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, July 23, 2012

“Our armament here was a great curiosity.”

A couple of Boston 1775 readers have asked me whether Col. Henry Knox took any precautions to hide the artillery he moved from New York to eastern Massachusetts in 1775-76. Did he guard against Loyalists or British spies watching those cannon?

I’ve seen no indication in Knox’s or Gen. George Washington’s papers that they worried about secrecy on this mission. At that time the American cause was very popular in the New England and northern New York countryside. Few people had experienced serious deprivations from the war, the British forces were almost all confined to Boston and Québec, and drastic steps like declaring independence and allying with the French Empire were off in the future.

Furthermore, western Massachusetts was especially radical. The farmers there had been the first in the province to close their courts in 1774 to protest the Massachusetts Government Act, and they kept them closed through the whole war. Local friends of the Crown had decamped for Boston or were keeping quiet.

Even if Loyalists did see the cannon on the move, it’s unclear what they could have done with that information. They would have had to carry the news through the winter landscape and across the siege lines into Boston, or up to Québec, or perhaps to Newport. The British garrison in Boston was already holding out against some cannon; would more old guns really make a difference?

Young teamster John P. Becker’s reminiscence indicates that, far from keeping their cargo secret, Knox’s men welcomed attention in the towns along the way. About Albany, for example, Becker recalled: “Our appearance excited the attention of the Burghers.”

And in Westfield:
We then reached Westfield, Massachusetts, and were much amused with what seemed the quaintness and honest simplicity of the people. Our armament here was a great curiosity. We found that very few, even among the oldest inhabitants, had ever seen a cannon. They were never tired of examining our desperate “big shooting irons,” and guessing how many tons they weighed; others of the scientific order, were measuring the dimensions of their muzzles, and the circumference at the breach. The handles, as they styled the trunnions, were reckoned rather too short, but they considered on the whole, that the guns must be pretty nice things at a long shot.

We were great gainers by this curiosity, for while they were employed in remarking upon our guns, we were, with equal pleasure, discussing the qualities of their cider and whiskey. These were generously brought out in great profusion, saying they would be darned, if it was not their treat.

One old mortar, well known during the revolution, as the old sow, and which not many years since, was the subject of eulogy on the floor of our own Legislature, by no less a personage than Gen. [Erastus] Root, was actually fired several times by the people of Westfield, for the novel pleasure of listening to its deep toned thunders.

Col. Knox was surrounded by visitors at the inn that evening. And the introductions that took place gave to his acquaintance, hosts of militia officers of every rank and degree. Every man seemed to be an officer. What a pity, said Colonel Knox to some of us who stood near him, what a pity it is that our soldiers are not as numerous as our officers.
That sounds like Knox, but it doesn’t sound like he was trying to keep stuff quiet.

As for Becker’s memory of the “old sow,” he might have mixed up a big mortar that Knox brought east with the big mortar of that nickname that Gen. Richard Montgomery was using in the invasion of Canada at the same time. Or there might have been two “old sows.”

TOMORROW: Col. Knox and Gen. Washington.

[The photograph above shows the Henry Knox Trail monument in the center of Westfield (look on the lower right side). The big stately building was a post office but is now a restaurant. The photograph, by Henry W. Ohlhous, comes courtesy of the Historical Marker Database.]


Garrett Cloer said...

I'm not sure what strategic advantage would have been gained by secrecy, either. They may not have decided what they were going to do with the cannon yet, but it isn't as if there was much the British Army leadership in Boston could do if they had the information. In fact, it seems to me that adding to the impression of Patriot strength would have been something favored by Gen. Washington at that time.

Julie Kingsley said...

I've spent an obscene amount of time on your blog today while working on a story about Samual Maverick. i've driven by the Knox museum probably a hundred times. I think that I'll be driving back soon. Fascinating character!