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, February 12, 2013

Peirce Family Anecdotes about Henry Knox

In 1849 Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review published an obituary of a descendant of Joseph and Ann Peirce, apparently based on information from the family or even written by a member of the family. That article turns out to contain interesting information about Henry Knox that I’d never seen before and that doesn’t appear in any Knox biography I know of. Whether it’s reliable information is another question.

Joseph Peirce founded Boston’s militia grenadier company in 1772 with Henry Knox as his lieutenant. The two men kept up a correspondence after the war when both invested heavily in Maine land. And some traditions about Knox came down in the Peirce family and made their way into that magazine:
Mr. Joseph Peirce, although a merchant of Boston, had, prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, organized a company of grenadiers, which he continued to command with Henry Knox, afterward Gen. Knox, as lieutenant, down to the day on which the tea was cast into Boston harbor. The grenadier corps was one of the finest in the colonies, and being drawn up in State, then King-street, to receive the new Governor [Thomas] Gage, on his arrival from England, elicited from that officer the remark that “he did not know his Majesty had any troops in America”—a compliment to the soldierly appearance of the corps long cherished by its officers even when patriotism had led them to oppose the king’s troops. Capt. Peirce was in charge of the tea ships as guard on the night previous to the appearance of those world-renowned “Indians,” of whom his brother John was one. That event brought about the dissolution of the corps; but the friendship then formed between Gen. Knox and Mr. Peirce existed uninterruptedly to the death of the former, in 1806.
There are two interesting anecdotes in that passage, and unfortunately they’re contradictory. If the grenadier company had dissolved soon after the Tea Party in December 1773, it could not have greeted Gen. Gage when he arrived in Boston in May 1774. Furthermore, Gage was commander-in-chief of the British army in North America and knew exactly how many troops his Majesty had there.

Gage’s alleged praise for the grenadiers echoes a story that evidently circulated in Maine about a British officer seeing the grenadiers and saying, “that “a country that produced such boy soldiers, cannot long be held in subjection.” I doubt either version of the story is wholly reliable, but they might have had a common source in a real event.

I haven’t seen any contemporaneous mention of the grenadier company dissolving shortly after the Tea Party. Rather, Boston’s specialized militia companies appear to have broken up in late 1774 as the political divide widened: the Company of Cadets in August after Gage dismissed their commander, John Hancock, and the artillery train in mid-September after its cannon vanished. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, not officially part of the militia, went into abeyance late in the year. It would make sense for the grenadiers to do so as well.

The obituary went on to provide this anecdote about Henry and Lucy Knox’s departure from Boston:
When Lieut. Knox, impelled by his glowing patriotism, sought to join the army of Washington, then at Cambridge, preparatory to the fight at Bunker’s Hill, he had some difficulty in escaping from Boston, but he was enabled to do so through a permit obtained by Mr. Peirce for a chaise to pass the lines on Boston Neck. As he took leave of the future general, the latter remarked, “My sword-blade is thrust through the cushions on which we sit, and Lucy (his wife) has the hilt in her pocket.”
Again, whoever wrote this story had difficulty with chronology. The Knoxes appear to have been out of Boston by 14 May 1775. Gen. George Washington didn’t arrive in Cambridge until July.

Another version of the Peirce lore appeared in print the year before, in a review of J. T. Headley’s Washington and His Generals in the United States Democratic Review. The reviewer identified himself (or herself) as someone who had Joseph Peirce as a “maternal grandfather,” and told readers, “we have often listened with delight to the anecdotes of Knox, told by his octogenarian commander.” About the Knoxes’ departure:
[Headley’s] memoir remarks that Knox had some difficulty in escaping from Boston when the war broke out, and that his wife accompanied him, concealing his sword beneath her dress. This is not strictly correct. The lines as they were called, were on “the Neck,” and Knox’s former commander in the grenadiers having been to the lines to procure the passage of a chaise containing a nurse and child that had been in the country for its health, on his return, met Knox riding out of town. The future General remarked, “I have at last got clear, I think. My sword blade is thrust through the cushions on which we sat, and Lucy has the hilt in her pocket.”
In this version, Peirce didn’t secure the pass that the Knoxes used; he simply met Henry after he’d exited the gates. But the quotation is the same.

The Peirce story overlaps with one recorded by Knox’s first biographer, Francis S. Drake, in 1873: that Lucy smuggled out Henry’s sword “quilted into the lining of her cloak.” Hiding it in the cushions seems more effective. But really, swords weren’t what the provincial army needed.


John L Smith Jr said...

I've often wondered how secretive a (heavy) sword ,“quilted into the lining of her cloak.” would have been for Lucy Flucker? If even true, she might not have even arisen from her seat to be checked by the Boston Neck guard(s) because of her father's stature? Still...kind of hard to even sit down with that heavy rigid blade?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the detail about hiding a sword blade in a cape always raised questions for me. I know women's stays had some rigid elements, but an entire sword blade? And in a cape? The T.S.A. wouldn't need metal detectors to see such a garment hanging oddly.

Furthermore, part of the story involved the Knoxes sneaking out of town, so they should not have been able to invoke Thomas Flucker's status to avoid a search. Of course, that part could have been exaggerated with passing years.

One thing this story does tell us is that Henry Knox was attached to his sword—and thus, symbolically, his status as an officer. As I noted a few months back, he turned down the first commission that the Continental authorities offered him because it was for a lieutenant colonel, not a colonel. Like a lot of young men on the cusp of gentility, he was very conscious of rank.

Anonymous said...

Dress swords of the period often were pretty small. -- Joe Bauman