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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Henry Knox’s “Grand machine”

Here’s another striking entry from Col. Henry Knox’s earliest regimental orders, preserved in the Gershom Foster orderly book at Anderson House in Washington, D.C. These words come from a long entry on 11 Feb 1776:

Whereas there have been some misapprehentions how far an officer of Artillery is under the command of an officer of Superiour Rank in any other Regt. while on duty in In the beginning of a war disputes of this kind may arise owing to a very Obvious reason, (viz) the want of experience but then a good Officer will endiver immeadiatly to be better informd and never assert [?] a dispute where a little honour is to be Obtained and which will always expose his want of knowledge.

In the nature of military discipline there cannot be two separate commanders in one Army every Order must be implissitly Obeyd from the Commander in Chief down to the Lowest Sentinal. All parts must perform their proper officers [sic] like a Grand machine when good regulation depends on a A number of nice wheals the Least of which being wrong disorders the whole. So in an army if the orders issued by the commander in Chief are interrupted by ignorance wrong instructions Casuality [?] from being communicated to the parts intended the whole must suffer in a vary total manner.

That the Regt. of Artillery may not Lay under the imputation of not properly understanding their connection with the Army, The Colo. desires them to attend to the following directions.

That no officer of artillery on duty presume to dispute the command of any other officer of Superiour Rank excepting in case of notorious cowardice in said officer.

That in a post all guards are under the immeadiate direction of the officer who commands in that post It is not to be supposed that an officer so commanding will take upon himself the direction on pointing the cannon—this is none of his business It is the perticular duty of the Artillery the Purpose for which they were selected Although he has the undoubted right to Order when they shall begin or when they shall seace to fire

The above is to be understood only when on duty the Oeconomy and discipline of the Regt. are under the special direction of the commander of the Artillery.
Knox’s strict order indicates that he had learned about artillery officers defying nearby colonels and other superiors, insisting that they answered only to their own colonel. He didn’t want to hear any more complaints of that sort.

This passage also shows how Knox viewed the ideal army: as “a Grand machine” with “A number of nice wheals” working in sync. I don’t think of Knox as the best engineer or field-artillery commander in the Continental Army, but he proved to be an excellent military administrator who could keep that machine running.

To my knowledge, Knox’s regimental orders on taking over the Continental artillery have never been published. The Gershom Foster orderly book, just one item of the Society of the Cincinnati’s collection of Revolutionary War military documents, is a vital resource for anyone studying that transition.


Bob said...

Very interesting posting. At this point of the war, am I correct in assuming that there were those who thought that an officer of artillery had no command or superior rights regarding a lesser officer in, say, a infantry regiment?

As far as you know, Mr. Bell, is the Society of Cincinnati collection available online?

J. L. Bell said...

Knox's orders responded to the problem of artillery officers refusing to follow orders from superior officers in the infantry, so it's safe to say that was going on. Whether the reciprocal problem was also occurring—infantry officers refusing to obey superiors from the artillery—is unclear to me. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, as I've written, Maj. Gridley of the artillery actually convinced Col. Mansfield of the infantry to stick with him, and that was the opposite problem!

The Society of the Cincinnati's library has a fine online catalogue. The staff there take care to "drill down" in the data for their material, so that the catalogue entries mention many topics and people mentioned in a document. However, I don't think the library has a lot of material available for online viewing. So you have to go there!

Don N. Hagist said...

Knowing that Henry Knox was an avid reader, I wondered if Knox's eloquent phrases about the "Grand Machine" might have been drawn from the ample military literature of the era. This would not discredit Knox in any way; there are many examples of officers using direct quotes or paraphrases from military books in the orders they passed to their subordinates. Profound phrases are worth repeating.

Thanks to the availability of many period texts on searchable CD-ROMs, I looked for the word "machine" in some of the most widely-distributed military books of the era - including some that Knox probably sold in his Boston shop before the war. Besides its use in the literal sense, the word was used by Maurice Count de Saxe in his landmark "Reveries concerning the Art of War", and English edition of which became available in 1759. Saxe said it was the duty of officers "to make of the most indocile men, machines, that are only animated by the voice of their officers." This passage was frequently repeated by other authors. Timonthy Pickering took issue with it in his 1775 "An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia," writing, "But God forbid that my countrymen should ever be thus degraded." He went on to explain the need for "subordination and obedience without servility" and the dangers of standing armies of soldiers who "serve only for their pay."

A few writers took the metaphor beyond individual soldiers, with phrases like this one from Saltern's 1787 "Elements of Tactics": "The division must be like a machine, which by the word: march! is put into motion, and which upon the word: halt! stops at once its course." John Williamson came close to a phrase like Knox's in his 1781 "Elements of Military Arrangement": "Subordination of rank and obedience to command being the great springs by which the military machine is regulated and kept in motion..."

But I found no description of an army as a "grand machine." My survey of the literature was not comprehensive, but it suggests that Knox's eloquent expression of a fundamental concept was his own original thinking, a testament to his leadership skills that gives insight into his rapid rise in spite of his inexperience.

Don N. Hagist said...

Immediately after posting my previous comment, I found this letter to John Adams using the term "grand machine" in very much the same context that Knox did, several months earlier. So perhaps it was a phrase being bandied about the nascent Continental Army.

J. L. Bell said...

I saw the phrase "grand machine" in some non-military contexts from the period. I suspect it was not an uncommon phrase. I also think the reference to wheels reflects how clockwork was among the most advanced technology of the time, the metaphor well-read men would use to refer to a well-designed system. Knox's phrasing is interesting, but most significant is how he viewed the entire army as a system. That stood him well in his work as a general and eventually Secretary of War.

Daud said...

I had a look at newspaper examples of the phrase "grand machine" and found that it seems to have usually had a negative connotation, implying, I suppose, machinations.

Of course, a machine is but a means to an end and can be turned to good or ill.

J. L. Bell said...

I recall an interesting observation that we have a tendency to adapt the latest technology or science as a metaphor for complex social phenomena. Thus, we now talk about the "DNA" of corporations or how voters are "programmed."

In the eighteenth century the latest tech was clockwork. Deists pictured God as a divine watchmaker, and metaphors like the "grand machine" were applied to politics, the army, &c.

But they also applied Newton's Laws of Motion, which said that every change derives a force behind it. Some scholars have suggested that eased an early paranoid style of American politics, in which people accused the other side of planning bad results, because there had to be some force to put them in motion.

Not until 1776 did Adam Smith publish The Wealth of Nations, suggesting that economic systems could effect results without any individual or group being able to steer them. That sort of thinking provides a different explanation for, say, the two-party system that developed in the U.K. and quickly in the U.S. of A.: it wasn't the result of a secret faction conspiring against national unity (a faction on the other side, of course) but a series of small, individual choices based on self-interest.