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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Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Did Knox Stop His Guns at Framingham?

In response to my Wednesday posting about Col. Henry Knox’s arrival in Cambridge on 18 Jan 1776 (a week or so earlier than the traditional date), Boston 1775 friend Charles Bahne commented:
I still wonder how the town of Framingham fits into Knox’s route. The direct route to Boston (and Cambridge) from the west was the Boston Post Road, which in this area is basically today’s U.S. 20 with some minor detours. That road passes through Marlborough, Sudbury, Wayland, Weston, and Waltham. All of these, except Wayland, existed as towns in the 1770s; Wayland was still part of Sudbury. It would have been a significant detour — with all those heavy cannon! — to go to Framingham.

It’s more logical for John Adams and Elbridge Gerry to have passed through Framingham on their way from Cambridge to Philadelphia, since there was another road — today’s “Old Connecticut Path” — which branched off the Post Road at the Weston-Wayland line and headed directly to Hartford, bypassing Worcester and Springfield.
So we have a question of space as well as time. As part of my possible project on Knox, I’m reexamining the traditional stories about him. Among the most visible of those stories is his progress through New York and Massachusetts; the Knox Cannon Trail has been marked with large roadside stones starting in 1926. Yet much of that trail is based on assumptions about where Knox and his cargo passed because the records of his trip are incomplete. Some marker stones have had to be repositioned.

Following the first Knox biography, we assumed Knox brought his artillery from Springfield (a town he mentioned in a letter to Gen. George Washington) to Cambridge, arriving 24 January. And we assumed he took the straightest, most traveled route, which was the Boston Post Road. But that timetable is wrong. What if the route is an unsupported assumption as well—at least for the guns?

As shown in the map above (a detail from the 1775 “Seat of War in New England” map), the Boston Post Road leads east from Marlborough through Sudbury to Watertown. At Marlborough another road diverged southeast into Framingham toward Natick. It seems likely that Col. Knox directed his “noble train” along that second road. But why?

Gen. William Heath wrote in his diary that Knox “came to camp” on 18 January while the guns “were ordered to be stopped at Framingham.” To me that wording implies the order came from above—i.e., from Gen. Washington.

Another clue comes from the Gershom Foster orderly book at the Anderson House library of the Society of the Cincinnati. That’s an orderly book for the artillery regiment. The orders start to come from Col. Knox (in a big, dramatic way) on 28 January. So even though he was in Cambridge on 18 January and presumably received his commission as colonel then, Knox didn’t start directing the regiment for another ten days. What was keeping him busy?

I suspect Knox went ahead of the guns to meet with his commander-in-chief in Cambridge on 18 January, then hurried back west to meet the guns and stop them at Framingham, or divert them to that town. Why? Knox’s papers have a big gap at this point, and Washington’s surviving headquarters papers don’t mention him or the new artillery. (Notably, however, “Framingham” is one of the passwords of the day on 22 January.)

One possibility is that Knox always planned to take that road because he was aiming to deliver the cannon to Roxbury, not Cambridge. He had worked on the big fort in Roxbury. He might have expected to mount most of the guns in that part of the siege lines. In that case, the route through Framingham to Natick and thence to Dedham might make sense.

But it also seems likely that those cannon needed to be mounted and equipped for use in the siege. Washington may well have decided that Framingham was the place to do that work, far enough from the lines to be safe from the enemy. I haven’t found any mention of such work in Framingham, however.

It appears that Knox’s heavy cannon remained in Framingham for a month or so. On 26 February Ezekiel Price, a Boston official and businessman who collected many threads of gossip from his refuge in Stoughton, wrote in his diary:
It is said that the heavy cannon which were left at Framingham are brought down to Cambridge; the mortars are fixed in their new beds; the fort at Lechmere’s Point nearly finished; fascines going constantly to Dorchester; and every thing getting in readiness to make a push by our army.
Not all the gossip Price wrote down was that reliable (I’ll talk about that tomorrow). But it seems unlikely that he would have been wrong about the heavy cannon being left in Framingham for weeks.  And while it’s not clear what Price meant by saying they were brought “down to Cambridge” (Allston was still part of Cambridge then), this diary entry does suggest some of Knox’s artillery did indeed travel into that town. So there’s still a case for some of those markers.

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