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, April 02, 2012

The Mystery of Henry Knox’s “Boy Soldiers”

In his 1900 biography of Henry Knox, Noah Brooks wrote of the connections that the young bookseller’s 1774 marriage brought him:
Lucy Flucker’s only brother [Thomas, Jr.] was a lieutenant in the British Army, and, while he was serving the cause of the King, his newly made brother-in-law was zealously studying the art of war and schooling himself for the service into which he was so soon to enter. 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. The British officer who had observed with admiration the evolutions of the artillery company of which Knox was second in command, and had said that a country which produced such “boy soldiers” as he could not readily be brought under subjection, only gave voice to the sentiment that pervaded the ranks of the determined colonists.
In fact, Knox was never “second in command” of an artillery company in Boston’s militia; he was second in command of a grenadier company. Brooks’s biography has a lot of unreliable statements like that, which makes me wary of accepting its statements without confirmation.

So what confirmation does the Brooks biography offer about Knox being offered “a commission in the royal cause,” and a British officer praising his “boy soldiers”? Actually, Brooks doesn’t usually cite sources.

For the second part of that question, a Google Books search led to Cyrus Eaton’s History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, Maine, published in 1865. It stated:
[Knox] was at the early age of eighteen chosen one of the commanding officers of a company of grenadiers composed of young Bostonians, so distinguished for its martial appearance and the precision of its evolutions that it received the most flattering encomium from a British officer of high distinction. This officer’s prediction that “a country that produced such boy soldiers, cannot long be held in subjection,” was soon verified.
Unfortunately, Eaton didn’t cite a source for that anecdote, either. It appears to have been a tradition in Maine, where Knox lived after the war, rather than in Boston. Which is a bit odd since any such event would have taken place in Boston and pleased Bostonians, and later generations of Bostonians were never shy about publishing praise of their ancestors.

TOMORROW: And Knox’s royal commission?

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