidence for that statement. He also used the vague passive voice: “promises were held out,” “he was regarded.” That suggests he was working from equally vague and perhaps wishful traditions rather than documents.

North Callahan extrapolated from Brooks’s passage in his 1958 biography of the artillery general, writing that Knox received an offer of a British army commission “through the influence of Thomas Flucker,” his father-in-law (shown above). Subsequent authors repeated the same statement, relying on Callahan and Brooks.

But what was the basis of Brooks’s statement? I looked for confirming evidence in the first biography of Knox, published by Francis S. Drake in 1873. He wrote even more vaguely, and without citing sources:
Large promises had been held out to Knox to induce him to follow the royal standard, as it was thought of consequence to prevent so talented a young man from attaching himself to the provincials; but his patriotism was as sincere as it was ardent, and he did not for a moment hesitate, but embarked heart and hand in the patriot cause.
Interestingly, two years before that, Horatio Bateman’s Biographies of Two Hundred and Fifty Distinguished National Men began its entry on Knox by saying:
He married the daughter of a staunch loyalist, and was an officer in the British army when the struggle of the Revolution commenced. . . .
We know that’s wrong. It suggests that there was a long tradition in New England of saying that Knox turned away from opportunities on the royalist side because he supported the Whigs. But it also shows that tradition was hazy and liable to exaggeration.

I’m skeptical that the Flucker family actually arranged for an army commission for Knox. Such a regular army commission was a big deal, and a big expense, and it should have left a thicker paper trail. Promises of a higher rank in the Massachusetts military seem more likely, and well within Flucker’s reach as the province’s royal secretary. But even then there’s no evidence of how solid such promises were, or what Knox’s immediate response was.

COMING UP: Henry Knox and five chests of tea.


rfuller said...

In every fanciful story, there's a grain of truth.
It is possible that the Fluckers could have got him an appointment as a Royal Artillery officer, but it would have cost them a lot politically either here or in England.
Artillery officers were appointed to the Royal Artillery by sponsorship of the politically influential, which I don't think the Fluckers on their own could have managed. They just didn't have enough "juice".
If the story were true, that they really intended to send him to England for this purpose, Knox would have had to enter as a sponsored cadet at Woolwich Arsenal in England, and, once he had completed his studies and passed his exams, he would have been promoted by seniority only.
As far as I am aware, the purchase system did not generally apply to the artillery or engineers, but, I have been wrong before. There were always exceptions in Georgian armies.
But I rather doubt the Fluckers would have seen Henry Knox as a good catch for their daughter, since he would spend the next several years in a military academy, graduating with a low rank, waiting for promotion.
He then would be sent to any number of postings in the Empire, emphasing the motto of the Royal Artillery , "Ubique" (everywhere).
Nice idea, but I doubt it happened.

J. L. Bell said...

We think of Knox as an artillery officer now, but in the early 1770s he was in a grenadier company, so the undocumented appointment might have been for an ordinary infantry position with the possibility of rising. That would have shortened the training period, at least. But still, no paper trail.

Of course, this story might have been based on nothing more than, "Well, young man, if we could be sure you'd support the royal government, I could speak to Gov. Gage and see whether there were any openings—"

"Please don't trouble yourself, sir."

In that case there would be no paper trail, but also no concrete opportunity for Knox to turn down.