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, August 06, 2010

Washington Meets Knox, 5 July 1775

On 2 July 1775, in the afternoon, Gen. George Washington and Gen. Charles Lee arrived in Cambridge and sat down with Gen. Artemas Ward to shift the command of the American army. On 3 July, as these soldiers’ diaries show, Washington and Lee visited the fortifications and camps on the north wing of the American siege line. The next day they were at Cambridge since they met some Gen. Nathanael Greene’s Rhode Island troops there.

And on 5 July, Washington made the acquaintance of a young man who would become one of his closest and most loyal associates.

That man (shown here, a few years later) was Henry Knox, then a twenty-four-year-old bookseller who had made his way out of Boston with his new wife Lucy, daughter of Massachusetts’s royal Secretary, Thomas Flucker. In late June, Knox volunteered to help lay out fortifications for the provincial troops. He had never been in a siege, and his military experience was limited to a few years as a lieutenant drilling Boston’s militia grenadier company. But Knox had read a lot about fortifications.

Early on the morning of 6 July, Henry wrote to Lucy in Worcester from Capt. Lemuel Childs’s house at Roxbury. The previous day, he was excited to report, his work had caught the eyes of two very important men:

Yesterday, as I was going to Cambridge, I met the generals, who begged me to return to Roxbury again, which I did. When they had viewed the works, they expressed the greatest pleasure and surprise at their situation and apparent utility, to say nothing of the plan, which did not escape their praise.
By the end of the year Washington and the Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress, particularly John Adams, had gotten Knox installed as colonel of the American artillery regiment, replacing Col. Richard Gridley. Within a couple of years Knox was a general, and later he served as U.S. Secretary of War under the Confederation and then under the new federal government’s first President.


John L. Smith said...

Henry Knox, along with Nathanial Greene, would turn out to be Washington's two most loyal generals who stayed with him throughout the entire war.

DAG said...

Mr. Bell,

Having taken an sabbatical for a few weeks I am catching up on your blog and enjoying it as expected.
Henry Knox has been quite fascinating to me. Could you recommend a book or source from which I can learn more?

J. L. Bell said...

Unfortunately, there’s no scholarly biography of Henry Knox. There are some popular biographies, most recently Mark Puls’s, which didn’t impress me favorably. Earlier examples include North Callahan’s from 1958 and Noah Brooks’s from 1900. They all display some serious misconceptions about colonial society, and reluctance to dig below the conventional stories about Knox.

Samuel F. Drake’s 1873 biography is short and also laudatory, but in some ways seems the most reliable. It’s now more widely available through Google Books.

For the latter part of Knox’s life, Alan Taylor’s Liberty Men and Great Proprietors is a thorough, scholarly, and not always sympathetic study of his efforts to make money from the lands Lucy Knox inherited in Maine.

Deb said...

I recently read the Puls biography and found the beginning of the book, concerning Knox's childhood, very illuminating. That Knox attended Boston Latin for only one year, and taught himself calculus and warfare by reading only, is a wonderful example of determination. I compare this to Shakespeare, also the product of a Latin Grammar school. Some people think that Shakespeare's lack of a University education helps "prove" that he could not have written the plays, but we can see from Knox's example that a little schooling goes a long way for those who want to learn.

J. L. Bell said...

I did a study on Boston’s South Latin School in this period, and Knox’s short career there appears to have been the norm rather than the exception. Two-thirds of all the boys who entered left without graduating. Some—it’s impossible to know how many—shifted to a Writing School, and others to a trade.

Franklin probably remains Boston Latin School’s most famous dropout, but the school also happily claims Knox.